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Writing the Book on Video Games

By David Ogul

Sinem Siyahhan is shedding new light on the old adage “a family that plays together, stays together.”

Taking a decade of research into the learning and bonding that occur when families play video games together, the assistant professor of educational technology and learning sciences in the School of Education at Cal State San Marcos teamed with fellow researcher Elisabeth Gee in compiling a new book, “Families at Play: Connecting and Learning Through Video Games” (MIT Press, 2018) that underscores how gaming favorites from Halo to Minecraft can be tools for connection rather than barriers isolating different generations.

“We have to think differently about how families can interact with and around video games,” said Siyahhan, whose book notes that research on the positive effects of video games on cognitive, social and emotional development is not getting as much attention as the negative effects of video games. “Parents need to be involved with their kids’ gaming, especially if they want to connect with them and use video games to support their children’s learning.”

Siyahhan’s research has long found that video games can help build collaboration and problem-solving skills. She is the founding director of Play2Connect, an initiative utilizing a variety of activities and services to promote communication and intergenerational collaboration through gaming. Gee is the Delbert and Jewell Lewis Chair in Reading and Literacy and professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. Both argue video games are especially powerful in building ties because – as any young gamer can attest – youth are often more skilled than adults, which can create a strong, cross-generational sense of collaboration that provides a foundation for the so-called soft skills that are so highly valued in today’s workplace.

Despite their academic backgrounds, Siyahhan and Gee wrote the 216-page “Families at Play: Connecting and Learning Through Video Games” with a broad audience in mind, and they share the experiences of different families with both young and older children.

“Specifically, we focus on the diverse ways video games support family connection, learning, and communication,” the authors write in their introduction.

One chapter details how parents and children in five different families use video games to connect with each other and extended family members. A second chapter takes a deeper look at how learning and teaching is manifested when families are playing together. A third chapter examines the impact intergenerational play has on building social skills. In another chapter, the authors “push back against the traditional paradigm of the parent as the more knowledgeable person (or expert) and the child being the less knowledgeable person (or novice) in the family relationship.”

Reviews have been positive. “Siyahhan and Gee have successfully expanded the conversation around video games and learning to include a familial discourse; looking inside families contributes in a new and timely way,” wrote Seann Dikkers, department chair and associate professor of education at Bethel University. “This book can teach families how to use games for family learning, negotiation, affinity building, and positive conversations, and provides new perspectives for experts in games and learning literature.”

Siyahhan said she hopes video game designers will take the lessons to heart in designing new products that can reach a broader audience: families.

“Game designers need to realize what personally relevant content looks like as it pertains to families,” Siyahhan said.

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