Games at home: inclusion & special needs

“I had a student on the autistic spectrum [who] really struggled … you put him in front of that video game and … he became the person everybody wanted to work with… he became the superhero in that classroom.”- Quote from interview participant. EE01

Description

Considering the immensity and cultural relevance of videogames, the area of inclusion drew relatively little attention from the stakeholders that Gaming Horizons engaged. The exception is in education, an area in which inclusion is quite keenly felt.

A number of teachers see digital gaming as a chance to reach and engage learners with Special Education Needs (SEN). They also consider it a way towards integrating those students better, and thus make classes more inclusive, especially where there are marked differences in students’ cognitive skills. At the same time, interviewees cautioned that care is required to harness gaming successfully for inclusive purposes.  

When it comes to players and gamers with sensory impairments, the question of game accessibility becomes critical. This is “a big tent issue” affecting millions now and millions more as playing populations age. While digital games certainly pose a number of barriers, significant gains can be made for all – as some Gaming Horizons participants pointed out- from greater attention to the needs of the full user spectrum. More awareness of design-for-all principles could lessen barriers and in doing so improve everyone’s experience, just like with our streets and buildings. Indeed, advocates point to how type, telephony and email – the backbone of modern communications – emerged from the efforts of inventors to tackle special needs. Certainly, with video games and the various technology platforms they employ, the risk of exacerbating the digital divide is ever present. In this sense, accessibility is not just a matter of interactivity levels but about making sure everyone gets a reasonable chance to play.

Of course special needs is just one facet of inclusion in games, an issue that touches on many questions, like gender bias, stereotyped representation of identities, the accommodation of minorities etc. These are tackled more specifically in other scenarios.

Meet Keisha (aged 16), Marco (aged 13), and the grown-ups: Kerry and Keisha’s Dad

Keisha’s a gamer. When she was younger, other kids would say she was ‘nerdy’ like some of the boys, but she doesn’t get that much anymore. Just about everyone she knows plays some sort of game, if only on the bus or the train. Keisha herself mostly goes for fantasy MMOs – her current favourite is Aion. When she started getting into games, she wanted to find other girls like herself online. The hardcore gamers she came across on the forum boards and chats then could be pretty mean, especially to girls. But she didn’t let it get to her and anyway it’s not so big a problem now – and you can report anyone who gets really out of line.

A while back, Keisha and her dad relocated, moving in with her dad’s partner Kerry, who has a son called Marco. Marco’s three years younger than Keisha and he’s the only blind person Keisha’s ever known. The two of them are very different in character and tastes, but as it happens they both share a long-held passion for video games.

Marco has always loved mysteries and adventures. That’s what started him off playing story-based computer games, like A Dark Room, using Text To Speech (TTS) applications. Then he started playing Terraformers, an old hybrid audio and video game, and he was totally hooked. It’s remained one of his all-time favourites. He played it on a PC at home that’s connected to an audio system which reproduces 3D positional sound; the position and direction of the sounds, together with sound qualities and audio cues, form a sort of 3D audio gamespace that Marco navigates and interacts in.

When Keisha moved in, Marco got her to try a few audio games. She found them kind of intriguing but none of them really grabbed her enough to play them right through. Then Kerry got her this artistic sort of game called Beyond Eyes, which gives you an idea about what it’s like to be blind. It wasn’t much like anything Keisha had played before but she was really glad she’d had the chance to try it. And playing together with Dad was special too.

For a while now Marco’s been having a go at FPS and combat games like Quake and Bayonetta 2  using the 3D positional audio. Keisha’s amazed at how well he plays using sound only; she’s tried and found it really hard. She says maybe one day Marco might get as good as the youtubers he’s started following, like True Blind, Sightless Kombat and the others. Marco’s hoping that one day he’ll get to play games that go ultra mega popular, like World of Warcraft. His dad thinks he should try joining the AbleGamers Player Panel to become a game accessibility tester and Marco’s giving it some thought.

Kerry’s just bought a cool party game suite called 1-2 Switch for the new Nintendo Switch console they got. It’s a bit like Wii Sports but with some funny touch and sound based mini games that you don’t actually need to be sighted to play. Keisha and Marco have a real laugh playing together (well, against each other) and they’ve started thinking of ways you could use the touch and sound combination in other sorts of games. Keisha might even make a study project out of it.

In a nutshell

Due recognition of design-for-all principles, and sincere efforts to fulfil them, can reap concrete gains for everyone: for players who, for some reason, are underserved or excluded; for player-consumers desiring more immersive and diverse game experiences; for the game industry growing markets. Here, video games – considered by many as a pariah – could be seen instead as a standard-bearer.

