With the world essentially being told it’s been a naughty boy and needs to spend a few months in its room to cool off, it’s never been a better time to be a gamer. Millions might bemoan the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has robbed them of opportunities to see their loved ones and the simple joys of travel, and that’s before we even mention the economic woes.
But for the dedicated gamers, this pandemic has presented something of an opportunity - the excuse they had always been looking for to lock out the outside world and dive headfirst into a month-long gaming binge.
The same can be said of a certain section of youth; a section for which the phrases “Battle bus” and “V-bucks” have become common parlance. Indeed, there are undoubtedly millions of school-age children who have been sent home from school for an as-yet-undisclosed amount of time and who are relishing the opportunity to catch up on Fortnite and Minecraft, both of which have seen tremendous surges in users since the COVID-19 pandemic truly took hold.
This poses a challenge, however, for parents who have now, by default, become responsible not only for the nutritional and emotional welfare of their children, but their educational welfare too. Teaching, as it turns out, is not easy, and parents across the globe have been sharing countless horror stories as they struggle to figure out exactly how to get their kids to turn off their tablets and turn on their brains. The solution could lie in one word - 'gamification.'
Gamification refers to the process of taking an educational activity that would typically be perceived as ‘boring’ and transforming it into a game-like experience that kids will actively want to participate in. It’s a ‘stealth’ learning approach that has been utilised in one form or another for generations, with so-called ‘edutainment’ games and products being a small but notable part of the gaming landscape now for decades.
But with the kids of today more tech-savvy (and cynical) than ever before, how can parents use technology to gamify their home learning environments? Let’s start by looking at what some of the big boys have been up to on that front.
Many major game publishers have decided to play a generous hand during this crisis and release free or discounted games for their loyal customers to enjoy whilst housebound. Others have taken an even more benevolent approach by offering free game-making education and training resources. Unity, for example, which is arguably the most popular game engine in the world, has offered free game development tutorials until the end of June, which might be beyond younger children but could represent a legitimate first step into the industry for ambitious teenagers who dream of creating their own games.
Microsoft, meanwhile, has added free educational content to the ever-popular Minecraft. According to Phil Spencer, the head of Microsoft’s Xbox gaming division: “The educational content we’ve curated lets players explore the International Space Station through a partnership with NASA, learn to code with a robot, visit famous Washington DC landmarks, find and build 3D fractals, learn what it’s like to be a marine biologist, and so much more.” Sounds good to us.
Our friends at Team17 have created a new game “Main Assembly,” which is currently available on Steam Early Access. It’s a game, as the name suggests, all about building, and if Minecraft can be seen almost as a digital version of Lego, then what they have created here is essentially a digital version of Meccano.
"Main Assembly is a free-form building game where you create robots by using revolutionary crafting tools and control them through powerful visual programming." explains Joel Jonsson, CEO and Creative Director at Bad Yolk Games.
The internet is also choc-full of smaller, often free educational games that use ingenious methods to teach children vital skills without them even realising it. Erase All Kittens, for example, teaching coding through a quirky platforming adventure, whilst Diary Zapp aims to develop literacy skills through a colourful digital journal, complete with its own mini-games and challenges.
These are all platforms, tools and games that can be used to help children learn how computer software works, how physics work and even how to code. But how could parents be using these tools, not only to teach their kids but also as an inspiration for their own gamification operations?
There are two serious options for parents hoping to incentivise their children to learn during this increasingly severe lockdown - create your own ‘fun,’ or use the resources available online to cultivate a bespoke ‘curriculum.’
Online learning platforms such as Seneca offer a perfect middle ground between the two approaches, with free online video lessons and dozens of bespoke games and challenges to supplement those lessons. BBC Bitesize is another resource that features activities specifically tailored to the National Curriculum. This is a service that has been around in one form or another since the late 90s and continues to draw in thousands of new users daily.
The Seneca service, meanwhile, has seen 50,000 new pupils signing up every day since the outbreak. Whilst the games are perhaps not as in-depth or engaging as the high-octane thrills and exquisitely detailed graphics offered elsewhere, it’s still a way of making home learning feel less like a chore and more like something your kids are actively going to want to get involved in.
Of course, learning doesn’t have to be all about sums and Shakespeare. Children today are so much more technologically minded than those a generation removed. They have, after all, come of age at a time where the internet is always just a swipe or a click away and will never know the pains and frustration of dial-up.
Why not take advantage of this and start a project together? Maybe you can consider building a custom PC or a DIY musical instrument? If that seems a little ambitious, meanwhile, there are dozens of kits available designed for first-time builders and coders. The build-it-yourself computer by Kano, for example, is a glorious example of function, style and purpose coming together in a perfect educational package.
Then there’s the marvellous online CodeSpark academy, which uses games and puzzles to teach kids as young as 5 the basics of coding. With the future becoming increasingly dependent on technology, coding is not the frivolous skill it might have been seen as decades ago; it’s as relevant a career skill now as accountancy. And it’s certainly more fun than learning your times tables!
There are few, if any, real guarantees at the moment. Nobody really knows when the social distancing measures will be lifted and when our kids will be going back to school. What we must not do, however, is sit idly whilst the prime learning years of our children’s minds slip away like sand through an hourglass.
In some ways, the lockdown couldn’t have happened at a more fortuitous time. Gamifying the home learning environment even ten years ago would have meant relying on patronising edutainment software and manufacturing your own games out of thin air. But today, we have endless resources at our disposal to make learning feel engaging and genuinely rewarding for our kids and all we need is a broadband connection, and a little (OK, maybe more than a little) patience and spare time. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t have a lot of that these days?
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