Mikko Ylimäki and Kati Hopiavuori photographed by Juha Hämäläinen

Peliliike is a EU-funded project that has tested digitalisation, games and gamification as tools for public youth services in Oulu. This Summer marks the end of the three-year project.
Literally translated as “gameplay”, or with a vernacular twist, “tactical move” (or, if you want to get really literal, “gaming store”), the project has been something of a clever play in itself, involving youth in the decisions for which mini-projects to choose. TaikaBox has twice been part of the Skillimylly (Skill Mill) part of the project.
Pasi recently got together with project manager Mikko Ylimäki and project coordinator Kati Hopiavuori to talk about what they have learned through running Peliliike.

Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is Peliliike?

MY: To put it simply: it’s a project funded by the City of Oulu and the European Social Fund. Designed somewhere in the bowels of the City of Oulu, it moved to the department of educational and cultural services, and from there, to us. The project started in 2021 and we will close shop in August. Peliliike has two main parts: the Skillimylly part, which is a total of 22 smaller projects that the youth and youth workers have together chosen, and a more general, ongoing survey, sort of, for digital youth services – channels, tools, what do the young people use themselves, that sort of thing. 

KH: The main thing for the project was to let the youth participate, and from there, to reach the youth that have no tools for other kinds of social interaction. We asked our collaborators to think of new ways to do digital youth work, and they suggested Discord servers, gaming and streaming workshops, a rap lyrics workshop… Things that they themselves thought would interest them and their friends. 

TaikaBox took part in Skillimylly this spring (2023) with Taidelab – a series of workshops to introduce interactive projection, music and dancing possibilities. How do you think it panned out?

KH: Well, it was a bit of a wild card, and in my opinion had the potential for a nice failure, but all in all I think it was a reasonable success. At first, the youth were a bit hesitant to try things out, even if it was out of sight at the back, around the corner. But, you had five sessions? I think they sort of got used to you during the end, and started trying stuff out. The new venue, Nurkka (Corner), helped somewhat, being in a very central location in town – I think a few people who wouldn’t have dreamed of having anything to do with dance came and took the lab for a test drive. And I think that’s a good example of collaboration between a public city department and a fairly specific professional field of arts. 

Fear of embarrassment, it’s a huge thing.

KH: Especially in an almost completely open space where everything is based on voluntary doing and being and participation, yeah, it’s a challenge. But it goes to show how significant creating a physically and psychologically safe space really is. What is good about Nurkka is that it’s not totally wide open, there’s this little nook at the back, where you were running your Lab. So the environment prevents this feeling of being out in the open, experimenting.

MY: But finding an answer to the embarrassment problem, that envelops the whole youth work sector. And it’s not just the youth, I won’t go to a fancy café by myself, but if I’m with others, no problem, there’s security in numbers.

Video generated during the Taidelab workshops

What have you learned during this time?

KH: I guess, through the Skillimylly test projects, the whole idea of digitalisation of youth work and the vastness of it – it’s up to your imagination what to do with all the tools and platforms that are available.

MY: Gaming in youth work is something of a new thing, although gaming in itself isn’t. This means that there are still rough edges to work around – for instance, individual youth professionals may be responsible for the whole gaming activity in a youth centre. So, should that person leave, he or she takes the activity along – it’s not a knowledge that has spread through the workplace. That’s something that we tried to take into consideration in the project. 

Also, when you think about digital gaming, it’s something that keeps changing all the time. And there’s this wonderful thing in youth work that we can very quickly latch on to new cultures and phenomena that are on the rise. For instance, AI is something that we have used for some time, while educational services are now thinking how it could be used in the schools. 

Any ideas how such routines and continuity could be implemented, so that it’s not a responsibility of any single person?

MY: Firstly, it shouldn’t be based on an individual’s personal interests on this level, and it’s not just about gaming, it can be a skate club, cooking group, whatever that requires some personal interest. If we give the youngsters some control and responsibility, and transcribe the tacit knowledge we get, I think there would be good results. For some reason, I have this feeling of youth work that we’re really good at saying what we should do, you know, as workers towards the youth. But whether it’s using your hours to keep the centre active or whatnot, there doesn’t seem to be enough time to write down the educational reasons for having an online gaming team, or how forming a skateboarding group adheres to the goals the city council has decreed to the department. So I think putting the practises into words would be a good start. Maybe some might think that it would just be tooting your own horn, but it would be beneficial to know the reasons behind activities, if you’re not a youth work professional yourself. 

