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Tips For Adulthood: Five Virtues of Video Games

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood. In the grand scheme of things, our household is pretty far out there on the anti-screen-time spectrum....

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

In the grand scheme of things, our household is pretty far out there on the anti-screen-time spectrum.

Our kids don’t own DS’s or Wii’s or Playstations, we limit their computer time, and neither my husband nor I ever plays video games.

I make no apologies for this lifestyle, as I’ve always believed – pace Roger Ebert and assorted others – that my time is better spent on other forms of art. Moreover, where my kids are concerned, I’m with those who maintain that children are better off learning to be bored.

And yet, a lot of my grown up friends play games. And many are firm believers that there is a lot to be said for gaming, beyond it just being fun.

In this spirit, and because – as a journalist – I firmly believe that you need to check your own biases, I’ve assembled five intelligent arguments I’ve come across recently about the relative merits of gaming. I’m not saying that I necessarily buy into the following list hook, line and sinker. But it has made me question some of my own suppositions.

To wit, here are five putative virtues of video games:

1. They teach you about complex systems. According to the Boston Globe, the next frontier for video games are ones that teach you about current events. Whether it’s how to understand the causes of the credit crunch or preventing the outbreak of food-borne disease, these games are thought to force people to see the news as a realm of choice and complexity rather than as packaged information. And that is something that traditional news outlets – by definition – cannot do.

2. They reward courage, skill and honor. That, at least, is the argument put forth by writer Trevor Butterworth in The Daily, who only discovered the joys of gaming in middle age. While Butterworth acknowledges that the worlds he creates Online aren’t as labor-intensive as the model-building he engaged in as a youth, he feels that the games industry has become, in effect, “a tribal elder for the world’s teenagers, pushing them through ever more complex feats of prestidigitation.” Others also see the potential for the acquisition of “real world” skills via gaming, whether because they reward good behavior or because, like chess, they teach strategy or planning.

3. They are interactive. If you’re like me, it’s tempting to put video games in the same box as television – i.e. as a mindless, passive activity that saps the imagination. But as a fellow commenter on Butterworth’s post pointed out, there’s actually a big difference between TV and video games. The former *is* passive, whereas the latter enables you to have input into your own story. In fact, he went so far as to favor video gaming over books on this point because you don’t have to read someone else’s tale; you are able to create your own. Food for thought.

4. They don’t have to come at the expense of reading. I think that a lot of parents – myself included – fear that video games will ruin our children’s desire to read. I’m not sure that we have conclusive evidence on this point yet. (One study suggests that having computers in the home increases a child’s computer literacy but not his or her literacy, although that’s somewhat different than video games per se.) But I was quite taken with this account by fellow-traveller Lorraine Rice who recounts how – despite her own reservations – she felt that video games taught her son how to read and to understand history. This whole question still makes me nervous, but I did find her piece reassuring.

5. They are inevitable. Of all the arguments in favor of video games, I find this to be the most persuasive, especially where children are concerned. As writer Andrew Leonard on Babble concludes, even if you try to eliminate violent video games in your own home, they are going to encounter them somewhere else. So you’re ultimately better off talking to your kids about what they are encountering in these games – and being part of that world *with* them – than pretending that this isn’t an integral part of today’s cultural landscape. A hard thing to swallow, but there it is.

So now I turn it over to you. What do you think? Are video games uniformly bad for kids or do they have some upsides?

Image: Video Game Walhalla by localjapantimes via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

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  1. daryl boylan July 6, 2011 at 8:34 pm #

    ah…. duh. . .Surely there are other & better ways of helping kids acquire the skills v-games purport to improve? That being said, argument #5 (everybody’s doing them) is the strongest. Be assured that kids will get lots of exposure to said v-games if they never, ever set screen in your home..

  2. Sally Laurent-Muehnleisen July 6, 2011 at 9:44 pm #

    It may not be a universal experience (far from it), but when I, my husband and my daughter (then 8 years old) spent two weeks in VERY rural France on vacation, my daughter, despite not speaking more than maybe two dozen words of French, became friends with two little girls in the town, who, themselves maybe spoke 50 words of English. How did they do it? By playing their DS’s together! A friend of mine had been calling the DS the DeSocializer, but I found – in this narrow venue – that it worked as a wonderful socializer. These girls didn’t just spend time on their DS’s together, but it served to bring them together to start. Some common experience they could share, despite not even speaking the same language, much less coming from fairly different cultures.

    • delialloyd July 7, 2011 at 10:30 am #

      @Sally-what a great story! I have seen the same dynamic with sports. It’s a sort of universal experience that lets you cross cultures. Love this!

  3. Kelly July 6, 2011 at 11:24 pm #

    Re: point 4–my partner is currently working towards her PhD in English from a well-regarded university, specializing in video game studies. She spent her childhood playing video games and yet can also read dense theory tomes with (relative) ease. Games and books don’t have to be mutually exclusive!

  4. Lynn T July 7, 2011 at 2:14 am #

    I read. I game.

    My child games. She also won a school wide award for Outstanding Achievements in Reading.

    I’m certainly not going to be a hypocrite and not let my daughter game when my husband and I both do it. Also, I don’t see that most video games are less interactive than, say, futzing around writing a blog or otherwise messing around on the web (Facebook, Twitter, etc).

  5. delialloyd July 7, 2011 at 10:26 am #

    @daryl-yes. @kelly-fascinating! I have seen that gaming has made its way into academe. @Lynn-that’s terrific news. And as someone who “futzes around” a lot on the internet, I must reluctantly agree.

