Such doubts we have about video games! Which makes sense: it’s something that we parents didn’t grow up with, which many of us don’t understand, yet it’s becoming a basic part of childhood for many of our kids.
People always fear the unknown. And the media plays on fear. Stories that feed our fears and amplify them attract readers. Which is why it’s easy to find so many stories on the negative aspects of video games. How they’re addictive, how they keep kids from learning.
I respect any parent’s decision to keep video games out of their kids’ lives. But I respect that decision even more if the parent has really explored the issue first. Both sides, negative and positive. I think the truth is that most parents have only looked at the negative side of gaming. Or maybe, like me, they’ve allowed gaming, but they haven’t been happy about it. For me, the positives have only revealed themselves slowly, over the years.
But I think we’re doing our kids a disservice not to look at the entire picture of gaming. Because our kids are growing up in a different world, and there’s a good chance that video games can help prepare them for that world.
(I’m hoping that my friend Carrie L. will read this post and comment. Recently she had a conversation about gaming with a twenty-something young woman who works at Google–a Stanford grad, I think– and the conversation really changed her perspective.)
If you’re willing to explore the positive side of video games, my readers and I have some recommendations.
I mentioned this one in the comments. It’s a book I just found at the library, on the positive aspects of video and computer games: Don’t Bother Me Mom–I’m Learning! by Marc Prensky. It’s fascinating. I especially like that it promotes discussion between parents and kids about what the kids are doing when they play games.
Reader Carrie sent a link to this episode of Science Friday, from just the other day. It’s an interview with Jane McGonigal, who wrote the recent book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. I haven’t read the book, but I think you can get a pretty good sense of where she’s going with it in the interview. Compelling stuff. (You can listen or read a transcript.)
My friend Molly also sent an NPR link, from Morning Edition: Video Games Boost Brain Power, Multitasking Skills.
No one commented specifically on what T said in that last post, but I’m still fascinated by it. (I think the video game topic makes us parents just throw up our arms and get panicky.) T was using video games as a metaphor for how to learn. The fact that he thinks of video games this way makes me realize how much I’ve underestimated their value.
“I like learning the way I do when I play video games.”
I asked him to tell me more and he said this,
“I don’t like someone telling me exactly what to do, but I don’t like being in the dark either. I like having my path clear, but my goal unclear.”
In other words, he likes knowing which way he needs to go, but he also wants to discover in the process. That strikes me as a very creative, meaningful way to learn. Video games gave him this metaphor–wow!–but he wants more of his learning to be like this.
It’s also been interesting to watch how video games play out in T’s life. Often, he’ll play onscreen for a while, and then he’ll turn off the game but continue to play it “live”, moving around the room, re-enacting scenes and acting as one of the characters. He’ll extend the story as he pleases. He’ll also sit down and draw characters from the games, and then he’ll dream up his own characters to add. Or he’ll take an idea from a game and write (or dictate) his own story. Playing the games is just the beginning; T’s own imagination fleshes out the game worlds, and invents new ones. (Are video games T’s only source of creative inspiration? Not in the least. I’ve written about how the ancient Greeks are a current passion for him. Although that passion was certainly fueled by his playing of Age of Mythology… Games and books and learning and life are all wound together for him.)
Because writing is a particular interest of mine, I’ve read lots on how gaming can engage boys with literacy. I have several recommendations: Boy Writers by Ralph Fletcher; Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men by Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm; Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture by Thomas Newkirk. All point out how we miss an opportunity if we don’t allow boys’ fascination with games to become fodder for their writing. If boys can bring their excitement towards games to their writing, their writing often bears the same energy and passion. And for boys who don’t have a drive to read and write, gaming can provide motivation.
Do you have a sense of how much kids write when they’re playing video games–at least older kids who play more complex games? They often communicate with others as they play together online. Many post questions on forums for help, and some write game reviews.
I turned up an interesting tidbit while researching an article I’m writing. It came from this transcript which interprets writing test scores from the 2007 NAEP. (The National Assessment of Education Progress, also known as “The Nation’s Report Card”.) I’m not a fan of standardized tests because I think they can undermine how and what we allow kids to learn on an everyday basis, but it is interesting to look at them as a means of considering group shifts over time.
“According to our 2007 results, the gap between male and female 12th-grade students is getting smaller. Twelfth-grade boys are improving their scores at a faster rate than 12th-grade girls. However, the gap has not changed for 8th-grade students. Eighth grade boys and girls are improving at about the same rate.”
The transcript doesn’t offer an explanation for why twelfth-grade boys’ scores are improving, but I have an inkling. My guess is that in the last few years, boys have been writing more than ever before in daily life, with texting, Facebook and gaming. People like to dismiss this sort of writing as lazy and error-riddled, but they fail to see the bigger picture: the more you write, the more comfortable you get with writing, and the more your writing improves. I’m guessing that older boys are gaining a facility with writing from their everyday lives, and it’s spilling over into their school writing. My guess is that twelfth grade girls have already developed a certain level of written literacy for school–as evidenced by their long-running higher-than-boys writing scores–so their real-world writing isn’t making as much of an impact. Also, on the whole, they’re not doing as much gaming, and hence may not be writing casually as often as the boys. (The fact that eighth grade boys didn’t have the same increases may have to do with the fact that younger boys, in 2007 anyway, probably weren’t doing as much casual writing as the older boys. Just my hypothesis.)
Literacy is only one benefit of gaming. The books above offer many other benefits: collaboration skills, ethics, creative thinking, economic skills… There’s a lot to think about. H was the kid who really had to educate me on all of this. And when I consider his filmmaking interests, I realize that they are closely tied to all the time we allowed him to explore with the computer, both with games and with playing with applications like iMovie and Garage Band. H developed skill and agility on computers that led to real-life interests and plans.
I don’t mean to sound as if I’m saying Video games are great! You should let your kids play them all day! Not at all. One thread that came up again and again in the comments is the notion of balance and moderation. I’m right there with you on that. Quite honestly, it would be much easier to simply forbid gaming, or to let my kids monitor themselves. Monitoring kids on games can be a real pain. So much time spent researching the “right” games, so much time spent telling kids it’s time to get off. So much time. But I’ll keep monitoring this way. I think we all learn from our conversations about moderation. I’m helping my kids to learn balance; they’re teaching me to respect something that matters to them that I don’t fully understand. It’s worth the time.
I think that we parents sometimes look nostalgically at our own childhoods, wishing our kids could have the same freedoms that we had: freedoms to ride bikes across neighborhoods, to play unsupervised in creeks and fields and abandoned buildings. (Michael Chabon’s essay The Wilderness of Childhood is a beautiful exploration of this.) But I read somewhere recently (oh, where did I read it?) that kids today get their freedom in their lives online and on screens. I suppose that those of us from earlier generations would find this notion unspeakably sad. And I think it’s important that we try to find ways for our kids to develop freedom and independence in the real world. But I wonder if most kids today would find that notion of screen freedom depressing. I don’t think so. The virtual world is part of their real world, and we oldsters may never fully understand that. But I think it’s important for us to try. We can offer the best of our own worlds to our kids, but they’ll be more likely listen if we let them do the same for us.