As the pandemic forced many Americans to hunker down at home, the video game industry experienced record spending and profits in 2020. Interacting with other people through gaming became, for some players, essential for social connection.
As an education researcher and professor of digital literacy, I study the educational benefits and perils of digital gaming. These range from providing opportunities for collaborative problem-solving to displaying content that perpetuates racism and sexism.
Digital games can provide forums for diverse groups of people to come together. That’s especially important now, while our physical activities are restricted. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, undergraduates have shared with me the vital importance of digital games for their social connection.
Digital games also encourage various forms of participation in a group activity. Some people in the digital space may be lurkers, who simply watch the action. Others comment and ask questions via text or audio; still others play, moving the action of the game along.
Families can use digital games to set up collaborative endeavours at home, where each family member participates in their own way. For instance, a child doesn’t need to actively play the game in order to meaningfully participate and develop problem-solving, communication and spatial reasoning skills.
Observation is a crucial first step for learning how to fully participate in any activity. Caregivers who look closely will see that children who appear to be merely observing a game are also asking questions, strategising and hypothesising, or posing “what-ifs.”
Minecraft, a game in which players build protective enclosures against monster attacks, encourages collaborative problem-solving, either in person or online. Playing with another gamer means having more resources to build with and more strategies to employ, since different players bring different expertise.
Like Minecraft, online games that run on mobile technologies such as tablets allow family members to play next to each other. This allows caregivers to understand and supplement the quality of children’s gameplay by participating in the game; they need no longer worry about the quantity of screen time from an outsider perspective.
In-game caregivers can also help young gamers consider how women and people of colour are represented — or not represented — on screen. Families can discuss, for example, how characters such as Mario of Super Mario Bros or Link of Zelda are represented. Why are these men saving women? Why are the women portrayed as princesses? Where are the characters of colour? Are they antagonists?
Ignoring these problematic representations further enables sexism and racism in the real world. For example, racist and sexist imagery and storylines can turn girls and people of colour away from gaming, making them less likely to become game designers themselves. In Minecraft, creating one’s avatar is an opportunity to consider how kids wish to present themselves in the game and what messages they convey to other gamers through their “skins”.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from the United States House of Representatives amassed more than four million viewers while playing the video game Among Us together on Twitch, the popular livestreaming platform for gamers.
Beyond getting out the vote, Ocasio-Cortez and Omar used the platform to educate potential voters about healthcare issues and fossil fuel dependence. They used the game’s ship as a problematic example of oil consumption.
But the range of responses Ocasio-Cortez and Omar received online, from enthusiastic to vitriolic, also reminds caregivers that children need knowledgeable companions with them in digital spaces. Digital games offer valuable learning opportunities while also perpetuating prejudices. Newcomers are not left alone to learn and navigate problematic issues in classrooms or labs, and they don’t have to be in digital spaces either.
Katie Headrick Taylor is associate professor of learning sciences and human development at the University of Washington. This is an edited version of an article that was first published by The Conversation