James Stewart is a researcher who specialises in digital innovation for social issues. He currently works as a Scientific Officer at JRC’s Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (http://ipts.jrc.ec.europa.eu/) in Seville, Spain, providing policy support for the European Commission. His most recent publication, ‘The Potential of Digital Games for Empowerment and Social Inclusion of Groups at Risk of Social and Economic Exclusion: Evidence and Opportunity for Policy’, looks to better understand how this media form is being applied to issues of concern for social inclusion policy and inform future policy options. James Stewart spoke to SIE about the application of digital games to address social issues.
How can digital games help to foster social inclusion?
Digital games are providing an innovative medium through which to facilitate learning and participation in society. Empirically, the employment of these games for social inclusion focuses on three principal areas:
- Promotion of health and wellness – addressing certain physical and mental health issues either in terms of prevention or as a means of support for those suffering with health problems
- Support for disengaged and disadvantaged learners – with a focus on young people and those with learning disabilities to assist integration into society and boost employability
- Education – raising awareness of social and political issues in communities and fostering civic engagement
There are various ways that digital games are used to promote social inclusion. In the first instance, special-purpose digital games, sometimes referred to as ‘serious games’, are created that specifically address real-life issues with a social purpose. These games generally place greater emphasis on pedagogy as oppose to amusement. Commercial entertainment games, such as those from Nintendo and Electronic Arts (EA), can also be applied to the field of social inclusion and provide tools for learning and socialisation as well as some types of therapy and skill development. Finally, there is a trend emerging for game creation whereby people can gain skills, learn about social issues, and express themselves creatively through making digital games.
Social exclusion tends to arise when people are unable to cope with life situations, be it that they suffer from a chronic illness, are the target of racism, are failing at school or live in a community with particular problems. Digital games can be applied in these situations to build social ties, develop core skill sets, empower users personally and increase awareness of social concerns.
What is the advantage of using digital games over other resources?
Though digital games can be used to engage a range of target audiences, they are probably most effective when applied to the social inclusion of young people. There are many reasons for this. For example, traditional mediums used in schools, such as books, are not the staple of many children’s home life and the education experience consequently becomes an abstract concept. Young people grow up with gaming technology and this familiarity provides an authentic experience for the learner. The lesson has a stronger relevance to their broader experience and therefore achieves a greater impact.
Experiential learning is a key part of digital games. The medium provides the user with an opportunity to make mistakes in a safe environment where there is no real sense of failing. Practice and repetition are recognised elements of the game and develop skills in problem solving, learning and reflection. Furthermore, confidence is a key issue in social inclusion and the anonymity afforded by some digital games allows users to overcome this obstacle.
The making of digital games provides a strong sense of creative engagement and requires learning of specific skills. The design and development process can be a strong motivating factor and it helps build confidence and self-efficacy. The end products become a medium of communication to others.
Are there any problems in using games for social inclusion?
As an initiative, digital games for social inclusion are still in the early stages of development. More research is required to realise the full potential of this medium, formalising good practice to increase the uptake across a wider spectrum.
It must also be acknowledged that many current games for social inclusion do not match the quality of conventional entertainment games. The learning experience can be heavily prioritised over the gaming element. The final product is something that looks like a game but is actually just a test or formal lesson. Additional barriers concerning costs and financial investment also exist which have an influence both on the platforms available for digital gaming and the lack of skilled people working with games in and for social inclusion.
In the short term, the greatest challenge to digital gaming is the negative image associated with the medium. Most people do not consider digital gaming as a serious educative tool and struggle to see past its entertainment value. This is an attitude that runs throughout the system; if there is no encouragement at the top levels, it will never be taken up on a broader scale by the people on the ground working at the heart of social inclusion. The lack of leadership behind the initiative urgently needs to be addressed.
There have been initiatives for digital gaming over the years with successful results. For example, Consolarium, a programme launched in 2006 by Education Scotland, provided support for teachers to implement digital gaming into the curriculum which included technical demonstrations, impact research and dispersion of equipment. The programme increased engagement and significantly raised competency levels in mathematics for certain student groups. However, at the moment, digital gaming only has the support of a minority. Until opinion changes, these programmes will not become accepted practice.
What are the possibilities for games and social inclusion in the future?
Young people will continue to be a high priority in this field as they are most familiar with the medium. The current education system fails certain groups, necessitating remedial measures, and disadvantaging these people for many years. Here, where conventional methods are ineffective, the use of special-purpose digital games can make significant advances and reengage students in the learning experience.
Industry will also play a key role in the development of digital games for inclusion. Organisations are buying game-based products in order to more effectively train their workforce or develop a more efficient recruitment process, providing income and attracting investment in development of business and services. In the longer term, the knowledge and tools will be disseminated across the sectors but for the moment, investment remains an important barrier to the potential of digital gaming in society.
The full report is available here: The Potential of Digital Games for Empowerment and Social Inclusion of Groups at Risk of Social and Economic Exclusion: Evidence and Opportunity for Policy. James Stewart, Lizzy Bleumers, Jan Van Looy, Ilse Mariën, Anissa All, Dana Schurmans, Koen Willaert, Frederik De Grove, An Jacobs, Gianluca Misuraca Editor: Clara Centeno, 25900 EN, 9/2013 http://ipts.jrc.ec.europa.eu/publications/pub.cfm?id=6579
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