Video games don’t have a great rep, and many parents believe their children are playing them excessively. The narrative is that by playing video games, they are deprived of more wholesome activities like getting exercise or playing outside.
A lot of this is based upon gut feel, so researchers attempted to boil things down and understand what children do when they play video games, and gauge whether this is different to play in other forms.
The researchers analyzed children as they played the popular Minecraft game. They chose Minecraft specifically because it’s the kind of game played during leisure time rather than official school time.
The game is played by roughly half of children aged 3-12, with the majority accessing it via a tablet. The research uncovered a number of positive aspects of playing the game. For instance, parents thought the game did wonders for the creativity of their children. They also noted the surprising amount of social interaction in the game, even if children aren’t playing in the same game world. The shared experience provided opportunities for collaboration, negotiation and teamwork. Suffice to say, many still expressed concerns about the amount of time children devoted to the game.
What’s interesting about the research however is the examination of the play itself. The authors identified two distinct forms of play. The first, called symbolic play, is analogous to playing with a stick and imagining it’s a sword as part of your real-life game. In the Minecraft environment, it might be the assignment of a role to an in-game object that differs from that assigned it by the developers. For instance, some children would use the diamond plated armor awarded to the players as a form of swimwear to use in the swimming pools they created.
The second form was socio-dramatic play, in which children enact real-life scenarios using play objects, such as schools or shops. Such scenarios are as commonplace in Minecraft as they are in real-world environments.
The work underlines the similarities between the kind of play that children engage in in traditional environments and the kind engaged in virtually in Minecraft. Indeed, their play worlds are increasingly comprised of elements from the physical, imaginary and digital worlds. The boundaries between each of these is perhaps more porous for children than they are for adults.
The research suggests we need to rethink how we conceive play in the virtual and physical worlds, as they may have many more similarities than we first thought.
“Screen-based play that at first may appear a waste of time, might have more in common with the highly revered free-play of children outside “screens” than we have previously given it credit for,” the authors conclude.