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 and formal education: one size doesn’t fit all

“my boys always engage more with the commercial games. And they didn’t always like the Maths games or Science games, because it just didn’t feel like real games to them […]. But the girls, they did, and the puzzle problems on Nintendos and things, they liked them, my girls” – quote from an interview with an educator. EE02.

Description

Drawing from the experiences of the educators and players we interviewed, we envisage a very creative and informed use of games for learning at school, with a wide range of games used by educators and a similarly wide range of uses. Game choice – as with all choices in the learning design process – should be driven by learning objectives, contextual constraints, and educator experience, and ought to take student preference into consideration.   For example, in some cases teachers may choose short entertainment games that can be played episodically to stimulate discussion. In others, they may prefer to propose longer playful activities requiring authentic problem solving performed by participants in an online environment.  In yet others, teachers might choose a serious game because it helps to achieve specific objectives. In any case, teachers will need to be aware of the risks of making gaming compulsory or using games in which the playful/gameful dimension is a mere cosmetic layer added to instructional interactions.

Most importantly, teachers will need to embed game-based activities into a broader pedagogical design, where game choice is not the only choice to be made in view of desired outcomes. Other aspects to be considered concern how to manage competition (exploiting its engagement potential while avoiding stress), respecting students’ preferences for different types of games but also using games to overcome personal barriers and counter social stereotypes, as well as dealing with digital divide issues. Last but not least, teachers will be aware that the motivating power of games is a double-edged sword, sometimes fostering motivation to win rather than motivation to learn, unless the two are effectively integrated.

Meet Robert, a secondary school teacher, and his students Mary and Paul (aged 16)

Robert is a secondary school science and technology teacher. He is a strong supporter of game-based learning, since he believes that games can successfully support inquiry learning in STEM and positively engage his 16-year-old students. Robert’s teaching with games is informed and fuelled both by his personal experience as a player and by his professional training. This grounding allows him to consider a variety of different games for use with his students and several ways to use them.

When implementing purposeful gaming in his classroom, Robert usually couples it with other learning activities, and spreads gameplay over multiple sessions rather than limiting it to a single block. Sometimes he includes metagames and purposely-designed assessments.

What Robert always does is seek to calibrate gaming activities to his students’ knowledge, needs, abilities and – last but not least – preferences. He’s noticed that there are significant differences between his students’ preferred game types, preferred mode of gameplay (alone or in groups), and of course, abilities. In contrast with some of his colleagues, Robert’s particularly alert to the problem of the digital divide when it comes to gaming. For example, the students with limited access to different consoles and devices at home tend to take longer to get acquainted with the controls.

Robert’s school has access to a substantial repository of quality digital games to choose from, and this makes it easier for him to select the right game for different students and for different objectives. . This repository can be accessed through an online catalogue listing achievable learning objectives for each game and comments from other users, both students and teachers, and it can be accessed from home too. In this way, students can do their homework by playing in a similar fashion to the ‘flipped classroom’ approach. Each student is free to choose from the set of games Robert proposes, without feeling forced to play or getting bored by games they don’t particularly like.

Mary and Paul (aged 16) are two junior students in Robert’s science class. Although Paul is a player (or perhaps precisely because he is) he really doesn’t like serious games. He feels they’re mostly sugar-coated school exercises. That’s why he and some of the other guys in the class prefer to play more creative games (Minecraft and Portal are his favourites) and maker-oriented activities with design kits like Arduino. Mary isn’t much of a player and is more enthusiastic than Paul about playing applied games (especially puzzles) because she sees them as a playful alternative to the usual homework activities. She also likes creating wearable computing gadgets, which is something that many girls in Robert’s class tend to like. For a while now, Robert has been wondering how to get the girls more interested in the Arduino kits in order to broaden their skills in STEM.

At school, however, Robert usually gets them all to play the same game, otherwise handling the class would be too complicated. In cases like these, he gets them to form teams and play as a group. In this way they develop collaboration skills, and it also avoids the better performing players predominating.

In a nutshell

One game certainly does not fit all. Students have individual preferences and teachers should try to respect these as far as practicable. However, schools are generally not designed, equipped or run to cater for variation.  One way to tackle this is by moving towards more open classrooms, where one or more teachers can follow different teams of students doing different activities. To facilitate teachers’ game choice, individual schools or school networks could create repositories of games offering a rich game choice.

Students’ acceptance of game-based learning can be improved by avoiding mandatory play activities or games where the playful/gameful dimension is a mere cosmetic layer added to instructional interactions. It is also important to take into account students’ individual differences when designing game-based learning activities. Particular attention should be paid to social and gender differences in order to avoid demotivation and frustration.

