Can Video Games Help Young People Understand Social Issues?

Can video games be used for good? Can video games expand student’s capacities for learning and help them understand social issues?

This is the aim of the many who gathered recently in New York City for the 8th Annual Games for Change Festival.

I attended this festival because one of the mobile apps I created for race awareness (prior to joining FrameWorks) was nominated for the Knight News Game Award. All the nominated games were set up in the lobby of the Festival site for attendees to play. Of course, I played them all.

Most of the games nominated for awards were simulation games. For example, a game might send you to the future where you could see the effects of climate change or policies that infringe on civil liberties.

My app is different in two main ways. First, it is not a traditional “game.” It’s more like a learning tool where the user sees a photograph of a real person and has to guess how that person answered the question, “What race are you?” But the game deliberately makes the categories confusing or even outrageous so as to shake people out of comfortable ways of thinking about race. Hopefully after taking the quizzes, reading the quotes from the people in the photographs, and reading little cultural and historical tidbits, users begin to think more like cultural anthropologists in seeing the cultural construction of race.

Second, my game is designed to improve the public discourse on race and diversity in short bursts of time. That is, as a mobile app, I envision both students using the app in classrooms and adults using the app on the subway or in playtime with their younger children. Happily, there is evidence that the app is engaging people in these contexts and more.

In the end, my app did not win the Award at the Festival. Nonetheless, the fact that a mobile app was included among the nominees was a promising sign that the definition of a “serious game” is expanding.

While it seems that the digital media and learning movement is gaining significant momentum (there were double the attendees from last year and a keynote speech given by Al Gore), the American public may be still lagging behind.

How can we help the American public conceive of digital media games as an integral part of student learning? FrameWorks is actively working with digital media and learning advocates, educators, and scientists on this very question. Our research thus far confirms that the public and the media largely do not understand the value of digital media tools for student learning. The good news is that this research also points to some productive cultural models that can be used in order to help the public see how digital media can enhance the learning experience. Those include connecting digital media tools to notions of interactive learning, hands-on learning, and learning through play to build support for the educational use of these exciting innovations.

Do you see a place for fun and games in framing? How might Framers develop “games” to successfully communicate about a wide variety of issues?



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