Digital approaches to supporting literacy have become an increasing focus of both research and practice in recent years, but gamification hasn’t reached its full potential. Ian Atkinson looks at the challenges gaming faces in the world of adult learning.
Digital approaches to supporting literacy have become an increasing focus of both research and practice in recent years. Within this, computer games, whether played on home computers, tablets, mobile phones or other devices, have received significant attention for several reasons.
In particular, games are seen as having the potential to offer an engaging route into developing core skills including literacy or numeracy. This is due in part to their perceived ability to encourage learners to develop their skills without feeling, or necessarily even realising, that they are working on improving their abilities. Games therefore offer what for some is the holy grail of ‘learning for fun’.
While this argument of enabling people to ‘learn without feeling they are learning’ in an engaging way is relatively clear for young people, and much of the research and attention has been on this group, this is perhaps less so for adults. This concentration on children and young people is reflected in the prevalence of online and other gaming resources around literacy and numeracy, for example, relative to those aimed at adult learners.
However, there have been exceptions such as the German game Winterfest; a game which is explicitly aimed at supporting the development of adult basic skills through an engaging adventure based scenario. Such developments though are the exception rather than the rule, and it is worth examining why this is.
The challenges of developing games for adults
In considering why the concept of gaming to support adult literacy hasn’t developed as far as it might have done, several reasons come to mind:
- Most of the academic and other research into the role of gaming in supporting literacy has focused on young people; hence the basis for such activity for adults is less developed.
- Developing games which will engage adults without patronising them is perhaps more of a challenge for this group relative to children.
- There is still a perception in some quarters that computer games are something played by children (even though it is increasingly evident that this is not the case).
- Most government policy and funding support has focused on the use of such games in schools rather than adult learning settings.
- There is the question of whether it is financially viable for games developers to focus on adult literacy in developing products.
Collectively, these issues present a significant potential barrier for developing gaming as an approach to support adult literacy.
What might games offer and what is needed to support this?
Accepting the challenges mentioned, the potential benefits of computer games as an engaging way of promoting and supporting adult learning arguably mean that such an approach should not be just aimed at children. In particular, using games might be especially beneficial for certain groups of adult learners in order to address barriers to learning and promote inclusion. For example, games might be specifically designed to support migrants or asylum seekers in developing their literacy in a second language. Equally, they could play a valuable role in assisting adults with learning difficulties in an engaging and supportive way.
A scenario where games become more common and effective in supporting adult literacy will not happen on its own however. Key requirements to bring this about arguably include:
- a greater focus on research and development for adult gaming as a literacy tool
- increasing the policy focus and funding from government departments and agencies responsible for adult learning; more testing and refining of those products that have been developed
- a greater differentiation within games that are targeted at adults so as to meet the needs of particular learner groups.
Putting these pieces together will undoubtedly be a challenge in itself, but each is required to ensure gaming and literacy isn’t just for the kids.
Ian Atkinson is Associate Director at Ecorys UK, where he leads on employment and labour markets policy and research work. His research background and interests include employability interventions, social inclusion and results-based payment mechanisms.