We know that the entertainment world is undergoing transformation. New technologies have brought new formats to the fore, lowered the costs of use and made the content much more "experiential". The Internet has in many ways blurred the boundaries between what is meant to entertain or teach. Some examples? Is watching a Ted Talk on YouTube more entertainment or learning? Is Minecraft just a video game, or can it teach strategy and problem solving skills? The Netflix documentaries are certainly instructive, but still pleasant to watch: at what point does entertainment end and education begin, and vice versa?
Edutainment, the English neologism that indicates the forms of playful communication aimed at teaching, has been a hot topic for years. For at least two decades we have found that mixing these two approaches leads to better results in terms of learning, precisely because the pleasure of the process (as opposed to the effect that school learning normally achieves) promotes the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. But how much can they exploit each other – the school to improve the performance of their students, and entertainment companies to generate added value?
Let’s talk about video games, for example. According to Alessio Ceccherelli, a researcher at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, "since the 2000s the videogame industry has had a total turnover higher than that of Hollywood". Among titles such as Call of Duty, The World of Zelda and League of Legends, video games are all the rage even in Italy, especially among the youngest. To the point that they were sometimes referred to as problematic (one of the most recent news was the concern of teachers regarding Fortnite: the shooter game that would push boys to bullying and to adopt violent behavior at school). If the compulsive use of the game should not be encouraged, however, it is also true that there is another side of the coin, as for all things: for example, it seems that an American school, driven by the great success of this videogame, has decided to introduce it as an extracurricular activity, giving rise to real tournaments to instill soft skills such as socialization, collaboration and stimulate concentration. And it seems to have worked, at least judging by the enthusiasm with which the students responded to the initiative.
Learning how to think ultimately means learning how to make the right decisions: evaluating evidence, analyzing situations, determining long-term goals, and then deciding.
Each game has its own characteristics, its strengths and its charm. Thus, for example, a game that simulates the administration of a city or a kingdom (for example Civilization) can help develop administrative and managerial skills much more effectively than other activities. “All the intellectual benefits of video games stem from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think ultimately means learning how to make the right decisions: evaluate tests, analyze situations, determine long-term objectives, and then decide, "explains Ceccherelli. "No other form of popular culture directly engages the decision-making apparatus of the brain in the same way".
As we were mentioning previously, though, the world of edutainment does not end with video games. Netflix is the ideal example to demonstrate how new digital content can be useful for transmitting knowledge without losing the pleasure of watching a movie or TV series. For example, the numerous documentaries that Netflix offers, ranging from music to biographies of politicians, news reports, the environment, racial issues, constitute a real well of knowledge in which to dive. And this doesn’t apply only to adults: contents like The Magical School Bus starts to introduce children to the sciences, or films like Oceania teach elements of geography and even a bit of mythology; all of this can be highly instructive for the little ones. One of the most interesting examples in this sense is Carmen Sandiego, an animated series whose main character (inspired by a television program of the 90s) is a "good" thief who travels the world by foiling the evil plans of V.I.L.E. A mix of adventure, suspense and didactics (geography and art content are well integrated in the package) that has brought the character to be recognized as a true icon of edutainment.
Netflix is the perfect example of how new digital content can be useful for transmitting knowledge without losing the pleasure of watching a movie or TV series
Those mentioned are among the positive examples of the use of new digital technologies to make edutainment, but it is clear that there are also some risks involved: it is true that a videogame, however instructive in many ways, can be addictive among children, and therefore should not be taken lightly. Just as it is true that more "out there" content, such as Netflix's Bird Box, a film about a dystopian universe in which a mother has to cross a forest blindfolded to bring her children to safety, could put strange ideas in the minds of the younger audience. In the case of Bird Box, the irresponsible trend that involves walking, running or even driving blindfolded, imitating the protagonist emerged swiftly after the film released. And it seems that the challenge became so popular that Netflix had to send an official statement to clarify that the Bird Box Challenge is dangerous, and in which it invited people not to replicate the experiment stupidly.
From examples, however like this it is clear that nonsensical child’s play, however successful is limited. As it is clear that it is not on those risks that it would make sense to measure the appropriateness of the contents. Because vandalism would exist even without Clockwork Orange and violence would be there even if the shooter videogames were banned.
But it is also evident that, as always, every novelty – whether strictly technological or even cultural – brings both opportunities and risks. And therefore, in order to exploit them well, we need to consider both. Of course edutainment represents a potentially very fruitful opportunity to involve students, so it could (and probably should) be more encouraged in the school environment. How to do it remains one of the most pressing questions. Companies, as we have seen, are always ready to refine and develop their content. Exploiting this positive energy to create partnerships between the entertainment and education systems, then, could be a good starting point.