Converting a perceived win-win to an actual won-won demands concerted – and orchestrated – efforts across the board, especially from policy makers and the game industry. Game on.

Resources

Accessibility 

Advocacy initiatives

About blind gamers

Games and Media


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Games at home: guiding children in the world of games

“If you play games with your kids you get this beautifully shared experience with them […] like

playing backyard football […] it’s a great bonding experience” – Quote from an interview with a player –PE02

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Description

The influence games can have on children is a sensitive issue, and there is continued and serious concern about games’ potential for encouraging antisocial behaviour. Regulations are in place for labelling violent, explicit, or sexual content (e.g. PEGI in the EU or the ESRB rating in the USA). The main addressees of these labelling systems are parents, who should be informed about the content of the games their children play. Those same parents have the power to disregard the label altogether, either as a reasoned decision or because they lack the context to understand the meaning of the labels.

At their worst, parents can be completely out of touch with the world of games, or even see gaming as a useful way for simply ‘distracting’ their children.

Our interviews, on the other hand, offered positive parenting examples. Several of the players we interviewed reported that they had started out playing with their parents. This was especially common for women, who often reported having been introduced to the world of gaming by their fathers. The shared activity of gaming was not only a way for parents to monitor the content their children interacted with, but also a moment of spending time together and bonding. By taking an active role in guiding their children to the world of games, these parents were able to highlight those features of video games that they found most appealing (such as artistic value or creative potential), while sheltering their children from those aspects of video games they found most threatening, such as violent or unethical content.

On the other hand, when recollecting their adolescence, our players sometimes reported feeling that video games could be a private space: a way for getting away from family life, experimenting with their identity and discovering what they liked. In this phase, involvement of parents shouldn’t be constant, and should focus on encouraging self-regulation and responsible use of games.

Meet Kate, a young player (aged 15) and Eleanor, her mother

Eleanor, now fifteen years old, has been playing video games with her mum since she was five. Her mother, Kate, has always been a gamer herself, although she spent far less time gaming after her pregnancy. When Kate decided to start playing games with Eleanor, she tried to find games they could both enjoy – Super Mario Galaxy was the first game they played together, a game that’s both light-hearted and challenging. Together, they also played more open-ended building games such as Minecraft and Terraria. Kate decided to let Eleanor play alone, as long as she did all her daily chores. Kate still framed gaming as a shared activity, though: at the end of the day, if Eleanor played on her own, Kate asked her to show her the progress or the creations she’s made, and they discussed them together. This shared hobby sometimes extended beyond the gaming time itself, as they often planned building projects or discussed strategies at dinner or while going to school.

When Eleanor was about ten, she started expressing interest in single player narratively-focused games. This proved trickier for Kate, since some of the games Eleanor wanted to play included, according to their PEGI rating, inappropriate content. Kate let the rating and game reviews guide her decisions regarding which games they could play together. So she decided that Eleanor could play Portal and Bastion, but she let a couple of years pass before letting her play Dishonored and the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Eleanor wasn’t always happy with her mother’s decisions, and they had long discussions about where the boundaries should be set. They also discussed the amount of time spent gaming, since sometimes Eleanor wanted to play until late at night. Kate strived to set rules that were both reasonable and flexible. She decided not to set a rigid time limit for gaming, allowing Eleanor to play longer during holidays and restricting her play only when other activities were impacted.

Now that Eleanor is fifteen, she’s starting to consider her mother’s attention as controlling, and she no longer welcomes it. She’s started to hide the full extent of time she spends playing, and longs to play some games completely on her own. She’s increasingly interested in some games her classmates are playing – games with more ‘mature’ themes, such as NieR: Automata and the Witcher 3. When they discussed this, Kate was initially hurt: does her child no longer enjoy her company? Has she been too strict?

So Kate decides to discuss the issue with the mother of one of Eleanor’s friends. She discovers that the experience of this mother with gaming has been completely different from her own: her son frequently plays competitive multiplayer games, and demands that the space and time are his, and his alone. Kate talks with the boy, and while she doesn’t feel comfortable at the thought of leaving Eleanor completely on her own, the way the boy talks about his feeling of freedom and independence when playing resonates with her own experience as a player.

She decides to strike a compromise with Eleanor: Eleanor will be allowed to choose some games to play on her own, as long as they aren’t too extreme in content. But on the other hand, Kate doesn’t want to lose their shared gaming completely, and asks Eleanor to continue playing together, if only for a more limited time. Eleanor accepts, seeing that her sense of independence is respected, and not wanting to lose the bonding that gaming has brought them all these years.

