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Ajay Sharman, Regional Network Lead for STEM Learning, poses the question of whether playing video games can help literacy in schools.

Literacy is so fundamental to learning that its importance can never be overstated in education. It is not simply about reading and writing either, but an ability, confidence and willingness to engage with language; to acquire, construct and communicate meaning in all aspects of the world we live.

The higher the literacy rate, the higher the socio-economic and human development of a nation, empowering individuals, families and communities, while, for example, improving the quality of life and reducing poverty. It forms the basis of education. So how can video gaming, which is seen by some parents as a distraction, help young people develop their literacy skills?

Young people and a large swathe of the adult population are actively involved in gaming. Globally it has been estimated that there are now more than 2.5 billion active gamers around the world, with over 32 million in the UK alone. In March 2019, Fortnite, one of the most popular games ever, generated over 250 million registered users.

Contrary to the traditional belief that gaming is merely an addictive source of entertainment and diversion, research shows that it has numerous benefits, including the development of cognitive skills in both children and adults. Just as physical exercise helps in improving and strengthening your muscles, cognitive games help to indulge one's brain in constant stimulation, thus improving the brain's performance. Cognitive benefits of playing video games, include improving coordination through mental stimulation, problem solving and improving attention and concentration.

How can the digital world of gaming enhance literacy?

The National Literacy Trust along with the Association of UK Interactive Entertainment (Ukie) and Penguin Random House Children's, led an independent research survey of 11-16 year olds exploring the relationship between video games and literacy engagement amongst school children. The report focused on young people’s literacy-related interactions both within, and in relation to, video games. Over 4,600 young people aged 11 to 16 from across the UK took part in the survey, between November and December 2019, utilising Bounce, a game-changing digital platform for measuring and continually monitoring wellbeing, behaviours, health, perceptions and attitudes of pupils and staff at schools.

Additionally a further survey of over 3,800 young people aged 11-18 and 826 parents during the COVID-19 lockdown was undertaken to capture changes to young people’s behaviours around video game playing and literacy, between May and June 2020.

Findings included:

Video games can provide young people with a route into reading and improve confidence in reading skills

  • 4 in 5 (79.4%) young people who play video games read materials relating to video games once a month, including in-game communications (39.9%), reviews and blogs (30.5%), books (21.8%) and fan fiction (19.4%)
  • 1 in 3 (35.3%) young people who play video games believe playing video games makes them a better reader

Video games can encourage young people’s creativity through writing

  • 3 in 5 (62.5%) young people who play video games write something relating to video games once a month, including video game scripts (27.5%), advice to help other players (22.1%), fan fiction (10.8%) and blogs or reviews (8.0%)

The shared cultural experience of playing video games was found to support positive communication with friends and family

  • 3 in 4 (76.3%) young people talk to their friends about video games compared with only 3 in 10 (29.4%) who discuss books
  • Young people said that playing video games helps them to build social connections both ‘in real life’ and online

Video games can have potential benefits for increasing empathy

  • 2 in 3 (65.0%) young people say playing video games helps them imagine being someone else

Video games can play a role in supporting young people’s mental wellbeing

  • Many young people said that playing video games helps them either deal with, or escape from, stress and difficult emotions
  • More than half (55.6%) of parents said their child had chatted with family and friends as part of playing a video game during lockdown
  • 3 in 5 (59.6%) parents felt that communicating with family and friends as part of playing a video game during lockdown had been helpful for their child’s mental wellbeing during this time

The benefits of playing video games for young people’s literacy were found to be strongest for boys and reluctant readers

  • Boys are much more likely to play video games than girls (95.6% vs 65.2%)
  • Nearly twice as many boys than girls said they chatted with family and friends as part of playing a video game during lockdown (70.5% vs 39.7%)
  • Almost 3 in 4 (73.1%) young people who don’t enjoy reading say playing video games helps them feel more part of a story than reading a book-based text

Contrary to video gaming being seen as a distraction and a diversion from studies, in the case of improving literacy, it offers a possible solution. And there is a wealth of inspiration out there for your students, for example through the STEM Ambassadors programme, which offers the opportunity for young people to engage with gaming companies and role models, or through Code Clubs. In short, the digital world offers tremendous benefits to us all.