The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the social distancing measures, have shifted much of our human activities online in many modern cities. The pandemic has advanced the digitalization of our lives and has necessitated engagement with technology to sustain the continuity of work, learning, and play in unprecedented ways. With this natural experiment of pervasive technology use, researchers have also examined the changes in which the pandemic has ushered in our social lives and reflected on what the post-pandemic new normal can look like. At a time when social distancing is encouraged, and interaction with others is minimized, digital play has also become increasingly more popular. Young people especially are spending hours, having to be cooped up at home, playing online video games, such as Minecraft and Roblox, more than ever before.
Concerns Over Digital Play
Many people, especially parents and educators, would have wondered if digital play is positive, harmless, or a vice to be stamped. Recently, China has taken a strong position to limit its young people below 18 from playing online video games for more than 3 hours a week and has described digital play as “spiritual opium” . It is thus of fundamental importance to recognize that an excessive engagement with online video games can be detrimental in terms of health, such as its association with higher rates of obesity and myopia, as well as potential exposure to violent and sexual content.
While recognizing the potential problems that immoderate engagement in digital play can bring, my research team was interested in understanding what the possibilities for learnings in digital play are. Given the attraction of digital play among young people, we also wanted to understand how educators and parents can better engage with the digital play experiences of the young people.
Learning Empathy from Video Games
In a case study on the video play experience of two youths to be published in Research and Practice in Technology Enhanced Learning, we observed that social and emotional learning skills such as critical thinking and empathy were demonstrated in the youths’ digital play. In particular, for empathy, the game feature in which the player could exercise alternating control of two characters in the game, The Last of Us, facilitated the player’s appreciation of both characters’ thoughts, feelings and actions through perspective shifting. Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is an important aspect of social and emotional learning. Our study suggests that empathy can be demonstrated and potentially cultivated through the opportunities afforded in digital play.
Gameplay Reflections for Social and Emotional Learning
In a 2021 paper published in Games and Culture, we proposed a taxonomy, in the form of a pedagogic metalanguage, for video games in the classroom to develop students’ social and emotional learning. We described how the teachers can use systematic reflective questions to guide students in thinking about the organization, engagement, and representations within the game. For example, in terms of engagement, the teacher can draw attention to the position from which the player observes the game story to understand perspective-taking. The immersive and embodied nature of gameplay also allows the player to experience the characters’ emotions during the gameplay. Teachers can get their students to reflect on the emotions they experienced and discuss these feelings as part of social and emotional learning.
Learnings from Digital Co-Play
Beyond the classroom, the home can also be a learning environment where social and emotional learning can be cultivated through digital play. This is especially given that most of the online video games are played at home. Here, we encourage digital co-play between parent and child as a way to develop their social and emotional learning. In another 2021 study published in Interactive Learning Environments, we analyzed four cases of parent-child digital co-play on Let’s Play gaming videos with Roblox on YouTube. We identified the ways of parent-child digital co-play and surfaced the learnings that can occur. For example, social and emotional learning can be developed when the child learns through communicating with parents during gameplay, creating something by themselves in the game, modeling parents’ in-game behavior, teaching their parents by sharing their knowledge, and leading the co-play.
Our work, joining the scholars before us, advances the argument that digital play can be used productively to develop social and emotional learning in the youth. We observed that while there has been increasing recognition of the value of harnessing digital play for learning amongst academic researchers, the adoption and incorporation of online video games for social and emotional learning by educators has, thus far, been rare. This could be because of dominant beliefs amongst educators on the potential ills of digital play outweighing the good as well as a general reservation and unfamiliarity amongst many adults with the use of digital technologies for learning and play. Now that the pandemic has necessitated the engagement of digital technology in all aspects of our lives and has raised awareness of the possibilities in digital play for learning, perhaps one of the positives from this global health crisis is to fully usher in the digital age for all. With this, perhaps we can look forward to a paradigmatic shift in mindsets amongst educators towards recognizing, valuing, and incorporating digital play for social and emotional learning in the post-pandemic new normal.