The European Commission could play a key part by supporting teacher education and professional development initiatives devoted to game-based learning. In this case, priorities should be placed on fostering virtual communities of teachers for the exchange of know-how and experience, and on supporting the establishment of repositories, in order to broaden access to effective games and lesson plans.

Resources

  • Taylor, A. S. A. (2015, September). The active instructor: Benefits and barriers to instructor-led serious gaming. In proceedings of VS-Games, 2015 7th International Conference on Games and Virtual Worlds for Serious Applications (pp. 1-8). IEEE.
  • Tsekleves, E., Cosmas, J., & Aggoun, A. (2016). Benefits, barriers and guideline recommendations for the implementation of serious games in education for stakeholders and policymakers. British Journal of Educational Technology, 47(1), 164–183.
  • Wouters, P., & Van Oostendorp, H. (2013). A meta-analytic review of the role of instructional support in game-based learning. Computers & Education, 60(1), 412-425
  • Minecraft
  • Portal
  • Arduino
  • Gravity simulator


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Games and formal education: a difficult marriage

“[The limitations on games in formal education?]  Undoubtedly, timetabling is one. And it’s an issue that’s been debated for years, because it creates many problems. […] Our timetable, our morning, is divided into slots separated by the ring of the bell bringing the lesson to a close. Generally, the use of technology clashes with this idea of whatever’s happening, the lesson is over now”. – Quote from an interview with an interview with an educator. EI01

Description

Integrating games in formal education is not easy. Firstly, not all teachers are familiar with games or game-based learning and not all students see this ‘marriage’ favourably, especially when asked to play serious games, which often do not have the engaging power of entertainment games. Secondly, gaming is by definition a free exploratory activity, while formal education has its rules, its constraints, and sometimes the use of games isn’t compatible with these restrictions. More in general, playing at school is almost an oxymoron: the nature of play is such that it cannot be done ‘under teacher supervision’, that is, with a teacher who chooses where, when, and what to play. How can these tensions be tackled? Can such a marriage actually work? And if so, should games be adapted to the existing school system, or should school change to better embrace the flexibility required by gaming and by other types of technology supported activities?

It is probably no coincidence that nine out of our twelve educator-interviewees were players themselves or had been in the past. Nor is it surprising that their teaching with games largely appeared to be informed and fuelled by their experience as players. There is a wide variety of ways the potential of games can be harnessed for educational purposes: from the most obvious – though not risk free – use of serious games developed expressly to achieve specific learning objectives, to the use of popular entertainment or artistic games to stimulate reflection and discussion on ethical or philosophical questions (e.g. That Dragon, Cancer; Fragments of Him; Dear Esther). Our research also suggests that the time is not yet ripe for the creation of a school context which is fully supportive of teachers’ efforts to adopt game based learning approaches. School managers, teachers and parents are generically in favour of game based learning due to its recent popularity. However, there is also an underlying scepticism, especially among parents and teachers, that play can support learning as well as, and often better, than other teaching practices.

Meet Jan, a middle school maths teacher and Irina, who teaches geography and history in upper secondary school

Jan teaches maths in the third year of a lower secondary school. His pupils will face the national exam this year, so he feels very committed to making sure they will be able to pass their first important summative test. The class consists of 25 children, most of whom are around 13 years old, with big differences as to commitment and learning outcomes. Jan believes the better performing students could be of much help to the others, but this is not happening spontaneously because several students are new to the class and the atmosphere is not collaborative enough.

For this reason, he has designed a gamified path connecting the main topics of the math curriculum, and for most of these topics he has found or invented a game supporting its learning. Recently,

Recently, the headmaster has been encouraging Jan get the other teachers involved and scale it up to school level. Recently, the headmaster has been encouraging Jan to get the other teachers involved and scale it up to school level. A discussion among them has convinced them that gamification intended as ‘pointification’ (adding points and badges for motivational purposes but without deeper integration with the content) is not what they want. They are afraid that too much competition can create more problems than advantages. Anxiety is not the kind of feeling they want to prevail inside their classes. Jan’s colleagues enriched the path with new activities and games, and their creative input has proved very useful. This is turning out to be quite a lot of workload, but it also has some big advantages. Firstly, the switch they made to inter-class competition makes the atmosphere inside each class more cohesive, as it leads classmates to support one another. Secondly, the typical scepticism of parents now clashes with a whole team of teachers very much convinced of the approach, which helps a lot.


Jan’s wife, Irina, is a teacher too. She works in an upper secondary school, where she teaches history and geography. They often discuss the ways games can be harnessed for learning. Irina has only recently begun introducing games in her classes, but her school principal is sceptical and has been less supportive than Jan’s was, making it much more challenging to get the resources and institutional backing she needs. She therefore has to count on her own resources and time only. Luckily, as a gamer, she knows a lot of games. She’s found one, called Rise of Nations, that’s ideal for introducing her students to complex geopolitical topics. She’s confident that playing the  game will help give them a firmer grasp of geopolitics than they  would otherwise get through the rote learning of notions.

