Playing video games is one of the main leisure time activities among young people. With an average of over 80% of teenagers playing games (IPSOS Connect, 2019), video games can be considered a relevant part of young people’s lived reality. Therefore, this article seeks to give a glimpse into game culture, along with the risks and opportunities that games can offer to youth work.
In 2018, the video game Fortnite took school yards by storm. The game’s dances became part of meme culture and could be seen everywhere, even as victory celebrations at some of the world’s biggest sports events (Telegraph Sport, 2018). These dances are used in two ways: either to celebrate a success or to shame an opponent after beating them. The popular “Floss” (Waring, 2018), for example, is mostly used to celebrate, while “Take the L” as performed by Griezmann in the World Cup final is mostly used to make fun of others.
Pop-culture crossovers have become commonplace within Fortnite. Possibly the first big event was Thanos from the Marvel’s Avengers franchise entering the game (Webster, The Verge, 2018), while this year a well-known part of the game was remodeled into Batman’s Gotham City (MacLeod, 2019). Big brands have also found their way onto the screen, such as the NFL (Parker, 2019), the John Wick movie franchise (Webster, The Verge, 2019) and Nike (Novy-Williams, 2019), particularly through costumes, which allow players to change the look of their character. These events and costumes create synergies between the franchises and create customer retention, meaning they keep the players in the game. In addition, the costumes are the main source of income for the game developers, as these in-game items are sold via micro transactions.
While Fortnite is still the most popular game in the world, it is by no means the only popular video game. Scores of people buy their yearly dose of the FIFA and Call of Duty franchises. Since its initial release, Minecraft has fascinated hundreds of thousands of young children and mobile gaming gives everyone with a smartphone access to millions of so-called “free to play” games.
Two particular phenomena in gaming have a huge impact on youth culture: live-streaming and esport. While YouTubers used to put their content as VOD on their platform, nowadays most game recordings are carried over from the Amazon-owned live-streaming service twitch.tv. There users can watch games being played, usually with a facecam that is recording the player reaction and interactions with their audience. What used to be delayed uploads of Let’s Plays (videos presenting a game with voice over explanations) are now live insights into the play of streamers. The live audience interaction gives it a special kick and seems to increase the entertainment value. It pays off, as with advertisements, live donations and user subscriptions many streamers run small companies to support their channel, hiring staff in the double digits.
Esport, meaning the competitive play of video games, has grown rapidly in the last decade. One of the biggest tournaments is the League of Legends Worlds. Its matches have more online viewers than the Super Bowl, which is the biggest media event in the world. To become an e-athlete is an increasingly popular dream job for many young people, in particular boys, as some tournaments offer winnings of over 1 million USD.
Games are the biggest earning entertainment business in the world. Most of the income, however, does not come from the sale of individual games but from so-called micro-transactions. These are incremental payments in apps and games that are usually in addition to the price of the game. For “free to play” games, they are the sole direct source of income to the developers, other than advertisements within the game.
While a blessing for developers, micro-transactions can be a nightmare for parents and children. Often children do not yet grasp the value of such incremental amounts. In addition, games use psychological effects to enhance the likelihood of purchases. Most of these games limit the amount of interaction the games provide in a certain timeframe. In order to enhance these activities, more interactions can be bought for a small amount of real life money.
The “free to play” game Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery plays in brief story episodes and short adventures for the game characters. Early on, in the middle of a sequence in one of these episodes, the player gets halted from continuing and one of the game’s magic students gets strangled. The only way to continue is to either wait half an hour until the game offers free actions again, or pay up to continue immediately (Phillips, 2018).
Free to play games are not alone in using micro-transactions. The FIFA series also uses an online shop, called FIFA Ultimate Team. There player cards, similar to the old Panini trading cards, can be collected and used in the competitive play online. Also, similar to the trading cards, the cards of popular players are rarer than others. Rare players can be found at random in the card packs, which players have to buy for real money to compete online. The chances are slim and a strong team can become costly quite quickly. This has caused some countries to discuss legislative actions against such mechanics (Katwala, 2019).
Many concerned parents worry about “video game addiction”, referring to the WHO’s “gaming disorder”, which has been added to the latest rendition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) (WHO, 2018). However, the meaning of the terms is very different. Furthermore, studies vary drastically in attesting a prevalence of between 0.7% and 27.5% in gaming disorder, with biases noted in gender and region. In Europe, no study has attested more than 10% (WHO, 2019).
To be clear, the WHO definition of gaming disorder is, as follows: “Gaming disorder is […] characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.” (WHO, 2018)
Most concerns derive from a disconnect between the concerned parents’ experience and the child’s excessive play. Excessive play is not uncommon in teenagers and often results from the absence of other alternatives, a lack of social connections outside of video games or problems at home.
