I have a love-hate relationship with my kids' video games. Especially where it concerns my son, who has a passion for electronic entertainment flowing through his veins and finds Nirvana in a good shooter game -- a concept that makes me cringe.
Some writers, including Steven Johnson and Marc Prensky, are telling parents that, while parental limits are in order, video games are nothing to fear. Many of us have pried a kid away from a video game to do schoolwork, or used a game to bribe him to do schoolwork. Marc Prensky offers us this provocative statement: kids are hooked on video games, ignoring schoolwork, because they're learning more from the video games.
Today's game-playing kid enters the first grade able to do and understand so many complex things -- from building, to flying, to reasoning -- that the curriculum they are given feels like their mind is being put in a strait jacket, or that their milk is being laced with sedatives. Every time they go to school they must, in the words of one student, "power down."The games Prensky is exploring are not "educational" computer games. While these programs may be useful for reinforcing certain skills, they are relatively simple. He is mainly talking about role-playing games, including Runescape, Age of Empires, Zoo Tycoon, Spore, Sim City, and the much-maligned Grand Theft Auto.**
Many kids learn more quickly and thoroughly from the games they love than from academic work because, well, they love them. They're engaged, fully attentive, and learning through their passions. Furthermore, according to Prensky, these games speak their language. Our kids, who were conceived in the era of prolific electronic communication, are "digital natives." We parents, on the other hand, were reared in an the era of print encyclopedias, card catalogs, and "snail mail." We're "digital immigrants." So one of the problems we have with our kids' gaming is that we just don't "get it" -- we're separated by cultural differences.
Some of the Benefits of These Video Games (In a Nutshell):***
- They help develop a player's visual selective attention -- when many things are going on at the same time, they can figure out what's most important to the task at hand and filter out the rest.
- No one explains all the rules of these video games in advance. Players have to carefully observe what's going on and make inferences. Kind of like the scientific process.
- Players need to develop complicated strategies to overcome obstacles. Kind of like life.
- Gamers practice situational awareness -- tuning into the environment and making good decisions quickly. This is one reason the military makes extensive use of computer simulations in training.
- They get great at multi-tasking, or parallel processing -- effectively dealing with many things at the same time
Prensky goes on to explore the role of video gaming in parenting and education. Prensky argues that the main reason we are so worried about our kids' gaming is that we really have no idea what's going on when they're glued to these "mindless" electronic amusements. He suggests that you sit beside your child while he's playing a favorite game. Pay attention to the challenges he's facing. Ask questions. Find out what your child's favorite video games are and why. Is it simply the eye candy or the opportunity to commit heinous acts of violence in the virtual world? Or is it the challenge -- the opportunity to devise complex strategies and keep getting better at it?
I can tell you that this approach was eye-opening for me. I once invited my son James to teach me to play a fantasy role playing game. I wrote about it here. What I learned from the experience, in a nutshell, is -- well, all the female warriors in these RPGs wear minimal clothing and have insanely large boobs. And these kinds of games are too damn hard for me. So James was rewarded for his patient tutoring by never again having to hear me say, "Those stupid video games are going to rot your brain!!!" (just as my parents once warned us of the brain-damaging effects of too much television). THAT particular myth was debunked for me.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is somewhat narrower in scope than Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson, but is more practical, exploring the role of video games in kids' lives and educational planning in more detail. Prensky does a good job of explaining the complexity of role playing games to "digital immigrants," helping bridge the culture gap between us and our "digital native" kids. It also offers practical suggestions for communicating with kids about their electronic interests and nurturing the positive aspects of gaming. I recommend this book to all parents, regardless of how you feel about kids playing video games, to get a fresh perspective on this issue.
**As a side note, I don't let my son play Grand Theft Auto -- I think it's the only video game that's banned in this house, at least for people under 40. :-P My husband has it, and he once let James try it out -- he told the kiddo that he could explore the city and enjoy the driving and graphics, as long as he avoided the thugs and prostitutes. Well, that didn't work. James told me when you avoid the violent and racy stuff, the game throws them at you -- people start popping out and shooting at you. The bottom line: even when you try to avoid trouble it manages to track you down. Life is sometimes like that, isn't it? I've BTDT. :-P
***For those of you who have delved into Relationship Development Intervention for kids on the autism spectrum, don't these look like core dynamic thinking skills? I would love to see somebody do some serious research on the benefits of gaming -- if done correctly -- for kids with autism and Asperger's. This sounds like a topic for another post.
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