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Digital skills

Reclaiming agency: how can gaming empower young people?

A teenager celebrates a win whilst playing a computer game. They have their hands raised in the air and headphones on their head.

Taking back agency is a core need for young people who have faced significant challenges early on. Here, Catch22’s former Director of Partnerships Kat Dixon reflects on the power of gaming to do just this.

If you’ve peered over the shoulder of a gamer recently – or perhaps you game yourself – you’ll have noticed that games look more and more like feature films. I grew up on a diet of pixelated graphics, Goldfinger, the original Mario on Gameboy. My mind is blown by the graphics and world-building we now have – the sheer beauty and creativity of it all.

But, what blows my mind is the powerful opportunity this creates. Now that games look like films, with storylines and interactive worlds, we can be protagonists in our own movies.

This is fun, no denying it. To be able to create avatars, conjure worlds, build tactical teams, connect with people all over the world while doing it – science fiction writers fifty years ago would be amazed.

But, if you grew up with a difficult home life, or face social barriers, this agency takes on a whole new meaning.

When I speak to young people who grew up in care, or got kicked out of school, or have a parent with a drug problem, what is striking is that all too young their lives became not their own. Suddenly they had responsibilities most full-grown adults would baulk at, and being a kid or teenager was ripped from them.

Too many young people in these situations feel out of control. When people from services come in, stuff is done to them. Choices become fewer and fewer. Understandably, some young people try to take back control in the ways they can find – drugs, alcohol, self-harm, eating disorders, acting out, gang involvement – something to feel they have control over their lives.

Gaming offers something else; a place where you can be the character you want to be, build friends and connections and create entire storylines. There are parallel benefits, and there is fascinating evidence to show how gaming can influence the mind – from inducing a flow state to playing Tetris to support trauma recovery. And we hear from young people that the social connection offered can be a balm for mental health and disconnect.

What keeps me up at night is the power of agency. When young people are facing that critical moment of growth, particularly in their late teens, there are key moments where they can find a sense of purpose, direction and agency.

A young person at our recent gaming event said:

“Gaming allowed me to be a better storyteller. I like to see that story from start to finish. I invest myself in that world… you’re part of the world rather than watching it play out.”

What if we could harness this space for energy and creativity? What if we could create spaces where young people facing social challenges get to build their own storylines? I wonder if doing this in game would help them imagine a new future, one where they are safe, have a source of income, stability and inspiration.

Catch22 is now building new programmes which harness the opportunities of gaming through social impact programmes. We’re asking questions like:

  • How can young people use gaming to increase their agency and opportunity?
  • How can opportunities in the gaming industry offer better career pathways for young people?
  • How can young people express themselves in online spaces like Discord and Twitch, where they might have previously visited community centres?
  • How can gaming offer space for joy, digital skills building and social connection, where this is currently missing?

– Kat Dixon