Picture the scene, my daughters are sitting focused, determined, engaged, applying their strategies to win as their faces, illuminated in the light that comes from what they are holding, exhibit the utmost concentration. This concentration must be broken though because the power of the game console is causing this game based learning enthusiast some grief at home ;-) and if a recent report in the Metro has any substance then it appears that I, along with thousands of parents, am causing physical harm to my girls by allowing them to get their hands on these modern day folk devils!
Are we bad parents to let our children use games consoles?
"Right you two, put those DSs down now and come through for your dinner. I won't tell you again!" This is the shout that I have had to use on quite a number of occasions since Christmas when the girls' grandad so kindly bought my daughters a DSi each. Their DSis came with a few games one of which is the wondrous Mario Kart and they must have played this every day since they placed their excited mitts on it. I have been secretly watching them as they have played Mario Kart (as well as the odd occasion playing Little Big Planet) and I have to report that I am seeing some incredible things from them in terms of learning and collaboration. I must also say that any externally forced parental guilt that I may be causing irreversible and actual physical bodily harm, to my girls by allowing them to play games is somewhat assuaged by what I have been seeing! Well what have I been seeing?
- Excited learners: When I watch the girls play or get them selves set-up to play their excitement is tangible. They adore playing Mario Kart and cannot wait to get their hands on it. This is real excitement and of such a level that again you wonder as to the challenge, demand and appeal of the design of such games and why young learners WANT TO PLAY THESE GAMES. My girls like all the other things they do and are involved in but at the moment Mario Kart is the undoubted king of their leisure world.
- Challenged learners: Some of the games/races are more complex then others and need some considered thought if you are to become the best that you can be on your own in the game or when playing against others. The girls have worked out much of what needs to be done, what needs to be taken account of in the various games and they have done this without me. They have persevered and are showing an innate ability to unpick the game grammar. This challenge has also been incredibly evident when they have been playing Little Big Planet. Complex and challenging problems do not appear to phase them. They step up to the challenge that games present to them and they want to meet them, there is the intrinsic motivation and drive to meet these challenges.
- Confident learners: Over the festive period there were many visitors to the house what with family and friends. My daughters took that opportunity to not only show off how good they were becoming at the game but also to teach the adults how to play it and play it successfully. Again, watching them in action I was delighted to see how they took account of the fact that these 'oldies' were new to the game so they started with easy levels and games so that they could manage the controls. They then offered some tips and strategies that should be taken on board and finally they continued to offer encouragement to those who did not exhibit any real games skills. There appears to be an innate ability to differentiate in this aspect of learning, an innate ability to teach. They naturally assumed the role of the more knowledgeable person in the learning dynamic and showed how they could fulfil this in a sensitive fashion. Confidence in themselves shone through here. Isn't it something to give young learners the opportunity to play this role in a serious way that is not embedded in a any falsely constructed adult dynamic? This is something that they can do NOW and I believe that we must create as many opportunities as we can to allow learners to do this.
- Social Learners: Although there are times when the girls are lost in the game the amount of dialogue that happens between them when they are wirelessly connecting and connected or when someone achieves a great score or discovers an easter egg of sorts is really impressive. They automatically share this so that both develop the skills that each other discovers individually. Similarly, this happens when they hook up their consoles with their cousins and friends and instantly we have a connected group of learners, independently, successfully and confidently managing the technology.
- Learners that need 'guidance': All this is wonderful but I am faced with moans and groans and the occasional tantrum when game play is over, it's time for tea or I tell them that they have spent enough time with their DSi and that it's time to do something else. The reaction from them when I cause them to withdraw from the game and their reactions at times when it is denied to them cam cause some problems. However, as the adult in their lives I feel that my role is to ensure that balance is in place and that this message is one that is consistently given and acted on.
Now my girls do not only play computer games. In fact I limit their time on games consoles believe it or not. They go to gymnastics, trampolining, Rainbows, Brownies, the library, we paint and make things as well as playing various board games like Junior Scrabble, pairs, dominoes etc. Computer game plays a moderated part in the balanced diet of activities that we present to our children. This is the central issue for me, how parents make sense of and decide what experiences their children are presented with. But how can parents make sense of games and how they can be used for good with their children when we are faced with the continual construction of them as modern day folk devils?
Computer games should come with supplies of free VitaminD and Cod Liver Oil!
Now I wonder how many parents ever watch their kids and observe just what can happen when young learners engage in good game play. I have been working in the field of game based learning for a wee while now and what we see in schools across Scotland via Learning and Teaching Scotland's Consolarium initiative is not only what I am seeing from my own children but the added value that comes when a teacher takes a commercially available computer game title and then uses that to drive curricular learning. We are seeing so, so much superb practice and active, intrinsically motivated learning in classrooms...this stuff works. The methodology that we apply sees the game sitting as a contextual hub about which the learning revolves, emanates and grows. Here are just a few examples of this practice that were initiated by the Consolarium and that have now spread to very many classrooms across Scotland and beyond:
But is it the case that parents most probably won't see or be aware of the potential benefits to their children's development? How can they, in fairness, when the general message that they get from the wider media about games and their impact on their children's development is almost a solely negative one? Take the article in the Metro that led with the headline. Gaming Leads to Surge in Rickets. I won't go in to the debunking of this myself due to the fact the article has no real substance or evidence to support this headline other than a cursory suggestion of a causal link. It seems that the issue most evidently linked to this so called upsurge is poor diet yet computer games are somehow linked to this and pulled into the dock yet again! Some readers from the Times Online forum gave this article the treatment and this more balanced piece did the job of sticking up for the falsely accused 'computer game'. The article did cause the games based learning fraternity to take this accusation seriously and with the Game Based Learning 10 conference organisers ensuring that your health would be supported if you attend the event ;-) ...
What can we do to address this continual negative portrayal of computer games?
Whenever I see this kind of article I wonder just how long it's going to be before the good that can come from game play is given the prominence that I feel it merits? Games can be a force for good provided that at home parents play a confident and informed role in engaging with their children in the game play and possibly initiating rules or a framework that provides their children with a wide range of activities. Possibly sites such as As About Games can help here. As for their use in schools then maybe the continued work of the Consolarium and other educators who are exploring game based learning such as Ollie Bray, Steve Bunce, Tom Barrett, Dawn Hallybone and many, many others who are, writing about the appropriate use and brilliant impact of game based learning in their class can continue to promote what are in essence...damn good learning resources.