Video games engage and connect neurodiverse and neurotypical students


Summer Jeppesen first started exploring the online game Minecraft at her school library’s computer lab a couple of years ago.

“Once I get into it, it’s relaxing, but it can be challenging, too,” says the Year 5 student at the remote Shepherdson College in the Northern Territory. “A highlight for me has been building a house with my best friend. It was pretty big – 15 by 15 square [blocks].

We did half each, and it had all these vines growing over it, with two floors and a balcony.”

Her peer, Bradley Yunupingu, says the video game “is good, and it makes me feel good building a different world with very tall buildings with my friends”.

Their school has 400 students and is in the Galiwin’ku community on Elcho Island about 500 kilometres north-east of Darwin.

Building social-emotional skills

The school’s information communications technology coordinator/librarian/digital technologies teacher, Marion Hooper, introduced Minecraft to her students three years ago. It’s become a free lunchtime and after-school activity to help students develop computer skills. She adapts activities to their levels, interests, and curriculum areas.

“The big revelation has been the social-emotional aspect. When the students enter the computer lab, they can be unregulated, maybe a bit sweary. But Minecraft completely changes their frame of mind and they’re playing with their friends cooperatively within 10 minutes,” says Hooper. She notices the changes particularly for neurodiverse students, and she is impressed with the level of interaction, communication, cooperation, and peer-led learning.

The current Minecraft version doesn’t allow students to play together in the same ‘world’. Instead, they create the “same standalone world on each of their computers and talk to each other about it”. That’s a huge outcome considering there’s a sizable cohort of neurodiverse students, says Hooper.

Minecraft has been good for them as a safe world where they don’t have to confront each other face to face.”

Gamification for inclusive learning

Senior lecturer in learning intervention at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education Dr Matthew Harrison says video games can be a powerful way to improve engagement.

A former teacher, Harrison noticed he could connect with students at risk of becoming disengaged from education by “leaning into my inner geek as a gamer” when he was in his second year of teaching.

“I realised I could use gaming as a space for social inclusion, particularly for kids with disabilities or who were neurodiverse,” says Harrison, who specialises in inclusive education, neurodiversity and digital technologies for teaching and learning.

Harrison cautions that, while video games are an effective tool, their use needs to be carefully planned. “Look at your learning outcome to decide if video games fit your pedagogical strategy,” he says.

“Games can create the conditions for learning, but teachers teach. Ask yourself if students are busy, learning, or both, and support them in their learning. Use explicit instructions to build a foundation of knowledge and help them apply that as you move to more of a coaching role during play,” he says.

Appropriate games aim to let students demonstrate knowledge and practice skills they would not be able to otherwise, he says. For example, they could use virtual reality to simulate a tour of an international space station or explore historical periods through the strategy game Civilization VI.

Many video game interfaces offer accessibility options such as subtitles or adaptations for students with fine motor issues, Harrison says.

Learning and social change

Game and narrative designer Dr Susannah Emery, who lectures at the University of South Australia, is one of 500 International Women in Games Ambassadors. Emery’s research looks at the use of video games and digital media for learning and to promote social change.

She cites recent research findings that reveal girls weren’t encouraged or felt supported to play video games and were pushed to play different types of games,
or not play them at all.

“This is a huge problem for the [games development] industry. Teachers have an important role in ensuring students are exposed to games, learn from, see themselves developing them and, if it’s in their interests, encourage them to take up a STEM career,” Emery says.

Games offer opportunities for “stealth assessments” hidden inside their mechanics. They include checking player competency – if you fail at a level, you’ll return to its start and think about how to approach it differently, says Emery.

She recommends teachers play games themselves to check their potential, even if there is no educational label on the box. “My students liked it when I learned a game with them, and they saw me fail. They said, ‘Oh, let’s show you how to do it’. “Games are good to incite empathy because they allow players to experience perspectives different to those we have in real life,” says Emery.

“Even with commercial games ... where you play characters you design, and go around the world completing quests – you’re applying written comprehension skills, undertaking a series of actions through scaled difficulty, balancing your resources, navigating maps. That’s a whole bunch of different skills that align with the Australian curriculum.”

Minecraft has merit in the classroom, Emery says. “Teachers can lead that game a lot. We can determine the goals depending on the lesson plan – opting for survival, fight-and-action, or class-build mode. There’s a lot of room to work creatively and collaboratively.”

She acknowledges that games aren’t for everyone but says there’s much research to tap into about the ability of games to engage neurodivergent students. The goal is to make learning content accessible for all learners, Emery says.

Margaret Paton

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Summer 202227 February 2023