To understand how children learn through video games, a good place to start is television. TV came long before video games, and it too has suffered from being seen as wasted time. However, not all TV watching is the same. There is passive TV watching, but there is also interactive TV watching (especially thanks to social media today), and something Shapiro refers to as "co-viewing," meaning that kids and their parents watch together and discuss as they go. While passive watching might be what people usually think of when they say that TV is bad and rots the brain, co-viewing is actually good. It not only increases learning, but reduces things like fear and aggression.
Video games offer an even wider variety of experiences. While there are video games that feature a large amount of violence, inappropriate topics, and less than stimulating gameplay, there are many that offer learning opportunities to kids. Games-based learning is important, but Shapiro adds that the experience is even better when an adult is also sharing in the fun.
He goes on to cite a Joan Ganz Cooney Center report that discusses Joint Media Engagement, or JME. JME is defined as the spontaneous and designed experiences that happen when people are using media together, and the report goes on to break down three types of JME: restrictive mediation, instructive mediation, and social co-viewing. Even though they were conceived with television in mind, Shapiro explains that they apply just as well to gaming.
Restrictive mediation refers to the limits that parents put on their children's use of digital media. That could mean limits on how long kids are allowed to play, and it can also refer to limits on a game's content as well. He points out that there are more subtle messages that children can infer from those limitations if they see adults freely using computers and mobile devices all day long. For all they know, reaching adulthood means you can play Angry Birds as much as you want.
Instructive mediation happens when parents and children are playing together and sharing experiences together. The best experiences come when adults engage in discussions with children about those experiences. This is also a great opportunity to switch roles and let the child lead the adult during a gaming session. By asking questions and bringing up topics of discussion, parents can help their children look at digital media with a critical eye. Here at Massively, Larry Everett's livestreams focused on gaming with his daughter are a great example of instructive mediation, and I'd go a step further and say that we've all learned from their gaming sessions together.
Social co-viewing is basically a shared gaming experience minus the active discussion. There is still a learning experience from parents playing with their children, but it's not necessarily as instructive.
Shapiro adds two more categories to the mix: parallel play and asymmetrical joint media engagement.
Parallel play is when parent and child are sitting together, but not necessarily sharing a common gaming experience. The best example is of two toddlers sitting on a floor during a playdate. They might each be playing with toys and sitting side by side, but each is primarily engaged in solo play, with an occasional bit of overlap here and there with the other child who's busy playing with a different toy. When it comes to gaming, a parent might be sitting next to his child, but the two are engaged in different activities. From time to time, however, the two might share a brief learning experience together, such as when a child asks his parent to look up a walkthrough about his favorite game.
Meanwhile, Shapiro describes asymmetrical joint media engagement as a sort of long distance online experience. He uses the example of emails, online chats and video conferencing with his children when they are spending time at their mother's house. He attempts to model good webiquette when it comes to digital media use, with the hopes that they learn proper behavior online. He points out that parents teach children good "live" social behavior, but sometimes neglect to teach them good "online" behavior.
Shapiro cites several single-player video games in his article, but these definitions of learning apply even better to MMOs because they do the best at offering a multiplayer experience. You can find each of the above examples of learning in family-friendly MMOs, and in many ways, they're tailor-made to allow parents and children to play together and even learn together. Larry's livestreams with his daughter are the perfect example of what a kid-friendly MMO can do well. Both of them explore the world, compete against each other in the mini-games, and work together to problem-solve, but sometimes the viewer gets to see two very different perspectives from the same game experience. What makes the shows so enjoyable is the lively discussions that come from parent-child interaction, and it's a perfect example of instructive mediation.
While not every kid-friendly MMO has an educational aspect to it, there are more subtle ways that MMOs teach our children important lessons. From proper "webiquette," to an understanding that screen time needs limits, MMOs give parents the chance to raise responsible children in this digital age.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to email@example.com.