Socially Minded Gaming That Makes a Difference

FROM THE INSIDE — Thoughts on Place-Based Education at a Community College


Fall is the time of year that brings to mind brightly colored leaves, crisp apples, sweater-weather, and lots of computer gaming! Computer gaming? It does if you, like me, are coordinating the annual Extra Life Gaming Marathon at your school! Extra Life is a worldwide gaming marathon that happens one day a year in the fall to raise money for hospitals that are a part of the Children’s Miracle Network and engages students on our community-college campus that might not ordinarily come forward and become involved. These students are computer gamers and non-native English language students. Let me explain…

One day I was talking to one of my co-workers who chairs the Computer Information Systems Department at my community college and teaches computer networking. He was aware of the work I did mentoring faculty to embed service-learning into their classes and issued me a challenge. He said he’d love to incorporate service into his classes, but there just wasn’t any way to do that… and if by chance I ever found a way, he would do it- no questions asked. Let’s just say I love a challenge and when another colleague told me about Extra Life, we were off and running!

This easy, non-threatening, coming together through games that supports this neighborhood institution is a safe, first-step into service for the students who come out to the event and a way to get involved with other students within their campus community.

For the past four years, this gaming event has given CIS students an opportunity to select games and set up a computer class room for the event that allows participants to play networked games simultaneously throughout the day. These students start their work in the summer months and continue until the day before the marathon, when the drives are loaded in the classroom for the event. Similarly, Computer Applications students develop posters and flyers to advertise the event during the summer months in preparation for a marketing campaign run by students in our Student Government, Service-Learning Program, and fall computer classes. Spanish classes have also translated these posters so that advertising for the event can reach a larger percentage of our student population.

In addition to computer networking students, Computer Science students who are learning to program the “old classics”: Pong, Centipede, etc. will be bringing their games to the event this year. Children of faculty, staff, and students often come out to help raise money “for the kids”, and we set up a separate room for them away from the more graphic, teenage/adult computer games. In addition to playing the games they’ve created, the programming students will be available to teach these kids and some nostalgic adults, I suspect, how to play these old favorites.

Remember I started this posting by talking about service with unlikely participants? Computer gamers are often accused of “wasting their time playing games” which is typically a pretty anti-social, solitary activity. This event gives these gamers a chance to use that very same activity to be socially-minded and come together with others to help kids in their community. And they revel in it and rise to the occasion! Conversations start slowly (the marathon runs at our school from 8 am to 8 pm — so the starting time is pretty early, especially on a Saturday!), but their momentum builds as the day goes on. We share hourly how much money they have raised, and it’s common for the participants to start texting or emailing their friends and family asking them to donate on the spot throughout the event. There is pride in what they are accomplishing and camaraderie in the effort — this is a new experience for many of these gamers who are more comfortable looking at a screen than talking to their neighbors.

The other student population we incorporate in the marathon is non-native English speakers — students enrolled in our ESOL classes on-campus. They are invited to play games to practice their English skills with native-speakers. One year we added a group playing Dungeons and Dragons to do this; last year we added a whole variety of board games. This year we’re planning on incorporating them into our computer gaming. We’ve learned that American board games are often very difficult for new immigrants to understand. Computer games on the other hand seem to be universally understood by college students. When non-native and native English speaking gamers come together, their mutual passion for the games and engagement in our event naturally leads to conversations that would otherwise be awkward between the two groups.

Critics of indirect service-learning events argue that when students help a group of people they are not directly interacting with, the project is not worthwhile. I beg to differ… While we do try to connect our students with the hospital kids through videos, websites, etc. , our local children’s hospital is well known in our community and has touched the lives of families we all know. We share these stories throughout the preparation for and running of the event, and the connections more personal. This easy, non-threatening, coming together through games that supports this neighborhood institution is a safe, first-step into service for the students who come out to the event and a way to get involved with other students within their campus community. When we have them reflect on what their gaming has done and how they feel about that, we also offer lots of suggestions on how these students can take the next step and get involved in another service-learning class or volunteer in the community. A subtle shift in mindset is often the beginning of understanding their place and building their confidence in collaborating with others. Not of value? I don’t think so…

AUTHOR’S NOTE: For more information about Extra Life, go to: For more information about PCC’s gaming marathon, watch our video at: If you would like more information on how you can coordinate a gaming marathon at your school, feel free to contact me through CWI.

Diane Shingledecker is the District Service-Learning Faculty Coordinator specializing in Career Technical Education, as well as, a Computer Applications Instructor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. She is an enthusiastic alumni of Community Works Institute’s (CWI) Summer Institute on Service-Learning and a regular contributor to Community Works Journal. She has been incorporating service-learning into her classes for the past 13 years and helping other faculty do this for the past 3 years. She is a participant in Portland State University’s Graduate Certificate Program in Service-Learning.

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