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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Game literacy in the curriculum

“I feel like our school system […] is not very game friendly in any way, shape or form. I think that’s a big problem. I think they really need to start – because there’s so much tremendous opportunity there.”- Quote from an interview with an educatorPE02

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Many of those who took part in our interviews enthusiastically described the ways in which video games could be employed for educational purposes, but it was clear that these are often talked about as opportunities that are not yet being fully realised. In part, these ideas of what we are calling ‘game literacy’ involve enabling students to understand games; how they are conceived and constructed, the lives and stories that they represent, the cultural and global context in which they are created, even giving young children hands-on opportunities to develop their own games. In addition, interview participants talked about games as multimodal texts that can be actively read but also ‘lived’ and experienced by players, as a cultural and empathy-building experience.

Drawing on our interviews and workshops, these ideas are framed in relation to particular understandings of literacy, rather than necessarily being aligned with the computing or information technology aspects of the school curriculum. As such, these perspectives focus on multimodality and cultural enrichment, underpinned by the need to develop an alternative understanding of literacy. This involves the educator valuing (and being enabled or even permitted to value) multiple modes of meaning making, moving beyond common conceptions of school-based literacy that involve only written texts and rigidly defined outcomes.

These understandings of literacy already exist and are established in the field of new literacies and multiliteracies, through the work of James Gee, Brian Street, The New London Group etc. However, they are not the dominant conceptualisations of literacy that are currently being drawn upon by policy makers, who tend to favour a skills based approach that generates measurable outcomes.

In the first dimensions of this scenario, therefore, we envisage a classroom that is open to the use of video games as educational resources and experiences, working around existing curricular restraints through a generous interpretation of the curriculum. In the second dimension, we strive to imagine an educational system bolstered by policy which actively acknowledges the cultural value of video games and even encourages their use, drawing on the extensive research around new literacies as a basis for creating this shift.

Meet Simon, a primary school teacher

Simon is a primary school teacher in the UK, in his fourth full year of teaching. He is currently responsible for a class of 27 ten-year-old children, as well as coordinating Literacy across the school. He enjoys his job and has developed a positive rapport with his class. In part, he attributes this positive relationship to the fact that he values the interests of the children and strives to make his teaching relevant and interesting for them. He is aware that many (but not all) of the children in his class are regular users of technology at home and feels that his classroom, and the school more widely, should reflect and take account of this ‘real world’ situation.

Faced with a Literacy curriculum that makes no mention of using technology – let alone games – in lessons, Simon has nevertheless made his classroom a place where videogames are valued as a relevant cultural resource alongside other media such as films, books, and other print media. He has used games on various occasions, thinking of them as ‘texts’  that contain and generate meaning, in similar ways to more traditional print based texts. He has used video games as a stimulus for descriptive writing (using the visually intriguing exploration game ‘Myst’), explored the idea of personification (using the independent, narrative puzzle game ‘Thomas was Alone’) and helped children to create their own text based games (using the free game creation software called ‘Twine’). He has also run a club at lunchtimes where children play ‘Minecraft’ on the school iPads, working together in small groups to create virtual play spaces. He is always enthused by the social interactions that this generates during the club.

 

Many other teachers in the school are less confident with using games in their classroom. However, through a series of staff meetings, Simon has introduced them to some possible ways in which video games could be brought into their classrooms often with little technical knowledge on the part of the teacher. This often involves the use of paratexts – print based and video texts that refer to video games – rather than directly using the games themselves. So, in other classes, teachers have been encouraged to supplement their existing resources with ‘how to’ guides for popular video games such as ‘Assassins Creed’, and even use video trailers for games in lessons as a means of discussing issues around critical literacy. As a result, the literacy curriculum experienced by the children is one enriched by a mixture of traditional texts with video games and other media from popular culture.

All of this has only been possible with the support of the headteacher, who believes that teachers should be encouraged to innovate in order to provide exciting, relevant learning opportunities for pupils.

 

Meet Andrea, Educational Policy Maker and Curriculum designer

Andrea has a role in designing the literacy curriculum for primary school children in the UK. As part of a new government assembled team, Andrea has listened to teachers, educational professionals and researchers. They have expressed concerns that the existing curriculum is limiting the opportunities for teachers to deliver exciting, relevant and innovative literacy lessons that reflect the way in which literacies (as social practices) are lived and experienced in the 21st Century. Having grown up playing video games herself, Andrea also has a good sense of the cultural significance of the form and understands that video games have a potentially significant role to play in the lives of children, at home and in school. At school, this involves educating children about video games, as well as using video games as a educational resource, all the while encouraging and promoting a critical approach – just as learning in school traditionally involves teaching about books, and using books.

With this in mind, rather than being driven purely by outdated notions of literacy simply as a pre-defined set of skills to be taken on by children, Andrea and her team develop a curriculum that takes a broader view of literacy. Amongst other things, this supports teachers in understanding and using video games as multimodal texts with multiple affordances. This refined curriculum includes examples of the ways in which specific video games could be used by teachers as rich, multimodal texts that allow children to explore ideas of narrative and character; to consider issues of representation and motive in games; to explore the ways in which different game environments and settings influence or interact with the player. Suggestions on how some games can be used in social contexts can encourage teachers to look beyond outdated and limiting notions of video game play as a purely solitary pursuit; instead, teachers can consider how collaborative play experiences offer their own educational potential. There is also suggestion that paratexts around video games can provide excellent resources for prompting creative responses, written, spoken and performed by children alongside, of course, more established and traditional print based texts.

As well as being framed as texts to be read, video games are also positioned as artefacts to be remixed and created by children, alongside other visual and audio media. This ranges from early stages of design, through to hands-on video game creation, afforded by pre-existing and specially commissioned software designed to scaffold the game creation process for younger users. This curriculum is published online, featuring a significant  interactive repository section that enables teachers and educational professionals to upload and link their own resources and ideas, making this a truly collaborative vision for an innovative and exciting curriculum that can finally be considered ‘game friendly’.

 

In a nutshell

There is a significant and relatively untapped potential for using video games in educational contexts, often held back by the restrictions posed by standardised curriculum requirements.

This has been a recurring theme throughout the project, with the overarching recommendation being that we all need to move beyond the realm of ‘serious games’ to include what might otherwise be considered ‘entertainment’ games into the classroom. This process of inclusion has more to do with literacy, than with the computing or information technology aspects of the school curriculum.

Resources


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