An innovative program in Nova Scotia that combines the fantasy of video games with real-world knowledge is helping young people learn digital literacy, wellness and employment skills in a fun and memorable way.
Digital Skills 2 SucSEED is a 20-week virtual program for young people in care aged 15 to 21 that uses gamification to teach valuable lessons.
"Gamification is simply turning anything you want to into a game," said David Chandross, a researcher and designer in the field of gamification, game worlds and mixed reality in professional education and training at Ryerson University.
"There's no lecture to attend, there's nobody with a stern finger warning you and admonishing you. You're doing something you enjoy doing anyway, and through it, you're gaining digital literacy skills."
The program is funded by the provincial Department of Community Services and run by the Society for Enterprise Education and Development, also known as SEED. It began in May of this year and garnered rave reviews from participants, so a second round is set to begin this month.
"[The program] is probably the most creative thing I've ever seen," said one of the program's participants, a 16-year-old who created Gen. Tetrabrachius as his avatar — a four-armed man based on the teen's love of Greek mythology.
"I'm very big into that kind of geeky stuff, I guess."
Each session of the program incorporates experience points, badges and levels, and in-game currency as youth play games, meet with mentors and listen to guest speakers.
When a participant completes a challenge, like creating a resumé, they get points they can use to buy real items like a smartwatch or a skateboard.
Stewart Zaun, the creator of the program, said the gamification technique is what makes it so successful.
"Sometimes talking about resumé building and job searching can be a little dry," Zaun said. "So using gamification and incentivized attendance has been really, really helpful.
"The money can get them to come, but the games are what makes them enjoy it."
One participant who completed the most challenges and topped the points leaderboard said she learns best this way.
"I don't find I remember things just from sitting there listening to somebody talk, I find it just leaves my head very quick," said the teen.
Chandross, who was consulted in some of the gamification development for the program, said studies show this is true.
"There are play centres of the brain, actual physiological mechanisms in the brain which are engaged during gaming," he said.
"If you really want to lock in [learning], you're going to gamify it."
Zaun said it is important for youth in care to have access to skills that many people take for granted.
"Youth in care tend to face more barriers when they exit care," Zaun said.
"Statistics show a higher number of youth in care will experience homelessness, will experience mental health crisis, addictions, as well as lack of access to education. So this is a way to kind of get their foot in the door."
One 16-year-old said a big step she took while participating in the program was opening her first bank account.
Participants get paid a stipend for attending the sessions. If they finish the program, they get a laptop. But the teenager who created the Tetrabrachius avatar said the best part of the experience was getting a job at the end.
"I learned how to successfully set up a resumé, properly present it, and how to get to an interview," he said. "It's probably the most helpful thing I've ever done."
In the future, he hopes to be a personal trainer or a physical therapist. Another teen in the program hopes to be a nurse or a sheriff.
Both of them said they would recommend the program to anyone who is in care.
"The program has put so many youth in a position to succeed in life," one said.
Referrals are still open for the program's second round, which begins Sept. 21
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