Children are now on the move. Their phone is their companion for reaching out to friends, texting, referencing, looking up what they want and need to know, viewing YouTube, playing games, taking photos and videos. They can click through what’s on offer: a cornucopia from which they are learning and having fun. They have led the way in showing tech companies how versatile a smartphone can be. They go online for a myriad of purposes and attracting their attention for any length of time is a challenge. Yes they enjoy stories but they are looking for diversity and innovation.
That is why SKAM the NRK (Norwegian public television) teen-drama took their fancy. The program was screened into a fragmented, multi-platform, on-demand, time-shifting environment – the very characteristics that, the Australian producers argue, put our traditional children’s drama at risk. The program is about teenage life in a high school with the heartbreaks, rivalries, friendships and rejections involved in this difficult life stage. There is nothing unusual about the story itself, except it is an experiment with modern media formats.
The project began with a six-minute clip appearing on Facebook Watch, the social network’s entertainment portal, with no advertising or pre-publicity. It aroused curiosity and word of mouth led the PR campaign. The characters had social media accounts with photos, video-clips and comments to give them depth. There were many hidden layers which made the program like a multilayered detective show where all the seemingly disparate activities and digital platforms formed into a single narrative which took initiative to unravel. The production was able to respond to fan feedback and change plot details, with the result that the fictional social media of SKAM generated real social media. The series ran for four seasons. France, Germany, Italy and the US, have now produced their own versions.
Alongside innovation in drama series formats, we need to see experiments with narrative gaming. Educational opportunities here are unlimited. Games, if purposely and creatively designed to meet each stage of child development, are a massive resource for teaching at pre-school and beyond. Many child advocates condemn gaming generally as anti-social and addictive. What they have missed is the attraction games hold, through social interaction and the analytical skills, dexterity, flexibility and adaptability required to play. There is a science to game-playing. Players have to seek information and piece together data from many places to make sense of a game; they must make decisions quickly that have clear consequences. In doing so, they become experts at multi-tasking and parallel processing, learning to collaborate with others and compete in real time with players who can be their school friends or from across the globe.
Recognizing that games could teach higher-order skills, the Federation of American Scientists called on government, educators, and business to develop strategies to use video games to strengthen education and workforce training as far back as 2005. But few schools and educators responded to this call, leaving the commercial industry to take the initiative and reap the profits. Games have moved from the arcade to the pocket and while they offer significant business opportunities for those who know what they are doing there is profound educational potential as well. And there is no area of education to which they cannot be applied.
The first real game companies started in Finland in the late 1990s and there are now around 250 companies operating there, employing around 3,000 people and generating about 0.5% of the country’s GDP. With mobile they see the market as of infinite size and in that space a game can be tweaked until it’s right, making it easier to succeed with a project, both with the intended audience and financially.
Finland is consistently ranked as having one of the most effective educational systems in the world. Its teachers are highly qualified academically and so it is not surprising that they are utilizing new technology effectively. Finland’s gaming sector is very successful and working with the education sector in the interest of children while creating profitable business models.
The two creatives, Peter Vesterbacks and Lauri Konttori, who brought Angry Birds to the world (which at its height had 3 billion downloads) are now leading a company that wants to bring education and gaming together. They have raised more than $9 million to start up a Helsinki based company called Lightneer. Its first game – a joint venture with the Universities of Harvard, Oxford, Helsinki and Cern – is to make subjects such as physics palatable, to even the youngest children. ‘Pok’emon for particles’ is how they describe Big Bang Legends in which each of the 118 atoms of the periodic table is given its own personality and can be collected by players. It is an entertaining way to learn all the elements. Lightneer is targeting chemistry, biology, languages and geography, ‘whatever’, to make education more effective. The global education market is estimated by the Angry Birds’ entrepreneurs to be worth about 6.3 trillion Euros and they are aiming at capturing ten per cent of that market.
The power of games to attract young people and to teach them in a positive sense should not be underestimated. Kids are motivated to play to be with their friends and they learn so they can compete with success. Playing a game like Civilization V, where players take turns, there is optimal opportunity to socialize, to learn, to compete and have fun together. In the game a player leads a civilization from prehistoric times into the future on a procedurally-generated map, attempting to achieve one of a number of different victory conditions through research, exploration, diplomacy, expansion, economic development, government and military conquest. The highest-scoring civilization, based on several factors, such as population, land, technological advancement, and cultural development, is declared the winner.
A recent phenomenon, Fortnite, has led to an expansion of the game-playing target audience capturing children, young people and gamers generally (reports have varied between 40–120 million globally: a lot anyway). And it has done so by changing many of the expectations of video games. While parents still worry about the time kids want to play this game, it is a kid-friendly, safe environment, and although a third-person-shooter game, its violence is cartoon-like. There is no blood, gore or threatening menace. No knives. According to the Wall Street Journal many parents are playing with their kids, even paying for coaching. It can be played by up to one hundred gamers including teams of friends who support one another and is clearly a lot of fun. Its lack of misogyny, racism, and its appeal to inexperienced gamers, who can learn together, no doubt contributes to the fact that girls are playing in large numbers, something the game industry has been trying unsuccessfully to achieve for two decades.
There are other interesting examples of innovative educational games. At Quest to Learn, in New York, games are at the core of the curriculum. Quest believes games motivate students to collaborate and learn by doing. They define games as carefully-designed, student-driven systems that are narrative-based, structured, interactive and immersive. Games, they say, let students know if they are failing or succeeding at a moment’s notice and allow them to retry, or ‘iterate,’ after a failure or loss. Unlike traditional educational systems, failure is a necessary and integral part of the ‘game.’ It creates a context for students to be motivated to try again and succeed. Learning experiences in games don’t feel like spoon-fed education, they feel like play.
Game-based learning takes a variety of forms at Quest to Learn. For instance, in ninth grade biology, students spend the year as workers in a fictional bio-tech company, and their job is to clone dinosaurs and create stable ecosystems for them learning about genetics, biology and ecology. Sixth graders use Adventures with Dr. Smallz, a microscopic, absent-minded doctor lost in a patient’s body who sends the class communiques to help him diagnose and cure. In Galactic Mappers, a social studies game about physical geography, students compete in teams to create the most geographically diverse continent in a shared hemisphere. And ninth graders use Storyweavers, a collaborative storytelling role-playing game. These games not only engage students in the learning process, but also allow teachers to assess them in real time and provide feedback on learning experiences immediately.
Equally important to the development of games and online narratives, is to support children’s own productions and original ideas that encourage their collaboration online. One of the best ways for children to learn to understand media and its capacity to excite, to capture, to influence or to manipulate truth is by making films themselves. The scripting, photographing, acting, editing and sound mixing of a narrative, documentary or fiction, add layers to a construction of ‘reality’ through image making. Support for this activity for children is as worthy of subsidy as any adult-produced drama or animation made for them.
It makes no sense for us to leave the development of online games and other media products for children in the hands of the commercial companies and limit our contribution to narrow program formats. Australia’s regulatory and subsidy policy for our young media enthusiasts should nurture their education through creative cultural projects. Adaptation and innovation are what is needed to develop new content for young people.
Patricia Edgar is the author of Kids, Technology and the Future; (ASP 2018). Over fifty years she has been at the forefront of broadcasting policy, research, production and advocacy for children’s programs.