Could online gaming be good for youth work?

Allan Berry, Youth Arts Programme Coordinator at Creative Scotland, tells us why it’s time for youth work to get over its fear of online gaming.

For many, ‘gaming’ is still a dirty word – especially when it comes to youth work. While there are plenty of organisations throughout Scotland that offer a games room, there is a gap in the market for organisations that focus on offering youth work using computer games as a primary entry point. Gaming is something that is either looked down upon or poorly understood, despite being a huge source of popular culture for young people. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

This isn’t the case elsewhere in Europe. In some places on the continent, in particular Scandinavia, Germany and the Netherlands, there is a value placed on computer gaming as a social activity, one in which young people are encouraged to participate in a healthy manner. In places such as Sweden and Finland it goes further, with gaming ‘cafés’ being a big part of social activity provided by youth workers.

This isn’t just a few Xbox Ones and bean bags around a TV. This is gaming café culture. Desktop computers are set up to play competitive team games like League of Legends, DOTA2 or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. These games draw hundreds of thousands of young people to watch as spectator sports. And for a particular group of young people, especially young men aged between 14 to 20, there’s a good chance they engage in this activity regularly, even if they normally do so alone within the confines of their rooms.

What the Scandinavians have right – and where we fall behind – is the belief that gaming is not just a social activity, but one that can support, and be supported by, youth work. These communal spaces become places for young men to relax and socialise away from home, but also away from the sometimes toxic online environments of online gaming and social media. It encourages real-world dialogue in a community where anonymity has led to aggressive and sometimes destructive behaviour. And it encourages an increased awareness in the challenges of communicating online, especially as it is young men who are most likely to engage in threatening behaviour through social media. In Finland, for example, these clubs have older gamers to act as mentors for younger people; it allows young people to have someone to look to on their terms. Yes, these mentors work with young people to teach them about games, but they also work with them exactly as a youth worker does.

It’s not that Scotland hasn’t had gaming cafés in the past, although there aren’t any currently open. But they have had to exist in a commercial environment and sustain themselves in other ways, mostly doubling up as internet cafés. Likewise, commercial pressures mean that a majority of these places close down within a year or two, meaning that the ‘community’ aspect is difficult to foster. What we lack is dedicated long-term spaces exclusively for young people. Spaces that allow for young people to be noisy, creative and engaged. Spaces that allow for youth work professionals to reach a particular group of young people who don’t necessarily respond as well to traditional youth work initiatives.

The most important factor here is the element of play. There are dedicated spaces for young people to learn coding skills, robotics and digital creativity, but there are far less places were young people can just go to play games, socialise and engage. Part of the reason for that is simply that funding exists for more skills-focused projects and less so for simply allowing young people to play. This is not to say that these places can’t offer these services too. But the play aspect is an important element, and one that is lacking currently.

So what can be done? Like everything, there aren’t easy answers. Obviously, few youth work groups will find themselves in a position to invest in the equipment required to set up your own café. But we can be less tokenistic in how we approach gaming and gaming culture. I’d love to see a dedicated youth gaming centre getting off its feet, but we’re not there yet. We need to step back and not be afraid of games, and to learn from others how we could best be using this big part of popular culture in our work.

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