Our children are playing online games more than ever. Here’s how you can take a more active role as a parent | Alexander Bacalja

With most Australian students still learning from home, it’s no surprise that online gaming has increased dramatically in recent months.

Continued restrictions on community leisure activities coupled with parents juggling supporting their children’s transition to online learning with their own work from home means the reins on screen time have been loosened. But should we be worried?

The tendency for families to spend more time playing together has been increasing for some time. The latest Digital Australia Report tells us that nine out of 10 households have a device that has been used for gaming, and 59% of parents play with their children. These trends have likely increased during the pandemic. Now is a great time to have a conversation about the types of digital storytelling we engage in and how parents might rethink the impact of play with their children on literacy and learning.

Digital storytelling captures the rich, complex and entertaining narratives of our world. Podcasts, YouTube videos, TikToks and creative social media works, plus a range of smartphone apps, now give the everyday user the tools to create and share stories almost instantly.

While poetry was once seen as the only way we could humanize and civilize the soul, the gaming industry has increasingly turned to storytelling to create new ways with words and stories. It is the learning that takes place through these new forms of storytelling that should interest parents the most.

James Gee has written extensively about the benefits of gameplay in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Australian researchers have also studied the types of learning that take place when digital games are introduced into primary and secondary school classrooms. They found that playing and studying games forces us to rethink the way we teach literacy, that we teach young people to question the difficult ideas and representations they find in video games, and that knowledge and the skills that young Australians develop through digital literacy prepare them to be effective and active participants in contemporary society.

Unfortunately, the obsession with Naplan and standardized literacy tests has led many parents to conclude that learning can be reduced to what a student does with pen and paper under timed conditions. Literacy learning has always been about more than that: it’s about how we use language with others. It is about how we make sense of linguistic, visual and musical representations. It also manifests in how we interact with the plethora of digital media that now accompany new game releases.

So how can we take a more active role in our children’s play?

Start by talking with your children about the games they play. Discover the genres and series they enjoy. Look for other games that share similar features. Sit down and play with them. Take turns killing a dragon and building a city. Evidence tells us that computer-mediated communication between children and their parents increases closeness. Sharing experiences in the virtual world first involves meeting in the real world.

Given the huge range of high-quality games released in recent years, it’s easier than ever to find worlds of stories that adults and children can enjoy together. Whether you want to travel through time as a deadly assassin (Assassin’s Creed), discover a post-nuclear war world (Fallout 4), ride your valiant steed through the American Midwest (Red Dead Redemption 2), escape on a desert island to catch fish and bugs and develop your ideal home (Animal Crossing: New Horizons), or create an entirely new world in a distant galaxy (No Man’s Sky).

There’s never been a better time to journey into digital worlds with our children to build new stories and memories together.

Alexander Bacalja (PhD) is a Lecturer in Language and Literacy and Fellow of the Center for Language and Literacy Research at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. He is the Victorian delegate of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English

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