  6. Kim July 7, 2011 at 4:13 pm #

    I’m with you on not liking computer games, I think I’d restrict my children’s access to them too when I have some. Having said that though, my little brother definitely learnt to read *because* of computer games – he was completely not interested in reading, no matter what books my Mum bought him. Then he joined an online game community (a very innocent affair where they played games like Harry Potter) where you could chat to your opponent in real time. And because he wanted to know what the other people were saying to him, he suddenly paid attention! He even likes books now too, he just needed a good reason to make that leap. Maybe it’s a boy thing…!

  7. C.M. Mayo July 7, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    What’s really scary is that so manyof them hook kids up with other players, god-knows-where via Skype and such. I remember pin ball: that was hugely addictive but it had a built in brake– you had to feed the machine quarters. Maybe that would be a great gizmo: the dollar eater. So sure, you can play all you want, but each round costs a buck of your allowance.

    Well, interesting and thoughtful points… but I am still extrenely leery of computer games.

    • delialloyd July 12, 2011 at 10:01 am #

      @CM-yes I like the pinball analogy too. It’s a bit like what @cathy said about having her kids pay for their subscriptions to various games. And now that you mention it, I miss pinball!

  8. Maria July 8, 2011 at 8:08 am #

    My son has just turned 21 months, so it’s too early to tell if there are any benefits in video games. I did notice that he got hooked on watching Winnie the Pooh videos on youtube and had a few weeks of tantrums every time I refused him the pleasure. After reading a lot of articles on the actual damage that a TV or computer screen does to an infant/toddler, I decided there would be no more videos. I do agree with you on the pathological addiction. My best friend’s son who is 6, plays video games designed for adults. Loads of violence. When the week-end comes, he spends even 4-5 hours in front of the TV. For the parents it is convenient, since they can do their stuff while he’s busy with the gaming. When we went to visit he was asking us constantly if we could come upstairs and watch him play. The ultimate fun! The grandparents are quite worried because he’s borrowing behaviour from the characters, shouting and acting like the monsters he kills. The mom thinks that 1-2 hours a day in front of the computer/tv is not something to worry about. He was exposed to computer games since he was my son’s age. I guess it’s up to the parents, but the people around see how anxious the boy is and I do hope he’s not going to have learning difficulties later in his life. It does not help that the father is a proper gamer. I used to play occasionally in my uni years, but once I saw how hooked I got on strategy games, up to the point of forgetting to get out of the house, I stopped. Surely, there are better ways to live and experience the world around us.

    • Delia Lloyd July 8, 2011 at 9:25 am #

      @maria-thanks for this. agree that that situation sounds troubling and it is far too common. we didn’t let either of our kids watch TV till they were 3 and I’m convinced that’s why they don’t watch it today (even though no longer prohibited.) A little goes a long way, in gaming as in everything…

  9. Cathy July 9, 2011 at 11:08 pm #

    Having three boys, all of them completely video game addicts (and yes they are), I still see them as a part of life no matter what I’d prefer. If I didn’t have them in my home, they would often be asking to go over so-and-so’s house because they’d be there. They are interactive. Our XBOX system allows my teenage son to stay at home, under my watch, and still socialize with his friends. That’s a huge bonus in my opinion. Further, my two older sons have learned a great deal of WWII history as well as mythology from games they’ve played. Finally, they’ve fallen into some games that require a monthly subscription. I require them to pay for it which (I think) teaches them the value of money and working for something.

    Don’t get me wrong, everything in moderation and my recommendation to parents of youngsters is to hold off as long as possible. I limit their screen time – it is a must.

    • delialloyd July 10, 2011 at 8:41 pm #

      @kim and @cathy – yes, this is precisely the kind of “upside” I sort of over=looked. I really like the idea of having the boys pay for their own subscription, Cathy. What a great idea!

  10. Pimp July 10, 2011 at 10:30 pm #

    Well, I think that you are a pretty horrible person for implying that gaming is less of an art than others. You should make apologies for your lifestyle. Maybe I’ll let some of the people at the gaming websites know about what you said…or you could just apologize for being such a bad person…

  11. Richard Aronson July 13, 2011 at 2:35 am #

    I designed (amongst others) the 1995 MMORPG “The Ruins of Cawdor”, based on Macbeth. I did this deliberately in the hope if not expectation that the game might lure some gamers to read the play. It did. The high point of my career as a game designer was a letter from a high school student who, in order to learn more about my game, read the play. Then he wrote a book report on the play, even though the teacher said the play was harder than the books she’d intended. He received his first ever “A” on anything, and evidently it awoke a talent. His grades improved with motivation and positive feedback, and college became a possibility.

    Game design is a relatively new art form, and it can stir emotions (as evidenced by another letter I received from someone who cried because I killed off a recurring character in the penultimate level) and motivate people to change their lives. I know three couples who met playing online games, for example. Most major games have about a novel’s worth of writing in them, and most games encourage reading and improve vocabulary. They are no worse than pinball or pool tables, depending on how often they are played and what kind of family surrounds the child. But I agree that limits on play time are important, and suggest the best approach is to find games parents can play with their children. If you let the games (or television, internet, drugs, or Harry Potter) raise your children, you cannot expect a desirable outcome. But if you participate….

    • delialloyd July 13, 2011 at 8:29 am #

      @Richard-I love this comment-and thanks so much for dropping by. That letter is definitely something to savor. Your last point is well taken…for all of us.

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