In a nutshell

Parents should be ready and willing to play with their children, take an active interest in the games they play and foster their self-regulation with games. For children, video games can be an activity to be shared with parents; but in adolescence, games are also a space for self-discovery that should be respected.

Policy makers and researchers should promote actions to raise awareness among parents and educators about games, and about the power and influence games have on child psychological and cultural development.

Resources

This video from the LSE, featuring Prof Sonia Livingstone, is an entry point into a long-running programme of research (most of which funded by the EU) on the opportunities and risks that new media pose for children. There are many insights in this studies that can help parents/guardians who are looking for guidance to introduce and moderate the use of games in the family:

 


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Gambling and dark design

“The problem is a lot of the [free-to-play] games do use the gambling style mechanics to generate an addiction to try and maximise the revenue from those players. So done well with the right game, I don’t think free-to-play is a problem at all. But like anything it can be used irresponsibly.” –  quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28783.

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Description

While academic research demonstrated a bias towards studies of violence, developer and player stakeholders in particular were more concerned about the manipulative application of psychological principles linked to dopamine triggers in the brain. These were referred to broadly as ‘dark design patterns’ and commonly tied to paid activities, such as compulsive buying of in-game goods or creating gambling-related reward systems. These systems frequently exist in legal grey-areas. For example, under British law the purchase of ‘loot crates’ (random collections of in-game items that may significantly improve the player’s performance) is not considered gambling because the player cannot ‘cash out’ their winnings (i.e. sell the in-game items), but other countries have varying legal perspectives on this. Regardless of perspective, many competitive games rely on small loot-crate-esque purchases to bring in the only source of revenue that the developers get, so changing the legal status of loot crates may have a profound impact on many game developers; however, the methods of stimulating purchases can be done in a variety of ways, on a scale from fair to manipulative. When implemented unfairly, these systems can result in heavy financial burdens for vulnerable players. The loot crate idea, and other systems like them, are not a priori manipulative, but the presentation and surrounding systems may make them socially problematic. Careful evaluation and tracking of such systems is likely to be a much more urgent concern for the future ethical status of video games than scare-mongering stories about violence.

Meet Karen and Davide, players of an online multiplayer warfare game

Karen and Davide have been playing online together for a few years. They both have two jobs to try and make ends meet, so playing a free game online in the evenings is a cheap way of relaxing. Characters in the game can be slowly made stronger, but there’s a random chance of getting a big boost to your character if you pay for a loot crate. Most of the crates have only minor improvements in them, but occasionally a bigger benefit will be in there and many players want to accelerate their characters’ growth to win more fights.

While some players may have enough money to spare to invest in virtual in-game goods, not everyone does. Some games are purposely balanced to entice players to buy a random loot crate in the hope that the reward will enhance their overall enjoyment of the game. However, each purchase is a gamble that might pay off, and if it doesn’t players can feel like it is worth spending more to have another chance of success. Various social mechanisms, variable-ratio schedule reward systems, game design choices, balancing of league competitions, and other techniques can be applied to push players to spend their money. These psychological techniques are linked to both gambling and addiction, and may affect players differently. Without sufficient current research, it is hard to say whether vulnerable players may particularly be negatively impacted, or if there are appropriate precautions that game developers could take to maintain their livelihoods without the risk of damaging or exploiting their players.

In a nutshell

The ethical spotlight in video game research is often pointed at violent games, but other aspects of game design would benefit from ethical study. Dark design patterns that exploit or manipulate players need to be closely examined with a balanced review that can guide developers away from using them either intentionally or accidentally.

Studies into past and present systems of monetisation and compulsion-inducing gameplay should be conducted. Great care needs to be taken to recognise the complexity of game systems and balancing: loot crates and many similar aspects of game design are not automatically unethical, and neither are free-to-play games, but aspects of their content and context may lead them to be exploitative or manipulative. Such studies will need to be conducted with the assistance of industry professionals who can assess and the multiple subtle ways in which such systems are implemented across the whole game experience, not only as an isolated systems. Such an isolation would result in flawed or binary moral/immoral judgement that does not match the nuance with which such systems can be integrated into games; such an outcome would not benefit the industry, nor would it contribute to potential guidelines.

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Reframing and refocusing the rhetoric of play

“The very act of playing […] assumes certain privileges and how we interact with others […] just the kind of social and financial and cultural capitals that people need to play […] I think we don’t necessarily think about those people that don’t sit within the same paradigms”-  Quote from an interview with a researcher. R09.

