Playing Games: a Serious Business

01 Jun 2017 |Written by James Richardson

To become a proficient user - of anything - there are some absolute essentials. You need easy and regular access to the thing you want to use, of course; and you need the skills to use it. But having that access, and learning those skills, are not much good if you don’t trust the thing you’re using, don’t have faith in your own abilities to use it, or simply don’t see the point. Just like skills, these internal conditions aren’t innate, and there are lots of factors that influence the degree to which someone has them. And like skills, they can be nurtured and grown with the right kind of support.

In most cases, the foundations of being a good user - trust, self-efficacy and perceived value - grow slowly and steadily without anyone giving the matter much thought, often well before you even start learning. By the time you’re old enough to learn to drive a car, you can easily understand the benefit of doing so: you’ve almost certainly been a proxy user of one throughout your life, and can make an informed comparison with other ways of getting around. You should be well aware of the risks, but also how they can be mitigated. And you’ve probably seen lots of people in your life learn and apply the skills without too much difficulty.

But, as I’ve argued elsewhere, these foundations are often absent when it comes to non-users of digital technology, and it can be very hard to instil them through ‘show and tell’. The internet is an experience technology: the main drivers of trust, confidence and perceived value are first-hand use, which results in more sophisticated and effective activity, which drives trust and confidence ever upwards1. The first step - going from being a complete non-user to an engaged newbie - is the steepest.


An image created by GIRDA study participants on a touch table. The similarity to drawing with pen and paper helped them get to grips with the drag gesture.

The challenge for digital inclusion practitioners is ensuring that provision for new users is fun, social and risk-free, while still building vital interface skills, and encouraging experimentation and self-guided learning. Research shows that these factors are especially important for older learners, for whom the opportunity to play and (to use the technical term) ‘mess about’ with digital technology, helps to capture interest and build confidence2.

All of this points towards the importance of game-based learning in digital inclusion. Using games to learn is fun, but it’s also low-risk, and players can run through situations again and again, exploring how different actions have different results. The big difference with digital inclusion is that the games can be completely familiar, or incredibly easy to learn. In fact, the more familiar and easier the better, at least to begin with - because the rules you’re learning aren’t the rules of the game, but the rules of how to interact with a digital device.

Since November the Good Things Foundation have been working with Middlesex University and academic partners across Europe on an exciting Erasmus+ EU-funded research project exploring game-based learning as a route to digital inclusion. GIRDA - Gameplay for Inspiring Digital Adoption - is using two-player gaming on a touch table device (basically a giant tablet) to introduce older learners to touchscreen functionality, in a low-pressure immersive environment where the fact of their learning is ‘hidden’. The two players may both be complete beginners, or one may be a ‘mentor’ - either a formal role as a paid tutor or volunteer, or simply someone with a little more experience - who can guide the less experienced player and, in the process, improve their own skills, both as a touchscreen user and as an informal teacher.

We’ve been working with Starting Point, a fantastic Online Centre in Stockport, as part of the first round of data collection. Older learners have worked in pairs, trying their hands at a simple drawing programme, a digital version of solitaire, and (of course) Candy Crush Saga. It was fascinating to observe how people interacted with each other as well as with the technology, and how the choice of game or activity changed these interactions. But even at this early stage, there are clear signs that the opportunity to experiment, create and collaborate helps to make the learning process more approachable.

Further rounds of data collection and analysis will help the GIRDA team to understand the optimum setup for this kind of peer-to-peer learning, and what kind of games yield the best results. We hope that in future there will be opportunities to use this evidence to create tailor-made games that can build interface skills and help older learners to overcome a lack of confidence and a feeling that using computers is risky and impossibly complicated. 
There’s nothing frivolous about this. These internal barriers are holding thousands of older people back from taking their first step with digital technology3. Any research that shows how these barriers can be overcome should be welcomed, and used to develop and scale new interventions that can reach digitally disengaged older people for the first time. And partnerships between research-led practitioners like Good Things Foundation, and academic institutions like Middlesex University, will help to make sure this happens.

1. Dutton W H and Blank G: Age and Trust in the Internet: The Centrality of Experience and Attitudes Toward Technology in Britain. Social Science Computer Review 2011, 30(2): 135-151.
2. Damodaran L and Sandhu J: The role of a social context for ICT learning and support in reducing digital inequalities for older ICT users. International Journal of Learning Technology 2016, 11(2): 156–175. 3. For a recent summary of evidence relating to these barriers see Green M and Rossall P: Age UK Digital Inclusion Evidence Report 2013, 16-20.

Related content: