Covid, Computer Games and Freire

Paul Keating

This is part of a special collection celebrating the centenary of Paulo Freire’s birth.

The computer games sector has thrived during the Covid pandemic. Many people turned to games to escape the restrictions, to pass the time, for creative and intellectual stimulation and for social interaction. The past 18 months has seen the population reach 2.9 billion people worldwide. The pandemic has encouraged greater diversity among gamers by age, gender, and geography. Gamers in the UK typically spent 6.9 hours per week on their PCs, consoles, smartphones and virtual reality headsets.

Perhaps the biggest change, however, has been the shift in public discourse on computer gaming. Over the course of the pandemic, video games have gained cultural legitimacy as a socially-orientated media, as well as an entertainment, sports and art form. This is despite the fact that during the proceeding decade there had been sustained concern about the misogyny, racism, bullying, violence, and unbridled extractive consumerism which pervade the narratives, the gameplay, the culture and the business model driving the computer games industry. In May 2019, the World Health Organisation categorised video game addiction as a mental health disorder, but less than a year later, at the height of the pandemic, the same organisation launched an initiative encouraging people to connect with friends and community through online gaming, #PlayApartTogether. Online gaming was being presented as a social lifeline during lockdown, a proposition that emerging academic research supports documenting a marked shift in patterns of play from single player to multiplayer socially interactive games. 

What a difference a year makes, this juxtaposition of computer games as both an addiction and therapy, as the poison and the remedy, a trite distraction for the masses and purposeful medium for social interaction. In her book on computer games, “Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal, suggests that immersion in gaming constitutes a “purposeful escape” into a world where engagement, agency, experimentation and creative stimulation are omnipresent. Covid has accelerated this mass migration and has further defined it as a social rather than a solitary space. As a Freirean practitioner, this concept of the “game space” as a place where people can meet, interact and act intrigues me. However, what fires my imagination is the particular characteristics of the “games space” as a liminal space where individual and collective praxis can be enacted. I am intrigued by the possibility that this pervasive medium, so embedded in the neoliberal hegemony, could become a vehicle for critical pedagogy and social change.

Universities have been the place where such interdisciplinary innovation has emerged in the past. The computer faculty teaches students to programme games, the art and design faculty has courses in game design and development, the education department encourages their students to use games and play in their practice, we in the social sciences bring a critical lens. We therefore have the technical, design, pedagogical and critical skills needed. It is also worth noting that the majority of our students and many of our faculty staff, of all departments, are themselves gamers, providing the shared understanding, experience and motivation which is so important in interdisciplinary research.

Critical Games   

The use of simulation and role play games is well established as a means of engaging with issues of global justice and development. In the 1950s and 1960s, academics such as Harold Guetzkow and William Gamson developed games which exposed students, over prolonged periods, to simulations of complex international negotiations, the mechanics of conflict and social movements as well as global trade and economic systems. In the UK, Taylor and Walford (1978) documented the emergence of role play and simulation as an educational technique, compiling a database of over 300 such games for use in various academic disciplines. While many of these initiatives did draw inspiration from social movements and political campaigns, they remained predominantly within the institutional or public educational domains as a form of experiential learning rather than a mechanism for social mobilisation and change. 

For many “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” provided a framework for the emergence of games as a form of Freirean practice. The handbook for community educators “Training for Transformation is essentially a book of games inspired by Freire which could be described as a playbook for praxis. In “Games for Actors and non-Actors, Boal describes his techniques as games embedded with ritual, dialogue, critical reflection, reconceptualization and change. This description resonates with the characteristics in games which enable an individual liminal experience, referred to as ‘flow’. From this state of flow, through dialogue, a shared experience of liminality can emerge in games which Anthropologist Victor Turner calls ‘communitas’, a state of solidarity, equality and spirit of community (Turner 1974). Turner maintained that games can provide the freedom from distraction which allows players to recognize, critique and perhaps reconceptualise the structures of oppression in society. 