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Description

As one of the multiple ethical considerations raised by our participants, a notion of ‘play as privilege’ was posed by one researcher during our interviews, highlighting a specific ethical concern around the assumptions made about the use of video games and gamification techniques in particular contexts.  This suggests the need for a consideration of ethics around video games that is highly contextualised and dependent on the particular experiences of those involved in gameplay. Here, ethics is positioned as being contingent on social factors, rather than necessarily being an inherent feature of the game itself. Moreover, it suggests that any ethical agenda around video game scholarship should include a careful critique of the context in which the game in situated and the privileges that are being assumed (or otherwise) by the researcher.

This scenario, therefore, is about reframing and refocusing the rhetoric of play in social research. Instead of taking a top-down approach, where a gamified strategy is viewed as a universal  ‘magic bullet’ for improving an educational experience, the researcher adopts a ‘bottom-up’ mindset, involving the participants in the design of the project.

Meet Iain, a digital media researcher and Ruby (aged 8) a school pupil

Iain has designed a project to look at the affordances and constraints of using a video game in a geography lesson, with a particular focus on the attitudes and experiences of the participants involved. Rather than focussing purely on the educational outcomes of the planned intervention, Iain is careful to explore with the children their perceptions of the task. Moreover, working alongside the children, rather than dictating the approach he tentatively designed, he encourages them to explore their own usage of the game. Taking advice from the children, he adapts the approach to suit their needs. He ensures, for instance, that the intervention allows for independent work, as well as group work as some of the children express their anxiety at being made to play alongside others. Some children also explain that they feel that they need access to more conventional learning materials, such as books and on-screen texts, in order to help them make sense of the learning task.

By the end of the intervention, Iain has developed a complex and multi-layered approach to incorporating a video game into a particular educational context which is perhaps much more nuanced than the original top-down approach he had in mind. While this approach could not necessarily be adopted in every context, Iain’s final research output makes a number of valuable methodological recommendations for researchers and educators looking to make use of video games in a range of contexts.

In a nutshell

Play can be powerful, enjoyable, exciting and empowering. However, play does not suit everyone, all the time.

We need to take a critical approach to game play in order to consider more about the context in which it may and may not be most appropriate.

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Young players and their contexts

“there’s an enormous gap between youth culture, which is steeped in social networking and videogames, and adult culture, which is far from these things. Adults don’t understand these things much and yet, paradoxically, they’re even greater victims of them than the kids are”. Quote from an interview with an educator. EI09.

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Description

During the project, the issue of children’s gameplay at home was raised by a number of participants. This scenario is concerned with the ‘soft’ regulation of gameplay in the home and other personal contexts. Video games can be problematic where young children are concerned. Some games may not be appropriate for young players, either due to their content or the connectivity they afford to other unknown players via the internet. While a child’s unmediated access to gameplay therefore potentially has its dangers, a blanket ban on gameplay at home also has the potential to miss out on a whole range of benefits that can come from age-appropriate gameplay. A number of interviewees also saw  games as contributing to the generation gap, suggesting that parents have scarce awareness or understanding of game contents and age limits. Consequently, children and teens often have access to games with unsuitably explicit (especially violent) content, and both parental and legal regulation is considered inadequate.

Meet Freya (aged 9) and Jessica, her mum

Freya has expressed an interest in playing a new video game on her tablet device. Her mother, Jessica, is uncertain whether the game contains suitable content for her daughter. She has recently read an article about the potentially damaging effects of gameplay in relation to addiction and children being exposed to inappropriate content. Rather than saying no, however, she decides to do some of her own research to educate herself about the game.  Jessica does an internet search for the game and finds some reviews that appear to suggest that the game would be suitable for her daughter, but might be a little complicated in places. She downloads the game herself and plays through the first level. She finds that there’s an interesting backstory to the game and the interaction with other characters involves some words which Freya might struggle with on her own, even though the content is seemingly age appropriate.

As a result, Jessica suggests that they play the game together. Freya takes the lead, taking control of the tablet device whilst seated on the sofa next to her mother. They play together, discussing their progress, talking through the tricky puzzles and solving problems together. This joint, shared activity spans across a number of sessions. Even when not playing they often discuss the game, anticipating the next session or reviewing sections of gameplay that they particularly enjoyed. Jessica notices that, as well as enjoying the social aspect of gameplay with her daughter, Freya has also – unprompted – used the game as a stimulus for a number of other activities. Her drawings and writing have featured adapted versions of characters from the game, and she also sees her daughter role-playing scenarios from the game when playing off-screen with her friends from school.

