Games Can Breed Uncivil Behavior. They Can Also Teach Digital Citizenship.

Game-Based Learning

Games Can Breed Uncivil Behavior. They Can Also Teach Digital Citizenship.

By Tony Wan     Jan 28, 2019

Games Can Breed Uncivil Behavior. They Can Also Teach Digital Citizenship.

This article is part of the collection: Game-Based Learning: Preparing Students for The Future.

For most children, online video games offer an early window into social interactions with friends—and strangers. These virtual realms have become the latest hotspots where parents, teachers and guardians attempt to reinforce safe, positive and responsible behaviors online.

That can sound like a daunting challenge. While social games foster collaboration and competition, they have also been home to hostile communities, where harassment and uncivil behavior can run rampant and make headlines. Some online multiplayer games have become so ridden with profanity that many players disable chat functions. (I write from personal experience.)

Yet games are an enduring medium; more than 90 percent of teens play video games, according to a 2018 Pew survey. And some educators and researchers are optimistic that, with the right guidance and oversight, kids can pick up healthy habits even as they engross themselves in yet another Fortnite battle royale.

Unlike that famous Las Vegas slogan, what kids do in online doesn’t just stay there. “Students’ digital lives are increasingly becoming indistinguishable from their offline lives, and those two realms are deeply intertwined now,” says Tanner Higgin, a director at nonprofit Common Sense’s education division. And how kids act in games can offer a glimpse into how they may act in other digital worlds—and the real one as well.

As Games Evolve, Digital Citizenship Follows

Higgins grew up with online games—back in the days of dial-up modems and laggy connections. But “games are different now,” he acknowledges. “They are social objects and communities, and helping kids navigate those communities successfully is a big part of what digital citizenship skills can support.”

In the past, where digital citizenship and online games most often intersected was in the realm of communication—namely, norms around respectful language and dialogue that are aligned with the ethical and moral standards that someone would have for face-to-face conversations. Especially in competitive online games, there’s a slippery slope where competitive dialogue devolves into cyberbullying and toxic harassment.

Today, the gaming experience extends beyond simply playing them. With the advent of YouTube and Twitch, which broadcast games as mainstream entertainment, games have become social communities where players and watchers—anyone, really—can engage, and share in gaming experiences. But the ease with which one can participate in these forums also raises the bar for being self-aware of issues concerning privacy and online safety, and for kids to be extra wary of the information that they are sharing online.

The proliferation of mobile games has also brought gaming to new frontiers—including the pockets of students in classrooms. Last year, many teachers found themselves wrestling with the popularity of Fortnite—to the extent that teachers have written about how to best cope with the phenomenon and turn it into teachable math lessons. In fact, more than one in four teens said they’ve played the game in school, according to a recent Common Sense survey.

“You cannot ignore the success of that game,” says Higgin. Its hook on students has added extra urgency to a concept called “media balance,” which aims to help kids become more aware of how much time they’re spending on their screens, and how those habits impact their personal wellbeing and relationships.

As digital social and gaming platforms meld and evolve, so too will definitions of digital citizenship change, says Paul Darvasi, an English and media teacher based in Toronto. “To understand what Facebook is today is different than understanding Facebook three years ago,” he says. “Digital life evolves quickly as different spheres of our online activities overlap and intersect.”

Playing Digital Citizenship

Games that explicitly try to teach something—say, digital citizenship—may never be as popular as their mainstream, commercial counterparts. (“Chocolate-covered broccoli” is a popular metaphor for educational games that try to teach lessons on the nose.) Yet that’s not stopping efforts to create digital citizenship games.

In 2017, Google released Interland, an immersive browser-based game that introduces children to basic principles of online privacy, safety, security and respect in digital communications. Common Sense has also created several titles—Digital Passport for grades 3 to 5, and Digital Compass for grades 6 to 8—that introduce kids to the fundamentals of digital citizenship, and how their online behaviors affect their personal safety and relationships.

In the age of fake news, media literacy has become an increasingly popular topic for social-impact game developers. Indie titles include Factitious, PolitiFact and Project Axon, which test whether players can discern fact from fiction, and understand how fake information spreads. There’s also Admongo, a game created by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to help children recognize when they are seeing advertising and commercial content on websites.

There are also organizations that leverage existing commercial games into teachable digital moments. Connected Camps offers a virtual camp where students play together in a Minecraft world with adults who teach them the ropes of creativity, coding and collaboration skills. Roblox, which offers a virtual community where students can design and share games, is also a popular platform where educators host camps and guided lessons around digital citizenship concepts.

“Games aren’t just about regurgitating knowledge,” says Kelly Mendoza, senior director of education programs at Common Sense Media. “They can be powerful in helping students develop decision-making skills in different scenarios, and think about how they may respond, and how those skills transfer over to real life.”

For Adults, a Teaching—and Learning—Moment

As is the case with any subject matter, digital citizenship is taught best with some adult guidance. For parents of young children, the most effective way to foster digital citizenship is to get involved in gaming activities.

“The reality is that today, some kids start playing online games before they’re allowed to have social media accounts,” says Darvasi. “The types of communications kids have in online games are essentially prototypes for how they will communicate in other parts of their future digital lives.”

Aside from intervening when instances of inappropriate behavior occurs, parents can also build in mindful reflection activities after gaming sessions to help their children think about how their online behaviors may have affected others.

Not all parents may feel comfortable or knowledgeable about games, Darvasi acknowledges. But for those in this camp, playing together with their children can offer valuable teachable moments in the opposite direction, where kids teach adults. “It’s an opportunity for parents who are not gamers, who feel alien to that world, to take the opportunity to ask their kids to walk them around the digital spaces, and explain to them what they’re doing,” says Davarsi.

Parents and teachers can turn to Common Sense’s K-12 digital literacy curriculum for frameworks and lesson plans on what to watch for as kids play online games. MediaSmarts, the Canadian counterpart to Common Sense, also offers lessons and resources on the fundamentals of digital and media literacy.

Beyond a certain age, parents and teachers won’t be able—or welcome—to watch behind children’s shoulders as they go online. And no combination of games, quizzes and lesson plans can guarantee that students always have positive online experiences.

“Digital citizenship is not a multiple-choice thing,” says Higgin. “The reality is that digital citizenship is a big gray area, and there’s no clear-cut right or wrong. It’s about helping students think through issues and choices.” When students do encounter the inevitable meanness online, he adds, they will hopefully have developed “the thick skin and coping mechanism” to know how to respond.

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