Gamers gather in and outside of games to talk about their games. Aside from in-game communication, they also use messenger services and forums. Many of the services are tailored towards the gaming communities, such as the steam community boards (Steam, 2019) or discord servers (Discord, 2019). These communities are hard to follow from the outside and offer easy to access communication with hundreds of thousands of pseudonymised people.
Larger games invest in community management in order to create a positive and creative community, yet these teams are often understaffed and overworked. Most communities, however, are self-regulated and set their own communication standards and code of conducts. Those communities can be anything from supportive, open and inclusive to the complete opposite.
Gaming communities in recent years have been shaken by frequent crises. These situations are often political in nature and centre around discussions about social justice. A turning point in the constant tension saw the global hashtag campaign #gamergate trending in 2014, which under the slogan “for ethics in games journalism” created a reactionary hate mob that spit vitriol and threats primarily at female developers, journalists and critics, attacked pro-social justice news outlets and laid the foundation for many of the alt-right activities we are all too familiar with nowadays. (Deadspin, 2014).
These attitudes did not fully vanish, and similar discussions pop up every few weeks. In addition, it created an attitude and a network with close connections to the alt-right, which actively uses the gaming communities as a recruiting ground (Khaled, 2019).
Games also have enormous potential for positive change in youth work. Their popularity is undeniable and can open doors to young people who have dropped out of the traditional structures of learning and participation. They also carry vast learning potential, which needs to be acknowledged and put into context to be used efficiently.
One of the most obvious ways to use games for learning is to use them as a gateway to programming. There are various tools out there that facilitate an easy introduction to game development for children. The Bloxels kit is a tool that can be used for very young children to design simple Jump ‘n’ Run (like Super Mario Bros.) games from scratch (Bloxels, 2019). Websites like Code.org use the simplified Blockly programming language, designed for children, to teach the fundamentals of programming with game-inspired tutorials (Code.org, 2019). Developer tools like Twine allow for writing interactive stories and make them immediately playable by others, with very little effort and prior knowledge (Twine, 2019).
There is a wide variety of tools out there that facilitate different approaches for diverse audiences and for competences to be developed. Some enable uses to explore programming and teach the basics of object-based developments, while others support creative writing and other ways of creative self-expression. They all have the potential to reduce the barriers to beginning to create and engage with technology productively.
Games can also be understood as a medium for education. Following the understanding of game-based learning, the games themselves carry meaning and playing also means learning. There are plenty of games out there on a range of topics. While learning games have been utilised for school-specific purposes, they do not seem to be overly appealing to young people. Another approach is to use off-the-shelf games in an educational frame.
While the action game Assassin’s Creed surely does not create a realistic depiction of history, it engages the player and creates an interest in the subject. The strategy game series Civilization puts the player at the steering wheel of a nation throughout history and showcases technological, societal and political developments. In the right context, these games can facilitate an engaging learning experience and an interesting starting point.
So-called “serious games” are games that are not created for the primary purpose of entertainment. The earlier mentioned learning games can be considered a part of serious games, as their primary focus is to teach. With easy accessible tools, many games are developed to share personal stories and experiences. These can be a perfect introduction to complex interpersonal topics and subjects.
“Gone Home” is a tale of a young military woman returning home and finding her childhood home empty. Gradually, she finds out about the whereabouts of her family members, touching themes of youth culture, family tragedy and LGBT issues (Gone Home, 2019).
“Papers, please” puts the player in the shoes of a border guard on a control post in the fictional totalitarian country of Arstotzka. The player has to check the documentation of possible immigrants and decide along protocol who gets to enter the country and who is sent back. The game creates an ethical dilemma, as the player has to comply with the rules to sustain their family, while the immigrants present many possible reasons as to why the player should allow them inside, though against the rules (Pope, 2019).
“This war of mine” is set in a fictional civil war setting. The player controls a survivor enclave that tries to make it to the end of the war. While they need to survive, they are constantly faced with ethical dilemmas. Who should I send out into the danger? Should I allow other survivors to join the enclave? Who should eat and who has to go without today? (11 bit studios, 2019)
These games provide very intense experiences and give plenty of connection points to follow up on and deconstruct in a debrief. Due to the interactive nature of games, the players are strongly attached to and more likely to empathise with the presented situation.
A specific approach to using digital game-based learning lies in the use of multiplayer games. While single-player games provide an individual experience, multiplayer games create a social environment and a social dynamic that shapes the experience of the players. The framing of these games can strongly affect group dynamics and be used strategically to create settings for specific interactions.
Cooperative games require teamwork and cooperation between the involved players. They make it easy to find common strategies and have a positive discussion and effective communication within the team.
Competitive games create a power dynamic within the group and can facilitate coaching settings, as well as fair play discussions. With a structured approach, improving in these games can be used as an illustration for competencies like learning to learn, self-confidence and self-control.