By getting involved in her daughter’s game play, Jessica has gained insight into the kind of content that is available to her daughter. Although there is not always time for them to play together in this way, from this point onwards Jessica always takes an active interest in the games that her daughter is playing, due to the safeguarding issues but also because of her first hand experience of the wider benefits of engaging with this activity collaboratively, rather than leaving Freya pursuing her interest independently.

 

In a nutshell

Video games can bring ethical and moral complications with them, particularly where children are involved. However, there are also multiple benefits of playing video games.

While the idea of banning video games belongs in the past, moderation in usage and age- appropriateness of content are important. The need for ‘soft regulation’ at home (actively and positively involving parents and guardians) is important and should be discussed more.

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Reframing ethics in gaming R&D: beyond compliance

“You can only do that if you go beyond compliance. So it is not just ticking the box […] but to think […] about how we can be responsible and mainstream Social Sciences and Humanities meaningfully, not just as a cherry (on the cake) or an add-on stuff” – quote from an interview with a policy maker.  P14

Description

The notion of what is ethical in research and development is currently rather limited. Our own work focused on gaming and gamification in the European context, but the implications are broader. We talked to many experts and carried out an in-depth analysis of how research and development are framed as priorities in the European flagship funding programme: Horizon 2020. We found that ethics in R&D are almost exclusively focused on compliance, where compliance refers to the need to abide by ethical requirements and conditions. These requirements and conditions are concerned exclusively with the process of research, for instance in terms of ensuring informed consent or equal gender representation in R&D teams, rather than with its outcomes, or with the design principles that inform the process from the outset.

In this scenario, we describe a situation in which a more complex, nuanced and positive idea of ethics informs the design and development of video games.  Rather than being narrowly framed as a collection of requirements that may constrain innovation and creativity, ethics becomes a positive mindset that puts the entire R&D process in a different light. Ethics, in other words, becomes synonymous with aspirations for social and cultural relevance – something aligned with the humanistic, democratic and egalitarian values that underpin the European project. In this alternative scenario (and in its ‘child’ scenarios), policy makers, developers and researchers also begin to challenge strict accountability criteria that revolve exclusively around utilitarian goals and measurable outcomes. Alternative definitions of cultural and technological value, this time more negotiated and dialogic, begin to be explored.  

Meet Michel (an EU policy maker), Simone (a social researcher), and Rita (a game developer)

Michel, Simone and Rita have been invited to an international round table to discuss the future of the gaming industry in Europe. The event is sponsored by the EU Commission and the focus is, predominantly, on the role of institutional support and public funding. The EU Commission is worried that its R&D strategies are beginning to be out of touch with the concerns and priorities of the various EU publics. Games are viewed as a profoundly ‘social’ and pervasive technology and they receive a significant amount of funding. As such, they are an area where concerns for cultural relevance and impact are particularly pressing.

The event provides an interdisciplinary forum to discuss games ‘for good’, which therefore have a distinctly ethical dimension. The event also provides concrete opportunities to examine examples of best practice, focusing on the experiences of developers (and users too) whose games don’t fit into pre-existing categories such as ‘serious’ or ‘educational’ but still have recognisable cultural and educational value, and at the same time manage to operate in the market conditions of the leisure-oriented gaming industry. 

During the event, Michel, Simone, and Rita begin to outline a number of alternative cultural dimensions associated with games: narrative poignancy, appropriate representation, responsible usage, and so forth. They also begin to explore alternative ways to evaluate the cultural and social impact of games. One approach is forming citizen panels collectively recruited through social media; these examine, through a form of ‘crowd-sourced’ evaluation, the social of cultural impact of games developed under the patronage of the EU Commission.

In a nutshell

Ethics in research and development are often viewed as a restrictive set of requirements simply to be complied with. In our project, we often came across this limited interpretation, but we also saw signs of a different position where ethics are part of a more positive mindset, and where notions of what is good, decent, and worth pursuing are grounded in the priorities and concerns of society.  

Funders and key institutional actors like the EU Commission could make more efforts to establish platforms  (including face to face events and social media initiatives) to explore definitions of responsible research and innovation in a dialogic and democratic fashion.

Resources

Our own analysis of EU Funding offers a critical perspective on how ethics and social responsibility are accounted for in the flagship EU R&D programme: https://www.gaminghorizons.eu/wp-content/uploads/sites/18/2017/05/D2.2_critical-analysis-of-H2020-sources.pdf    


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