The secret power of gaming: Author Helen Harvey on finding new ways to tell stories

Published on: 31 March 2021 Author: Helen Harvey

Helen Harvey's new book Emmy Levels Up is all about a girl who loves gaming! Here, Helen shares how games can provide a safe space for children and boost their imagination...

Helen Harvey and the front cover of her book Emmy Levels Up

The pupil sits staring at his half-finished story. He's stuck. The task for today's English lesson is to write a story about people in Roman times and usually this boy has no trouble letting his imagination go wild. But not today.

'The problem is I don't have a story-writing sort of brain, Mrs Harvey. I've got a gaming sort of brain.'

'But they're the same thing!' I say excitedly. 'Videogames are stories. Let's think about this story like a game and get some ideas...'

I wasn't just saying that to get him writing. One of the things I most loved about rediscovering video games as a grown-up was finding whole new ways to tell stories.

Games and gaming communities can be joyful places where children share imaginative worlds, find people like them and have the power to create things unlike anything they can do in real life.

When I started writing Emmy Levels Up, all I knew was that it was about a girl who was bullied at school. I knew that the bullying wasn't her fault (it never is) but it would transform her from a bright, bubbly girl into a lonely, defeated one.

But I also I knew I was in danger of writing an absolutely miserable book if Emmy didn't have something joyful happening in her life outside school. That's when I decided she would be a gamer.

Games are stories

A couple of years ago, I tutored a Year 6 boy who was struggling with maths. Luffy* was bright and imaginative and not happy about needing a tutor. But when I saw the Portal posters on his wall, I came up with a plan.

We invented a game called Beast Battles. We created fantastic creatures and gave them health and damage stats using dice rolls which Luffy had to add or subtract. Now he had a real motivation to practise mental calculation (his maths nemesis). I thought I was going to be the Game Master and direct our adventures each week - but I was wrong.

Each time I arrived for a tutorial, Luffy couldn't wait to tell me about his newest Beast Battle scenario: ruined cities filled with superheroes, intricate fortresses with traps and tunnels, temples with riddles to solve and tricksters to beat. He invented characters ranging from wacky food-based enemies to the sinister Overmind who left me cyphers to solve before I could begin our lesson.

I knew where some of the influences came from – Half-Life, Undertale or Plants vs Zombies. But in Beast Battles they lived and grew in his head and became something new.

I had already written Emmy Levels Up when I met Luffy, but I couldn't believe my luck: this was the reader I was writing for. Someone who, like Emmy, didn't always find school easy, but lived a vivid creative inner life - fuelled by videogames!

Games are social spaces

Before lockdown, 13-year-old Xanathar* started his own Dungeons and Dragons club. Now, they meet over Zoom. He tells me that since lockdown it 'makes up three quarters of my social interaction'.

Xanathar likes Dungeons and Dragons because there are no limits on what sort of story you can tell. You can explore anywhere you like, battle enemies, design a house or even compete in a baking competition.

I confess that I find the idea of being Dungeon Master a bit terrifying. You have to do so much world-building work and remember so much information! But Xanathar insists it's easy: 'It's not like a test. You're allowed to check your notes.' He loves the social aspect of D&D, too: 'You sit with your friends and have a laugh and there's no pressure.'

Xanathar's mum told me starting a D&D club had been transformative for him. When I ask Xanathar if he thinks he's changed, he tells me sure, he feels more confident - but that it's definitely helped some of his players.

In Emmy Levels Up, I wanted to show how games build communities, giving children confidence and a sense of belonging. Emmy's favourite game Illusory Isles is single-player, but it's still the centre of her social world - and it's still worth playing even when you have to share the controller!

Technology is power

Like Emmy, I spent a lot of time online when I was a kid, especially when my real life was a bit pants. When you're a child, you can't control where you live or what school you go to. A teacher asked once what he could do to make me like school and I suggested he could replace all the people in it. He didn't.

But online I had power, independence and a place to belong. Aged 11, I ran a guild on the game Neopets with 70 members. Aged 12, I created my own Petz 5 website (that's a game, not a misspelling). Aged 13, I started writing fan fiction; I wrote 1,000 words every night after school and loved the buzz of fans asking what would happen next. In my late teens I ran an online poetry writing group, exchanging critiques with poetry-loving strangers on the internet. My online world was one of the only places I could really be me.

At the time I didn't think it was anything special, but now I look back and I'm amazed (and kind of annoyed) at my younger self for being so clever and creative and productive.

So in Emmy Levels Up, I wanted to flip the assumption we make that real life is 'good for us' and online life is 'bad for us'.

When the story starts, Emmy's life is just the opposite. Emmy's real-life best friend joins forces with Emmy's bully to pick on her for the shoes she wears, but Emmy's online best friends defend her against a hurtful troll. Emmy never gets good marks in English because of her poor handwriting, but her gaming videos go viral.

Recently I caught up with Luffy and he said, 'It annoys me people say video games cause violence. Right now in Minecraft I'm planting endangered flowers and tending sheep to stop them going extinct. Not all games are like Grand Theft Auto.'

Games can be beautiful or complex or emotive or constructive or hilarious or intense or inane, but they are not all the same and many of them are wonderful.

*Not their real names. In an article about gaming lives, I let the participants choose their own alter-egos.

Helen Harvey is the author of Emmy Levels Up for readers aged 8+, published by Oxford Children's Books. Online Emmy is a superstar gamer, but at school she is friendless and bullied. She must use the skills she's learnt from videogames to beat her bullies once and for all.

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