SCHENECTADY — When forced to stay home at the start of the pandemic last year, Victoria Candida, a Schenectady High School social studies teacher, did what many of her students did: play video games.
It gave her something to talk about with her students, like their favorite games and character or little quirks in gameplay. In November, when she was on the search for a coveted and hard-to-find Playstation 5, Candida provided regular updates to her students.
“I was able to connect so much with kids in a way I wasn’t before,” she said. “It became something that was really bright in a super dark, scary time.”
For some of her students, the shared connection to gaming served as a hook Candida could use to involve them more fully in the classroom.
“Eventually they become more comfortable and eventually actually answer questions or volunteer to read,” she said.
Candida started to teach herself how to code, learning from YouTube videos and trial and error, and saw video games as a way into teaching the subject matter in her classroom — global history. Educators talk a lot about “culturally-relevant” lessons for their students, ways to better connect students to material they must learn through material that is of interest to them. And what’s more relevant to the culture of adolescents than video games?
“I started to think it could be something more than a quarantine hobby,” she said. “It became a new obsession.
And so Liberation the video game was born. Focusing on Latin American revolutionaries — Simón Bolívar, Toussaint L’Ouverture and José de San Martín — Candida hopes the game, which is still in the works, will be a way to involve students in the creative process, show another side of Latin American history and become a learning tool she can with future classes of students.
“I’m trying to think of ways to do education but in a more culturally-responsive way and definitely a more fun and engaging way for students that struggle with reading or don’t see themselves in the lessons or textbook I have,” said Candida, a Schalmont Central School District graduate approaching four years as a teacher in Schenectady.
Candida has started to build the game, developing the broad outlines of character, maps, gameplay and story, and she recently won a $2,500 teacher assist grant from State Farm to help advance the project. She said the grant will help upgrade the technology powering game development and give her a chance to speed up the process.
Not only will the game serve as an engaging way to teach students about history, developing the game will also give them a chance to show off their creative side. Candida said she plans to start a club once activities return more fully at school, allowing students to learn history, computer science and art design in the same project.
“What I love about game development is it’s at the intersection of art and storytelling and music,” she said.
With so many students learning from their bedrooms this school year, video games have possibly posed a more urgent distraction to class than in the past, but Candida said educators should maybe learn a lesson from the fact that often students would rather play a game than join a class. She said games can take students to new places and cause them to explore different character motivations and perspectives.
“Why are video games more engaging and how can we make school engaging in the same way?” she asked. “Instead of demonizing them, what is it that makes them so great … For old, old history or history that feels geographically distant, video games can literally put us there.”
She also hopes the subject she chose, Latin American revolution, will help reframe history lessons that for so long have centered on how Western societies have oppressed other parts of the globe, minimizing the agency of non-Western peoples. She said focusing on a part of world history that is often overlooked can help a more diverse group of student relate to the material.
“It has a huge impact, seeing yourself in history is a privilege that as a white person I take for granted,” she said. “I don’t want to talk about the stealing of resources as the main focus, why don’t we talk about people fighting oppression.”
Students in one of Candida’s recent classes, which have been virtual all school year, said she is one of the few teachers that shares many of the same interests as her students. They said they think many students would be interested in learning through gaming.
“A lot of kids usually don’t do work when it’s all paper and pencil,” said sophomore Ariel Ramprasad. “But turning it into a game format, it makes them want to do it, makes it challenging because it’s a game, you have to level up.”
Andrew Persad, also a sophomore, said video games are a way to meet students where they already feel comfortable.
“Students these days, they are not about straight up books and all that they are about video games and social media,” Persad said.
The students championed Candida art skills and expressed faith her video game project would be a success.
“She’s the first teacher I have seen that has a full-on interest in stuff we do,” Ramprasad said. “Ms. Candida be impressing us all the time with anything she does.”