Pixels Like White Elephants

Let me admit this right up front: I used to love video games, but these days I rarely play them. They’re one of many abandoned interests that got set aside when I had kids. But I’m thankful video games were a part of my life, and I hope they’re a part of my kids’ lives.

When I struggle to decide whether something behooves my kids, I try to remember to ask myself this question: are you applying your own agenda to your child, or are you letting them develop autonomy? Perhaps you personally have no issue with video games, but you read the articles in the parenting magazines! And the things your sister-in-law said about how video games promote aggression! Will the children forget to eat?! Don’t they need to get some fresh air?!

Yeah, I feel you. But also… guys. Video games are fun, and they are a normal part of being a kid now. There is a ton of evidence that they support a lot of positive stuff, without contributing to the negative stuff that pervades all the clickbait stories. So if you’re already into Sudbury schooling and other radical things, let’s have a radical conversation about the positive impact that video games can have on kids.

Video games can support literacy advances in kids who have struggled with reading skills. This was studied because action-based video gaming has been shown to increase attentiveness (we’re not talking about “educational” or “PBS type” games, but in this case Rayman’s Raving Rabbids, which is a commercial Wii game that is almost totally action- and reflex-oriented). Because dyslexia and attention are known to be linked in ways we don’t completely understand, researchers undertook a study on how action-based video gaming impacts kids with dyslexia. Turns out it has a positive impact! Check out the summary of the study, because it links to a lot of other research on how video games have a positive impact on players’ attention.

What else? Well, playing a commercial game — in this study, Super Mario 64 — can support structural brain plasticity, promoting increases in grey matter in the regions of the brain responsible for “spatial navigation, memory formation, strategic planning, and fine motor skills of the hands.” The study speculates that this phenomenon could have some cool applications. For example, modern medicine may be able to design games that can restore the grey matter that has been deteriorated by illnesses such as schizophrenia & Alzheimer’s. That’s awesome, but in the meantime, I’m happy to just let my kids’ brains grow in a way that they find fun. You can buy the original article from Nature for about $30.

One concern that people still bring up a lot is the supposed link between video games and real-life violence. Look: if entertainment causes violence, you better keep your kids away from Shakespeare. Compare the heebie jeebies caused by any pixelated blood splash to what happens to Lavinia in Titus Andronicus. There’s intense content in all forms of media, but I’m always intrigued to hear so many concerns about too much screen time and not enough Shakespeare. Shakespeare was the Grand Theft Auto V of the Elizabethan era. And then some.

South Korea and the Netherlands spend almost three times as much as we do per capita on video games. If there was a correlation between video games and violence, you’d expect these countries to be three times more violent as the U.S. But neither of these are places I’ve ever thought, “I don’t want to go there, it’s too violent.” How about you?

All these studies are cool and validate the idea that video games aren’t necessarily going to make your kids brains ooze out their eyes. But really, most of what I have to offer is my experience of watching new friendships develop as kids learn to cooperate with one another in a world where anything is possible, like Minecraft. Four kids playing together engineer a complex structure through negotiation and cooperation. They run into a ton of interpersonal conflicts and solve them without outside help. They face setbacks when things don’t work and seek alternative solutions. They annoy one another and stand up for themselves in response. This stuff is all good, and I see it happen every day.

And yes, some kids do play alone a lot, for various reasons. They investigate the world of a game and learn all its little secrets, and in turn they become a messenger who carries this secret knowledge with them. But it becomes a way to connect with other people, even when they do initially spend all that time alone. “Have you done the Skyrim quest where…?” “No! Where does it start?” “You have to go to the cave north of the capital…” and then you have something to talk about together, a story to compare, one that each of you will have a slightly different experience of. And in time you talk about other things, and really, don’t many of your friendships start this way, with talk about work, or what you’re reading together in a book club, or a common popular interest you happen to share with a stranger? When a less social kid gravitates towards the most popular media of their generation and becomes an expert in its secrets, I think to myself, here’s a kid who wants to connect. I honestly don’t know if I could think of a better strategy for easing carefully into the nuanced world of human connection than that.

Understanding the technological world that kids live in now is going to be critical to understanding the technological world that the adults who are growing up now will build in 2030, 2050, and beyond. I bought Minecraft for my kids while I was writing this article, but I don’t know how to play it. Turns out, my kids want me to teach them, so we can all play together. Maybe it’s time for me to throw some snacks and a couple tablets in my bag, head to the park, and pick up video gaming again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *