Games for Change Asia-Pacific: We talk to Matthew Harrison about how games can empower neurodiverse students

Posted on October 4, 2021

The Games for Change Asia-Pacific virtual festival is an opportunity for academia and gaming to combine with lecturers, doctors, designers and others with a passion for discussing the positive impact that gaming and technology is having on our lives. This year, due to the state of the world, the festival will once again be a free event online and therefore many more people will be able to tap into the amazing voices and ideas that are being shared on this platform. One of those amazing voices is that of Matthew Harrison, a Senior Lecturer/researcher in autism who also holds a PhD in games-based interventions. I was lucky enough to chat with Harrison about his work in helping neurodiverse students find autonomy through the power of collaborative play.

Harrison developed his awareness of the importance of teaching children skills via gaming during his graduate year of teaching. In his classroom, he found that his students were disengaged and also had “different needs.” What he had in common with his students was a love of gaming, so he used this shared passion as a “motivator.” If his students “put in their best efforts” throughout the week, then they would have time to play video games together on Friday afternoons. It was then that he observed students who weren’t showing signs of collaboration and communication skills in the classroom exhibit these skills whilst engaging in gaming. It made him realise that he could combine his two passions and make a real difference in the way his neurodiverse students engaged in learning.

Harrison’s work uses a strength-based approach; he has built his work around knowing that gaming is a strength for a lot of children and therefore it is a place where they feel the safest and most capable. Most of these gaming examples derive from cooperative play, an aspect of gaming that has become even more cherished since the majority of Victorian and NSW students are doing their learning online. The playground is no longer a physical element but a virtual one, where students are connecting via online gaming servers because they literally cannot see each other in person. Therefore, these online environments have become even more important and vital to the education and mental health of Australia’s young people.

Though he co-founded the organisation ‘Next Level Social Skills’, Harrison and his fellow co-founder Jessica Rowlings decided to change the name when it was decided it did not fit with their vision. “We’re not trying to fix broken children”, he said about the new name of Next Level Collaboration, “…we’re trying to make sure everyone can communicate with everyone while being themselves.” Seeing as Rowlings herself is neurodiverse, it is even more important to both herself and Harrison to provide a solid, accepting environment for autistic and other children who are not neurotypical to excel in. For them, it is about understanding that “people aren’t impaired in their communication, it’s just that they communicate differently.” Next Level Collaboration is about “…celebrating the differences in neurodiversity but also teaching collaborative skills every child needs.”

This need to provide a safe space specifically for neurodiverse children comes from the fact that programs have often been implemented that “they don’t want!” Harrison’s main aim was to set up a “program that respects autistic identity and celebrates the differences whilst addressing areas of miscommunication.”

So, how exactly is this done? For Harrison and the team at Next Level Collaboration, it’s about young people “practicing their learning in a meaningful environment for themselves.” It is also about games being “particularly powerful in allowing students to apply knowledge in a lot of different contexts virtually.” An example of this, according to Harrison, is having students take turns in a cooperative gaming environment along with using “modes of non-verbal communication” and “using (their) voice to ask for help” which combines two styles of discussion and lets students “combine their collaborative skills in a more sophisticated way.”

When I asked Harrison to share an example of his research working in the classroom, he can’t help but smile. He remembers a boy in his grade 1/2 class who was having difficulties making friends as he was a lot bigger in stature than his peers and therefore they found him intimidating. Harrison asked the boy to teach prep students how to play New Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo Wii which gave him “an opportunity to showcase his strengths and for the kids to see him as the gentle giant that he really was… it valued his knowledge and his lived experiences… it made him feel welcomed in this community.” It also showed the boy’s ability to be “patient and good at reframing his conversation with those students who didn’t understand and checking for understanding.” This led to Harrison coaching the student to “improve his communication skills in this context.” That context was the familiar, safe place of a video game world.

Of course, not everyone is going to fully support the idea that video games are actually good for you. Harrison says that yes, he has come up against scrutiny, but that he “points to the research” when criticism arises. Like for any gamer, it’s all about “self-regulation” and “balance.” Also, it’s important to make sure that students are playing age-appropriate games so they can connect with people that are around their own age. This is important because for “a lot of students, particularly neurodiverse students, (the gaming world) is the only safe space.” The idea that gaming evokes violence is of course, as Harrison reiterates, a “preconceived notion.” Harrison is quick to point out that these ideas from “the 90s have turned out to be false” and his next step is to “point to the positive research that says about all the benefits… social connection, sense of community and belonging.”

When I asked Harrison what he thinks the future of gaming and education will bring he says that “gaming culture permeates everywhere, it’s too big to contain and I think it’s something that school systems need to embrace and need to feel comfortable with.” Now those kids from the 90s are entering the classroom as teachers and therefore are able to see “the benefits…of game-based learning. I think it’s only going to increase, particularly in terms of inclusive education.” Harrison believes that the future is in E-Sports with many Australian schools starting their own leagues. However, due to the equipment needed, it’s usually only wealthy schools that can usually afford to start and sustain these programs.

For gaming to be further entrenched into the way students learn, there needs to be a change in how some educators and teachers think:

“We need to talk to and listen to our young adults and gamers, and to value their culture and experiences and to see how we can harness the power of gaming to really think about what we are doing in our schools in terms of engaging with our young people… because obviously gaming is a meaningful experience for many of our students and we want school to also be a meaningful experience”

You can learn more about Next Level Collaboration here and also check out all that is happening at Games for Change Asia-Pacific, which is running from the 5th – 7th of October, 2021.