Games have become an enormous part of the modern day for people of all ages. If you have kids, you probably ask yourself regularly how often they can or should consume this interactive media. But with new, shiny apps being developed daily, and computer, tablet, and phone screens becoming a more and more ubiquitous, how do you make those screens a positive part of their life, rather than a vortex of guilty pleasure? This was one of the big questions that I turned over and over as I attended the Denver Comic Con last weekend.
When you think Comic Con the images that come to mind are probably of mind-blowing cosplay, lines around the block to meet Stan Lee and other titans of the superhero industry, and acres and acres of vendors selling art, comics, books and toys. Denver Comic Con, which the Order attended this month, had all that. But it also features a unique focus on education. Pop Culture Classroom is the nonprofit behind DCC, and their year-round focus is bringing comic books, games and other popular media into the classroom to better connect with so called “21st century learners.” From schools to prisons, the staff and volunteers at Pop Culture Classroom work with educators to develop and implement curriculum that incorporates art and story into lessons that promote literacy, develop STEM skills, and engage students in their community. You can find out more about them at their official site. At DCC this year, an innovative teacher track was offered which focused on these developing methods.
I sadly did not have time to attend nearly as many of their lectures as I had wanted (curse you, 24-hour day!), but the lectures that I was privileged to attend were incredible. Probably the most impactful for me was the panel by the guys at the Comics Education Offensive. They unpacked the fancy, new (but in reality, old) idea that the “new literacy” of this age is largely visual.
“One can ‘read’ in many ways,” one panel member explained, “Information is not somehow less valid because you got it from a comic rather than from close reading of a dense text.”
The panel aptly pointed out that the way we get information is shifting. And it’s not just the thousands of ads we are inundated with every day. The news is more and more visually oriented. Social media “stories” are told in snapshots and memes. Political campaigns are carefully constructed, multimedia brands. Psycologists are examining the rise of emojis in communication and how to use them to help children better express emotions. Learners these days need to know how to process more than just words on a page.
That’s why I was so surprised to find very little resources on using mobile or video games as a learning tool. One educator explained that this is because many researchers are worried that kids get too much screen time as it is. However, this fails to recognize that students will be exposed to screens extensively for the rest of their lives. Most of the studies indicating a detrimental effects of “screen time” also indicate that it’s not the screen itself that’s damaging young brains. Rather, it’s the lack of true, interpersonal interaction to balance it out. Sesame Street is great for young kids, but it’s not a substitute for a preschool teacher or reading with Dad. Likewise, texting and social media have become ingrained into modern communication, but tend to become detrimental when a young person retreats into a social media account as their primary, or only, social world.
Learning interpersonal skills is essential to becoming a well-functioning member of society, and has to be done with real people, face to face. But we also need to know how to use screens and games to our advantage as learners of all ages. This got me thinking: I play games all the time. Inherent in many of those games are ideas of economics, resource management, biology, genetics, history, psychology, number relationships, critical thinking, strategy, perseverance in the face of failure… and that’s just the short list. My project over the summer will be to develop a set of tools you can implement at home with your kids, at your best friend’s place while you’re babysitting, or at the family reunion when you find yourself stuck at the kid’s table. These tools will help you connect and learn over games rather than simply using them to tune out the world.
On the next page, to get you started, you’ll find my current list of recommended, kid-friendly multiplatform games that you should be able to get a hold of on most devices, no matter where you are.