My kids are only toddlers but I recognize how critical it will be for me to teach them how to handle conflict more effectively. According to a number of studies, learning how to resolve conflict, either between siblings or peers helps kids cope with other kinds of stress. It makes them better adjusted and more resilient as teenagers—and more successful as adults. But research also shows most kids don’t know how to settle disputes constructively. One exhaustive study showed the following: left to their own devices, 90% of conflicts between elementary school children go unresolved or end destructively. Most kids shun conflict or try to crush their opposition; more than 60% rely on adults to resolve their conflicts.
Research shows kids experience conflict once every three minutes. Given how prevalent conflict is among kids playing with others, what might this research mean for online gaming? Players report that antisocial behavior is the least favorite aspect of online play, and can have lasting effects. For example, data suggests that League of Legends players who experience bad in-game behavior are up to 320% more likely to quit playing the game.
I’ve written about some of the life skills that parents can nurture through Minecraft, including teamwork, strategic communication, and recovery from failure. I’ve also shared research on some of the prosocial benefits of playing games with others. Is there a role for a game like Minecraft to play in teaching kids to resolve conflict productively? Can a game like Minecraft help us raise a generation of “good” gamers?
Minecraft, like all games, incorporates conflict as a key element of game play. In multiplayer survival mode players must compete over resources and learn how to work together. Even in creative mode, players experience conflict as they work within the constraints of the world. The game allows some things (upside down mobs) and disallows others (blocks cannot be broken by swords). When Minecraft is played on a multiplayer server, social conflict is inevitable. This is especially true when kids are trying to work together. Conflict is both a present and necessary aspect of cooperative efforts: players may agree on the goals, but be in conflict over how to reach them. Further, when kids are new to a server, they can get themselves into trouble by inadvertently taking another player’s items or by accidentally destroying someone else’s build.
Two years ago Connected Camps, in collaboration with researcher Petr Slovak and Committee for Children, began to explore how kids were resolving conflict on our servers. We had many safeguards in place to ensure that the server was kid-friendly. But we wondered if there was more we could do to help kids level up their social and communication skills.
After months of research we found that there were several things we could do to better support socio-emotional learning (SEL) in our programs. One change we made was in the way our online counselors moderated our Minecraft server. Rather than swooping in and solving problems that arose between players, counselors instead were trained to turn ownership of the resolution over to the kids. This encouraged players to see each other’s perspectives and generate their own solutions.
Counselors were taught ways of guiding this problem-solving process. For example, if a child’s proposed solution seems clearly inappropriate (‘I will hit him back’), rather than rejecting such a solution from a position of power, the counselor would either probe for an alternative solution (‘that is one option, what else could you do?’), guide the child to think through the consequences (‘how do you think he will react then?’), or ask the other child whether that would resolve the situation successfully from his/her perspective (‘would this solve the problem?’). This shift from a more authoritarian role to one of mediator or coach has been empowering for both kids and counselors. It enables all involved to spend their energy and time on developing possible solutions rather than fighting over ‘what happened’.
Peril or Potential
The underlying philosophy of this approach is that conflicts are a normal and inevitable part of daily life that cannot be eliminated. It is rather how conflicts are managed—not their presence as such—that determines if they are destructive or constructive. Learning to see conflict as an opportunity to be creative in its resolution leads kids to feel more optimistic and confident when conflict does arise. Rather than walking away from a problem they engage in ways that not only resolve the conflict but strengthen social bonds.
If we want to support kids in having lots of positive relationships in their lives, we have to acknowledge that it is crucial for children to have experiences of conflict. These experiences should take place in safe spaces where escalation does not lead to serious outcomes (e.g., physical violence), and where support is available for kids to try out constructive rather than destructive conflict resolution methods.
Preparing Kids for a Healthy Future
Kids live and breathe conflict. Helping them to develop productive ways of resolving conflict, including an ability to problem solve and actively listen, feel and show empathy for others, and create and maintain positive relationships can have powerful effects. Skills like self-esteem, self-efficacy, and sociability have been shown to matter across cultures. Children who develop these skills are more likely to graduate high school, and are better prepared to pursue college degrees and to become engaged citizens. Helping children to develop social and emotional skills is one of the most important things we can do to prepare them for a happy and healthy future.
We are continuing to explore SEL-rich moderation techniques at Connected Camps and feel energized by the feedback we are getting from our counselors and families about the benefits of the change in approach. While my kids are a few years away from joining the Connected Camps community, I am eager to take the lessons I am learning in doing this work and apply them at home!