This presentation of liminality and communitas in games, resonates closely with Freire’s advocacy of dialogue within ‘culture circles’ and the process he describes for the investigation, coding and decoding of generative themes leading to individual conscientization and praxis within communities. Boals’ techniques in Image and Forum Theatre, drawing directly from Freire, explicitly set out to create the liminality, flow and communitas which Turner describes as being characteristic of good games. 

Nurturing Critical Digital Games 

Digital games have developed beyond recognition since Space Invaders and the other arcade style single-player games of the 1980s. Contemporary digital games designers seek to optimise agency and player freedom in decision making and self-expression within games. This characteristic is integral to Sandbox Games such as Minecraft or Roblox, however most games now encourage players to modify how they portray and present themselves and how their game space looks and feels. Emotional engagement and dialogue within groups is part of many digital games. The passion, joy, frustration and elation games such as FIFA or Fortnite elicit is evident in the research but also by simply observing people play. Multiplayer online role play games like World of Warcraft have shown the extent to which the building of community and solidarity between players is possible in a virtual environment. The fact that players can interact seamlessly with their real physical and social domains as part of a game is evident in mobile games such as Farmville and Pokémon-Go. While virtual and augmented reality applications can expose players to the lives lived by others in a way which is immediate and gives a powerful sense of presence. 

All of these dynamics would suggest that dialogue, critical reflection and action are possible in a digital gaming space. Many gaming systems are set up to facilitate group interaction in the way Freire anticipates happening with culture circles. Digital games allow for interaction and emotional engagement between players more intimately than do most social media platforms and in a way which encourages empathy, understanding, analysis and collective action. Furthermore, scaling up, and the potential for social mobilisation is more apparent in the digital space than it is through physical games.     

While the pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the drive for new technology it has also seen the consolidation of corporate control over mainstream gaming, directing most gaming solidly towards a singular focus on markets, growth, monetisation and profit. This brings us back to the juxtaposition between the neoliberal ideology driving games and the prospect of using gaming as a space for critical agency. There is however, and always has been, a tradition of subversive, progressive and creative sub-cultures within gaming.  

With roots in both a feminist reaction to the misogyny within games and the critical analysis inherited from Guetzkow and Gamson, among others, critical gaming promotes the use of digital games for positive social change. There are a myriad of games designed to raise awareness of, or to encourage engagement, with social justice issues. These can be seen as applying Freirean principles to gaming through simulation and codification. Critical games designers such as Mary Flanagan express a higher level of ambition for critical games as a contemporary art form which can, and should, be used as a political tool to intervene, subvert or disrupt the dominant narrative within games themselves, the industry controlling them, and more broadly within society. It has been suggested that “Video Games of the Oppressed” should be developed whereby players are given the opportunity to intervene in the narrative and the characterisation of an online roleplay game in order to affect the outcomes as is done in Image or Forum Theatre. 

The prospect of designing such a digital game seems plausible, however the real challenge is not to digitise a particular Freirean technique but rather to open up a space within digital gaming where new approaches and methods informed by Freirean theory and practice will emerge. Rather than this space modifying existing games or adapting game platforms to serve critical gaming, we should build new platforms from scratch based on values of inclusion, equality, respect, dialogue, creativity, and critical reflection. Mary Flanagan sees such an initiative being led by games designers with a personal and political commitment to such Freirean values, she refers to these as “conscientious game designers”. 

But how to find or encourage such qualities in games designers? Perhaps we should practice what we preach. Bring Freirean practitioners and games designers together, form culture circles, engage in dialogue, critical reflection and action on and in digital games. How better to nurture conscientious game designers then through a Freirean process of conscientization, where better to do so than in universities, and when better than now while the creative disruption caused by Covid is still in motion.

Photo by Sean Stone on Unsplash

Paul Keating is a Researcher and Lecturer in the Technological University of the Shannon based in Tipperary. He has worked as a community worker in Ireland and internationally for over 20 years and has a particular interest and commitment to Freirean thinking and how it is applied in practice. Paul is currently undertaking doctoral research on the potential use of digital games as a space and a mechanism for critical pedagogy.      

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