If you think about youth work in general – not just gaming, for now – what are the top three important things?

KH: First, supporting the participation of the youth themselves. It’s crucial that we have these devices and possibilities for young people to go and affect the activities and services that are there for them, and that they can use these enablers to do so in the future as well. And then, the basic support of their well-being, having spaces and places for them to be themselves in, and to do so safely and with our support.

MY: And for the third pillar, I would say supporting the independence process of a young person. If you go and google up a map of a youth becoming independent, there’s loads of stuff involved. What might be a good thing for a youth worker to support is the relationship of a young person within. And also, finding or helping to find peer relations, so the person is not alone with those nagging doubts. It’s really important to be able to throw the ideas to someone else, and if there’s a professional along the process, all the better. Without a professional, the negative might take effect, but a youth worker can see if someone comes to the centre in a bad mood and leaves it in a worse mood, then he or she can offer a listening ear, and if that is not enough, see if there is need for other parts of the service network, like medical advisory.

So, we have possibilities and basics. What about the challenges?

MY: I’ll raise tacit knowledge here again. Although there are various networks for youth professionals, we should have a channel where we could write all this quiet information down to be distributed and read. Of course, that probably won’t change everything for the better, but still. And another one is having to justify digital tools and games, even though it’s a global phenomenon, even after all the metrics are showing that it’s getting bigger post-Covid, and even though practically everybody plays games. Some people just see it as a four-letter word, as antisocial behaviour, though it’s the opposite. There are amazing possibilities in online gaming, and social communities are the thing that creates gaming culture. And even if you play single player games, there are outlets where you usually discuss your playing with others. 

Also, we’re now talking about “digital youth work”, as if there is a counterbalance to it, “analogue youth work”? We don’t say “digital teaching” or “digital preschooling”, though it’s an everyday thing in those circles. But maybe we still promote our open doors in Instagram, though there is a plethora of more suitable and accessible platforms that the youth use – apps, sites, Discord. So the challenge is that as a department, maybe we don’t yet dare trust the youth themselves to tell us how they would like to be digitally connected, or what would be fun to try out. 

It’s just a difficulty of choice. Maybe the public sector should start a unit that just goes through the latest tools and platforms, and suggests to which department they might be suitable – this might work as a chatting tool among nurses in the same wing, this might work for the education, or events, or administration. But I guess the problem is also that tools and platforms come and disappear, and change over time.

KH: That’s why, in our field, it would be important to have the youth participate in what to do and how to do it, because in our case, they are the ones who know what’s going on, and they know what interests them. 

MY: It might be hard to understand where the professional youth work kicks in. If we’re playing Gartic Phone one day, well yeah, ok, fun and games. But what they are missing are the reasons behind that. Maybe in that one group there was a person who has been timid in having his voice heard, or playing that particular game might help them group up and bond. Or something as simple as having a Discord server: let’s start a dedicated group there. That might be enough to have someone come over, someone who wouldn’t have otherwise. That’s the professional side of it: making small things so people take small steps. 

What about other creativity? With digital tools, everything is possible. 

MY: The more creative direction the professional work gets, the more it would require hobbyism or otherwise extensive knowledge for the worker. You have to at least have fired the software up a few times and know the basics to do anything. Youth centres all over Finland use professionals and companies for this for arts, game design, photo studios are called in, music stuff as well. Then, the youth worker’s bit is to take care of communality and the educational aspect of it, not the content creation in itself. We had a workshop originally called “word art”, which I quickly translated to “rap workshop”. Well, soon enough we realised that now on top of making rhymes, we need someone who actually knows the beats and the scene and has decent gear to do things, and it wouldn’t take off at all if it was just someone with zero street credibility.

KH: Credibility is one thing, but we’re also fast approaching the limit of a youth worker’s professionalism – how many different software, applications and art genres does one need to have control of if there is a need for it? In youth work we have our lot, and that is supporting a young person to grow towards adulthood. Since there is a network of professionals, we want to create that network of collaboration towards our field so the educational part doesn’t go missing. For instance, we’ve had some coding courses, so we know something, but if we were to have a coding day, I think the kids would just whoosh right past us and ask for something we don’t already know.

photo by Juha Hämäläinen

Mikko Ylimäki and Kati Hopiavuori were talking with Pasi Pirttiaho

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