Can Gaming Spark Social Change?

Posted by Jessica Millstone on January 22, 2015

In the 21st century, it is almost as likely that a student will play a video game as watch television or read a book.

Indeed, the Pew Research Center estimates that 97% of teenagers (as well as 60% of adults, according to the Entertainment Software Association) regularly play video games. These numbers indicate that modern video games have huge potential for helping young people better understand their world, and can increase their empathy for those around them.

Today's games cover a range of play styles and subjects. Their topics are increasingly diverse, with broad educational and social impacts. As Douglass Rushkoff, Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics, explains in his book Present Shock, "Video games come to the rescue of a society for whom books, TV, and movies no longer function as well as they used to—they engage players in an open-ended fashion and communicate through experience instead of telling."

The key is conversation.

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Teachers, parents, and community members play a critical role in helping to translate a game's lessons from the digital into the real world. Just as teachers may pause with questions when reading a book aloud, or parents may ask their kids about the TV program they're watching, adults shouldn't shy away from discussing and even playing games with young people.

When adults, educators, and community leaders express support for video games, it can spark student engagement and empower young people in their activities. In addition, 21st century games give players a sense of control over the outcome. As students immerse themselves in game play, their emotional investment in the game's mission and message grows. With support, these experiences can encourage student learning both inside and outside of the gaming environment.

There are three primary tactics that can help young gamers translate their in-game experiences into out-of-game lessons:

  1. Co-playing video games
  2. Discussing game play
  3. Sensing approval for the medium from important adults in their lives

These tactics signal to the student player that a game can and should be taken seriously, and provide the encouragement needed to translate the game's lessons into their daily lives.

Co-play and discussions about games help students think critically about their experience and translate the complex themes they are engaging with into real-world understanding. For example, while playing a game about environmental protection, an educator or parent can raise questions about why the topic of the game is important. This, in turn, helps the player connect their in-game activities with taking action in their own lives.

Questions and conversations need not be specific to encourage this knowledge transfer. Simple questions such as "What did you like about the game?" and "Did it remind you of anything in the real world?" can prompt critical evaluation of game-play experiences.

One doesn't need to be familiar with games to co-play, discuss, and support experiences. Learning to play together will still encourage these outcomes, and can create a bonding experience that strengthens family relationships.

Even when not actively engaging in game play experiences, it is crucial that teachers and community leaders encourage students to take a critical eye toward all games they play. So the next time you play a game, ask yourself, "What did I learn?" The more we ask ourselves, the better we can ask others.

On February 26, Facing History and Ourselves in New York hosts Jessica Millstone for a conversation on how gaming can impact social change as part of its Great Talks series. Facing History's Great Talks series gathers dynamic New Yorkers for compelling conversations about complicated issues. This Great Talk is organized in collaboration with, and hosted by BrainPOP, creator of animated, curricular content and home to GameUp, an educational game portal. This event is free, but registration is required. Reserve your spot here.

Allison Mishkin co-wrote this post. Mishkin is a data analyst at BrainPOP and an Oxford University-Google Graduate Scholar. You can follow her on Twitter at @AFineMishkin.

Topics: Choosing to Participate, Events, Gaming, New York, Facing Technology

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