Video icebreaker - gaming program strengthens social connections

Young people gaming

Video games often get a bad rap.

But when the call went out, Mario, Toad, Ludwig, Bowser and Lemmy were quick to throw their efforts behind an all-important cause.

Earlier this year, Monash Youth Services used the popularity of gaming as a means of starting to break down social barriers and combat the loneliness and disconnection that’s been building amongst young people in Monash, particularly during the challenging years of COVID isolation.

In an extensive Monash Youth Survey, conducted in 2021, social connection and loneliness were identified as significant concerns for young people aged 10-25. State government studies at the same time also noted the lack of opportunity to practise social skills, face-to-face, during COVID lockdowns.

In response Monash Youth Services, together with the Monash Youth Ambassadors, created a social gaming project aimed at providing opportunities for young people in Monash to meet and practise their social skills while having fun with video games – a video icebreaker designed to strengthen social connection with their peers.

Bill Kendall, Council’s Acting Youth Services Coordinator, and Youth Worker Jia Xu, the project’s main organiser, were delighted at the success of the program.

Monash Youth Services programs moved online during COVID restrictions, which was challenging as all programs are built around group work and social interaction. Engagement is significantly harder to achieve online.

“Students were using Zoom during the day (for school),” Bill said. “They were kind of ‘Zoomed out’. After 7 hours of Zoom, they were saying: ‘I just want to get off my computer’.

“We’re still feeling it as a service now. It’s taking people a long time (to regain social connectivity).”

But the idea of using video games like Mario Kart was quick to roll to the starting grid.

“It was indicated in the survey itself,” Bill said. “We asked: ‘Were there any ways to fuel connection?’ and a lot (of respondents) said ‘video games’. This was also discussed by our Youth Ambassadors.”

Jia said the games chosen were perfect for the program’s aims.

“We only ran 2 (games) – Mario Kart and Switch Sports (tennis) – to have games that everyone was familiar with,” he said. “From the very beginning, we chose the correct games. We did a lot of research. The two games we chose were something that we can run as individual v individual or team v team. It gave participants additional opportunities for teamwork.

“One individual came in without knowing anyone, so this gave them the chance to make friends.”

Bill added that the social connectivity built gradually as the program progressed.

“We found that many of the participants made friends after they attended the first session,” he said.

“It was a bit quiet at first. And then they attended more and more sessions and there was an extra buzz for the finals.”

Across 3 qualifying sessions between July and September, more than 90 young people participated in the project. On 27 September, the champions from each of the qualifying sessions got together at Youth Services in Glen Waverley for the final event. Exciting prizes were up for grabs and, after the dust settled on several rounds of fierce battles, four winners were left to celebrate.

While video games often get negative press, the early selection of the two games used in the program meant parents could do their own research and feel comfortable with the choice.

“We made it quite clear from the beginning which games we would be using,” Jia said. “Parents were able to ask us questions.”

Such was the success of the program, Bill said it has prompted planning for other games-related social connectivity sessions.

“We moved into (new headquarters at) Euneva in January 2020, a couple of months before COVID restrictions impacted service delivery,” he said. “So, we want to run a lot more events like this and Jia did such an awesome job running the event that we’re planning more events to activate the space – a chess night, a board games event – draw in all the games that might interest people.

“Library services will be holding two gaming sessions, one at Glen Waverley (library) and one at Clayton (library), and we’ll be supporting them in rolling out their ideas.”