Last week a new member of our outdoor group “Adventurers” had his very first session with us. He described himself as a “competitive gamer”. I said “oh yes, lots of people in our group are gamers”, trying to make connections and he replied with” yes, they are, they are good but I take it really seriously and game on a competitive level”. We went about our usual business in that session, exploring the woods, discovering wild foods, identifying species of tree and fungi etc. and all of the other activities that are the bread and butter of our work, making and maintaining fires for cooking, prepping food, hanging hammocks, climbing trees and being in our own little outdoor community. By the end of the session, I told his Mum that he had gelled really well with the group and seemed happy. She was pleased to report that he had told her “it was one of the best days I have had in ages”.
The arrival of our new member, reminded me that we have over the years, often seen parallels between the outdoor world that we create and the gaming world that lots of our members also inhabit. Much of our groups have historically been keen gamers and still are. This has often made me wonder about any potential connections between these seemingly different worlds that mean that it may be no accident that many child and youth gamers may also be keen outdoorsy people. There is no hardcore research to back any of this up, it is entirely based on our observations and anecdotal evidence, over the years. This interests me, not least because I am curious about any links from gaming that may encourage young people to get outside and get active more but also because outdoor education or outdoor learning can be posed as in competition or in a battle with Gaming. Practitioners can often be disparaging of technology and gaming in particular and see themselves or their work as the antidote to what they perceive to be a problem with too much screen time. Parents and even businesses can also jump on the bandwagon and position screens and outdoor time in opposition to each other.
There certainly has been research conducted that concludes that screen time is higher than ever and that as a result children are less active https://www.childinthecity.org/2019/02/28/study-finds-childrens-screen-time-has-replaced-outdoor-play/
However there is also research that finds that mothers are anxious about outdoor play and risk and another that roaming ranges for children have shrunk and I feel the situation could be more complex than is first presented.
What if for example, the gaming world offers children and young people something that, for one reason or another they find hard to access in the “real world”. What if setting up a difference between the real and gaming world is just not even relevant anymore, because the lives of young people don’t have such hard borders? Certainly in our outdoor education sessions, the lives of these members appear to flow seamlessly between worlds. They leave the wild or natural environment with us and then often return home to continue adventuring and exploring with their outdoor friends online.
My daughter Jay, now 19, and younger and more with it than me, has helped me to see the potential for the gaming world in our outdoor education. I asked her to recall some of her observations supporting our outdoor work as a youth leader over the years:
"From Minecraft to Lego Ninjago, Clash of clans to Fortnite dances the games many of the adventurers play at home on their screens are also the games they choose to roleplay in the woods. If you think about it, this is a no brainer and a lot of fun. To go from an outdoor setting on your game to an outdoor setting in real life and get to make the fantasy land a reality. I don’t know the ins and outs of all these games but what I do know is that they have a lot to teach us about the natural world. You’ll find a 6-year-old arguing that a diamond sword is stronger than a gold sword and that obsidian can only be formed when a lava block comes into contact with a water flow. It makes me happy as a geoscientist to hear such young people talking about the different properties and formation of materials albeit fictional sometimes. When working in a school and doing my basic science chat it became very clear that Minecraft had introduced many of them to scientific vocabulary before school had. Before I could even explain some things, they would end up reeling off a long list of Minecraft facts to do with iron or tin for example. This all transfers to the woods when you go out and interact with all these materials at your feet. Pick up a stick it can be a wooden axe, find a stream and it can be a lava flow, dig up some mud and it can be some rare metallic ore. What’s not to love! Two summers ago, I worked at lunch times to try and get the playground to come up and have a boogie, Wake and shake style. Although some where always up for it, certain groups couldn’t get their heads around the embarrassment that was dancing. But thanks to Fortnite that all changed. All of a sudden, the school had caught this kind of dancing fever where they couldn’t help themselves but do all these funny moves. I loved it and thought it said a lot about how gaming can have such a positive effect on the real life interactions and games they play in the woods or on the school playground. I would argue that some of these games teach us how to interact with our environment and each other in a way other things can’t. We should embrace the mash up between gaming worlds and the real one and accept that the two are very similar in what they can offer."
Jay also sent me an article from 2015 about the merits of Minecraft in education, particularly science that made compelling arguments for offering up respect to it.
Yesterday in our session out on an expedition practice, I took the walking time as an opportunity to ask the members of our group if they thought there we any links between what they do in gaming and what we do outdoors. We all talked with massive enthusiasm about the creation of forests and dark forests as we stood on the threshold to the woods we were about to enter and explore and cook in. They told me about building communities in the gaming world while we walked together in the February sunshine with our community of “adventurers”. They told me about what they understood in the real world based on what they can create in the gaming world such as trees, geology and fungi. We talked about having virtual battles, right before we went into the woods to referee real life battles within our outdoor community, mostly playful but occasionally real and part of real growth and development for the individuals and the group. We talked at length and they had so much to tell, it was exciting and sounded like adventure to me. I then asked about Minecraft being cool once but now out of date and a bit embarrassing and they cried “no!” Apparently one of the most popular gamers on you tube has begun sharing videos about it and he has so many views and followers that actually after a lull, Minecraft is back.
From where I am standing, there are many overlaps between our outdoor education lives and that of their gaming lives. Community is key, online, playing each other, virtual community building and the one we have in the woods or in the wild. Exploration is big, not knowing where you are, navigating, finding a new tribe, making the map sometimes, not just following it, seeking resources for the tasks ahead, making, building, pioneering, all true in the game and in the wild. A sense of playfulness, testing out ideas, testing each other, trying moves, what can I physically do in the wild? or in the game? What are the boundaries, strengths and weaknesses of my opponent, of my friend, or of these materials? What can I get away with? When will I know I went too far or was too rough? When should I work on my own and when is it beneficial to work as a team? Who should I team up with? I see all of these happening in the woods, in the wild and they also test this out through their gaming world, testing social boundaries and developing and understanding the etiquette of new environments.
This is not resolved, it is a conversation starter. What I can tell you, is that there is often a sense of relief for our children and young people when we acknowledge that their wild world and online gaming world overlap. We are able to talk to them and integrate whatever needs they have, that they satisfy through gaming, also through their regular Saturday outdoor time. Through creating the Zombie apocalypse session or just through allowing rough play, collecting materials, building, making and giving them a massive roaming range when they are with us and time and freedom to explore. I’m not sure, but allowing and understanding this connection between the online and the outdoors could be one reason why we still have long term members in our outdoor community who have started with us at primary school age and are still with us in their teens. Understanding these connections obviously has potential advantages, for us as practitioners, to keep them interested and keen to attend our sessions and be outdoors, but more importantly the advantages for them are huge. There may well be more connections between gaming and the outdoors than there are walls and borders. If you think there is a wall, have another look and ask yourself if you may have put it there!