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Is 2021 the year of ‘video games for good’?

As learning has moved online, video games can help develop socio-emotional skills.

Juliet Waters
18 January 2021

My 2021 resolution, to play more video games, may sound counterintuitive. New Year’s resolutions traditionally motivate us to strengthen wholesome habits and actions and “wholesome” is not the first word we usually associate with online gaming.

Discovering new horizons with Animal Crossing

But last year, like many during COVID-19 lockdown, I discovered Nintendo’s Animal Crossing. With opportunities for experience and adventure so severely restricted, this enchanted world offered endless exploration and creativity. In the space of a few months, I built a new home, a general store, populated a museum with a wide variety of fish, insects, and classic art pieces, and paid off five mortgages with my earnings from a diverse skill set of hunting, gathering, crafting, horticulture, forestry and the “stalk” (turnip) market.

I traveled a limitless archipelago in search of anthropomorphic villagers to join my virtual community. I hosted and visited real life players and even presented at professional conferences through my avatar. I celebrated birthdays and dropped in on Halloween, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve parties, with no need for distancing (although virtual masks were always available).

An Animal Crossing New Year’s Eve party

I was not alone in finding joy and security in this world. During a year that was traumatic for so many, Animal Crossing’s positive effects were featured in articles and podcasts across the web, from “Animal Crossing isn’t Escapist, It’s Political” in The Atlantic, to CBC radio producer Olsy Sorokina’s tribute to the appeal of its low-stress, open ended world.

Video Games & Socio-Emotional Learning

Canadian and international researchers have been confirming the socio-emotional and educational value of gaming for some time now. University of Saskatchewan researcher Regan Mandryk points out that while other forms of media can relieve stress through detachment and relaxation, when compared to video games

“they don’t really provide us an opportunity to experience mastery or control."

UNESCO affiliated researcher Matthew Farber has written extensively on his work with educators to show how video games can transform the teaching of Socio Emotional Learning.

“Like books and film, games are powerful media, capable of much more than rote instruction. Some games, when harnessed and contextualized by teachers, can even transform learners.”

Socio-Emotional Learning (SEL) is the development of skills, competencies, values and beliefs essential to succeeding in life across the cognitive, social and emotional domains. Games with SEL in mind can build attention and resilience, seed and develop management of emotions and enrich critical thinking. Games can strengthen empathy, and compassion, the willingness and ability to act on that empathy.

It’s important to remember that video games are not necessarily designed as educational tools, so parents have to remain aware of how children are playing - and for how long. The best games are skillfully designed with SEL values at their core and are well suited for intergenerational exploration. One has only to look at how savvy teachers have been using the educational edition of Minecraft to see the possibilities and opportunities that have grown, especially over the last year.

Playing together: the trick to keeping screen time enriching?

One alternative to the “easy” solution (which as a parent, I can attest has never been easy) of restricting game play, is joining in more. Another is to introduce kids to trusted adults who share their enjoyment. KCJ has long supported kids in making their own video games, but some of us have discovered emotional and even neurological benefits from simply playing more video games over the last year. Kimberley Vircoe, who leads our Code Create Play game-making workshops, attests

“I am very much enjoying using my brain in different ways with gaming lately.”

Recently, iconic Nintendo game maker Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda) was asked what kind of limits he placed on his own children when they were growing up.

“It’s important that parents play the games, to understand why the child can’t quit until reaching the next save point, for example.”

Of course, as an industry innovator his household was always a little different than most.

“All the video-game hardware belonged to me and the children understood that they were borrowing these things. If they couldn’t follow the rules, then there was an understanding that I could just take the machine away from them,”

he laughed, before continuing,

"when it was good weather, I always encouraged them to go outside.”

Want to get your kids getting creative by learning to code games? Sign up to one of our upcoming virtual workshops where they can learn and play using Scratch coding!

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