Becoming a true videogames believer

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If you are a parent, carer or videogames sceptic, then Kate Ficai's learning journey is for you.

There is nothing like the zeal of the convert. 

I have spent most of my life working as a screen professional, but my passion for the moving image did not stretch to videogames. Becoming a parent and then training as a teacher didn’t really change this state of affairs – I wasn’t particularly motivated to dig deep into the culture of videogames. All of this changed when I became Games in Education Coordinator. I had been employed for my screen industry experience and organisational skills rather than my passion for videogames, but my videogames transformation had begun.

Videogames in the classroom

I was a complete videogames newbie and it was time to push myself beyond my comfort zone.

Key to my role was event-managing the annual Education in Games Summit (EiGS) and coordinating Game Lessons, a project that connects teachers with an interest in games and fosters the creation of a rich treasury of curriculum-focused lesson plans. I was working with Vincent Trundle, an educator who has been espousing the power of videogames in the classroom for many years – ACMI has always been ahead of the game – and his enthusiasm and expertise were great motivators.

As part of developing the Game Lessons project, Vincent and I spent time speaking to teachers about some of the common obstacles and barriers to using videogames in the classroom. Along with lack of technical confidence, feeling out of depth and unfamiliar with videogames, many were concerned that they didn’t have the support of parents and peers. Despite two-thirds of Australians playing videogames (and the number is growing), quite a few folks regard time spent playing videogames as a bit of a time-waster.

As a trained teacher, I shared some of these concerns but it didn’t take long for me to gain a different perspective. The EiGS and Game Lessons were both impressive showcases for the many advantages of game-based learning, and introduced me to outstanding teachers and researchers and their ideas, projects and game-based practices. For instance, check out this article from Dr Colleen Stieler-Hunt who spoke at EiGS 2019  about how videogames can be used to cultivate empathy. Other research highlights the wide-ranging benefits of videogames, while the Department of Education and Training Victoria has made a serious investment to introduce the Education Edition of Minecraft into schools.

Thanks to my front-row seat, I could see how effectively videogames can boost learning. I was now passionate about the advantages of using games in the classroom, not the least of which is the fun and engagement they encourage (the state of flow).

Videogames at home 

I had learned videogames could help young people develop a range of life skills outside the classroom.

However, in the private space of my home and in my role as parent, I had to overcome a few issues before fully embracing the power of videogames. Some of these issues related to a fear of the unknown and my uncertainty about where to begin, learning the rules and how to use the controls. I also struggled with a sense that gameplay was 'unproductive' time, and that I would lose control of my daughter's time and risk her wellbeing if I let videogames into the house. (Shared by many parents and carers, videogame-related issues and anxieties are listed in this simple explainer for curious kids.)

But then I realised I was already …

  • playing board games which I considered somehow different – more high brow
  • playing app-based games on my phone -- Line Runner, Word Brain, Word Search
  • using videogames to extend my daughter’s learning through educational apps (games) such as KodableFlow FreeHexagon FitEndless Alphabet. I had sorted these into two folders, Brain Food versus Junk Food, and she would get a set amount of time for each. To play Subway Surfers she had to learn something first. (Though, I now realise Subway Surfers can also be used for learning – think about gameplay, timing, visual and sound design.)
Gone Home

Time to get serious

Having recognised that I had already jumped a few of the hurdles impeding my levelling up as a gamer, I started to get serious.

I was ready to graduate to a console (Nintendo Switch) and some ‘real’ games. My daughter and I eased ourselves into this new world of videogames with the tried and true Just Dance and Mario Kart series. These games are familiar and accessible, more like what I grew up with. 

It was as if this broke the seal to a treasure chamber and, as someone who loves a great story, I began exploring beautiful and evocative games such as The Gardens Between and Gone Home.

One of the most rewarding elements of taking a genuine interest in videogames is that it also creates opportunities for some great conversations and can be an effective way to communicate with young people.

It is actually a misconception that videogames are mostly played by teenagers, but they often have the most interesting ideas to share. With a little bit of knowledge and some respect for young people’s opinions and their expertise, you can dig deep and be witness to some perceptive analysis.

I have learned the value of game review and gamemaker websites. It is fascinating to hear thoughtful critique from experts and be introduced to the creative complexity of game design. For parents, Common Sense Media is a user-friendly and well-organised resource and can be used as a gateway to an informed discussion about age-appropriate and suitable videogames. And why not encourage the young gamers in your household to engage in their own process of review and critique by thinking about what makes a good game?

Parents can also suggest their kids and their friends have a go at trying to make a game. This is a great way to develop digital, screen and traditional literacies as well as encourage problem-solving and critical and creative thinking. This will make the young gamers in your family heartbreakingly aware of the extraordinary work that goes into designing and coding the games they play. ACMI’s Game Builder is a great place to start, as it methodically breaks down the gamemaking process. It has a Beginners and an Intermediate level.

Tips for starting to play games

If you want to get started, here are my tips.

  1. Put some time in if you want to learn and get better – the young people in your household will find this hilarious so long as you remember to take turns!
  2. Have a go. There is a huge range of game styles, you can sample without having to become a master. And ask family members for advice. 
  3. Begin with free and browser-based games. You don't need to outlay a lot of money or acquire a lot of tech.
  4. Use ‘Cheats’. This is not a dirty word in the gaming world but rather an important ‘how-to’ manual. And they can save you a lot of time.
  5. Make it communal. This is a great chance to connect as a family.
  6. Invite your children to lead and teach you. They don't read instructions but just dive in and aren't afraid to fail. 

Entering new worlds

If you are still in doubt, read this beautiful account from a 75-year-old newbie entering the world of Red Dead Redemption 2. S

She concludes:

Evil and goodness all around, no clear lines between. Arthur’s dream, a triumph against the winds and tides of the rest. And my triumph by the way, learning something new for which I had no experience or ability, awakened by the challenges and delight of this extraordinary creation. What a privilege to play.

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