The demands of the school timetable mean that she can only manage a single one-hour game session per week in class. So Irina has encouraged the students to carry on playing outside school hours and then discuss their thoughts and impressions about the game content in class.

In a nutshell

Teacher education and professional development in support of game based education should be promoted and should focus on specific game based learning design principles, including criteria for game choice as one of the decisions teachers take while designing for learning. Although most of the responsibility for pedagogical design will be on teachers’ shoulders, they should not be left unsupported. To deal with the limitations imposed by formal education contexts, teachers need active support from all stakeholders: school leaders, their fellow teachers, researchers, students and parents. 

Investments in teachers’ professional development and in research in learning design principles for game based learning are needed. As recent learning design research has pointed out, participatory approaches to learning design are to be privileged, centred as they are on communities of practice. These allow  teachers to access and share success stories and failures, with the aim of overcoming problems and devising innovative solutions, and increasing awareness of both the potential and the pitfalls of using games for learning.

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The discourse around games

“We have this silly word ‘game’ and it just sort of encompasses everything […] in a sense there isn’t necessarily a lot similar, you know, if you have to actually make parallels between ‘Uncharted 313’ and ‘Candy Crush 14’, it is a completely different kind of experience, […] the interactions are completely different and the experience is completely different, and where you might play that is completely different”. Quote from an interview with a researcher. R03.

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Description

During the project, participants talked of the need to understand games as complex and multiple, rather than acting as if there is anything like a ‘generic’ video game. One participant even suggested that it was the responsibility of researchers and other professionals to re-write the canon by turning the focus of their gaze towards games that were less commercial or less readily written about.

The view of gaming as a complex medium assumes that under the broad umbrella of gaming there is a multitude of different themes, mechanics and content, in the same way as ‘film’ is a medium that incorporates anything from video art, to documentary, to Hollywood blockbuster.  This view is  increasingly accepted but still faces some resistance which, perhaps unwittingly, seems to originate in the so-called ‘gamer’ cultures. Here, rather arbitrary distinctions seem to exist between real games, usually focusing on player mastery, competition and clearly defined win/lose states,  and ‘non-games’ or ‘artistic games’ which experiment with and sometimes subvert those categories.    

The identities and professional profiles of those who make games are also changing, reflecting a diverse range of personal, educational and technical backgrounds, and different design priorities are not necessarily aligned with those of large commercial publishers and the so-called ‘mainstream’ industry.  

Meet Steven, a journalist and Daisy, a game developer

Daisy is an independent game developer. Her trajectory started while she was still at university, studying in a game development course. She put her studies on hold when she got a job in a large development studio as a junior animator.  Nonetheless, Daisy thinks her university experience is a valuable source of inspiration and cultural diversity. She fondly remembers attending extracurricular seminars in the sociology department, meeting and conversing with students and lecturers about different topics and interests.  Over the past five years Daisy has worked on many games, but always felt that the focus on specific tasks within large projects was too narrow.  This year, Daisy decided to ‘go indie’, setting up a small studio with a couple of trusted friends. Her first project is based on a personal exploration of issues that matter to her personally – she wants to create an interactive experience that challenges expectations of what a game can do. They are conscious that such a game wouldn’t necessarily have mass appeal, and they are ok with it. With her friends and colleagues, she decides that crowdfunding offers the best chance to ensure creative independence and a direct connection with their intended audience. They hope to make a small profit to support their livelihoods and continue doing what really interests them. Days starts by tapping into her networks to do some marketing and raise the profile of the studio and the first game. After some time she lands an interview with Steven, a freelance journalist who writes about technology and games for a number of online and printed outlets. Steven is a keen technology enthusiast and a gamer. Immediately, the interview takes a slightly disappointing turn for Daisy…

 A more mature approach towards gaming, coupled with an acknowledgment of the complexity and multifaceted nature of this medium, could boost efforts to develop, understand, research and use video games in new, innovative, exciting and relevant ways. Dominant ways of understanding video games, and what they are, need challenging at all levels in order to generate more generous and nuanced understandings of the medium and its possibilities, in relation to education, culture and society.

In a nutshell

Although we often talk about video games as a singular entity, they are, in reality, diverse and complex. As a medium they offer a range of different features, experiences and opportunities to players in a varied range of contexts.

By considering games as singular, however, we are potentially simplifying debates and maybe even lowering our expectations. Funders, researchers, educators and developers are all responsible for advocating a more diverse and multifaceted notion of what a game can be or do. Funding Social Science and Humanities (SSH) research projects that survey the representation of cultural themes would allow the development of video games studies in curriculums at all educational levels, and increase their future relevance.

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