August 10, 2009, Category: Blogs, Musings

What are Video Games doing to my Kids?

HP2Q4100b (Medium) When I was a kid, I loved to play and hated to work. I suppose I never grew up. Or maybe somewhere along the line the meanings and labels I attached to play and work got messed up.

I watch my kids now, particularly my son who gets criticized by his mom and sisters (understandably) because of the time he spends playing computer games (currently Call of Duty 4 and World of Warcraft). I love gaming myself so I’m not so quick to criticize, but I too worry about the impact of him spending so much time on the computer.

Ideally, I prefer a balance for my kids. In addition to playing Ultima on my Atari 800XL, I spent a lot of my childhood playing outside in the wilderness. But my kids are growing up surrounded by highways and houses. They don’t have the miles and miles of open land to explore that I did. And in my small town all my friends were easily reached within a 30 minute. Their friends are separated by miles of heavy traffic. I’m not home during the day to structure their time and drive them around and I don’t have the money to send them to camps and/or enroll them in programs to keep them busy all summer. So where does that leave me? Where does that leave them?

As a parent, the things I struggle the most are those that are different than what I experienced growing up in a small Mormon town in Southern Utah. Now, being an agnostic in Seattle I run into tough spots all the time. I constantly have to remind myself that different is not wrong…even though it can feel wrong to me. It’s wrong because it is scary. It’s scary because I don’t know firsthand where the road is leads. But I look around me and see wonderful people much better adapted that me who took different roads. I know my way is not the only way.

I could write about any of my children, they all demonstrate incredible talent and dedication. This time I am going to focus on my son and the hours upon hours he spends playing video games. I think most people look at this behavior (and my allowing him to do it) with a stern frown. But, I’m not so quick to judge. I’m not saying it is an ideal situation, but under the circumstances I not going to condemn it just because it is different that how I grew up. Here are a few positive structural points:

  • I know where he is all day and don’t have to worry.
  • He is online with his friends, talking and interacting with them constantly.
  • He’s not out getting into trouble or hanging with rough kids.
  • In this rough economy, $16.95 per month for a WOW account is a steal for what I’m getting.

But life is more than structure and other factors must be considered. I would never go along with an ideal structure without considering the social, moral, mental, or spiritual cost. I love my son, I want the best life for him and I worry about how he is being molded internally by spending so much time playing games. But, there are several issues regarding him specifically that make me feel a lot better about it and seem to suggest that it is more about circumstance than a complete addiction to gaming.

  • He loves the outdoors and is eager to go camping with us and doesn’t seem to struggle to have fun when we he is away from electronics.
  • He gets his daily jobs done on a fairly regular basis.
  • When he has opportunities to go do things with his friends, he takes advantage of them.
  • He loves to spend time with his younger cousins (hold them, joke with them, and play games with them).
  • Most of the time, he will break away from playing to watch a movie, play a board game, or spend some time with company that comes to visit.
  • His grades are good during the school year.
  • He is in good health and not overweight.
  • He manages himself online with regards to who he meets and chats with (and I can monitor this).

Now, I’m not saying this is the ideal situation, but, maybe it’s not as bad as a lot of people think. There is solid research coming in that has begun to point out the educational value of games like World of Warcraft (click here for an example). The learning from these games could cover volumes and is not the purpose of this article but studies have shown extensive educational benefits that reach far beyond what was ever imagined.

But like anything in life, there are drawbacks (especially at the extreme). These games are addictive and have caused grades to plummet, relationships to crumble, and the loss of other hobbies and interests. I also worry about how he will be to launch into the real world, eventually. What about work ethic? What about a passion for education?

As I have been reading “Authentic Happiness” by Martin Selingman (for the second time, it’s a great book), I do see some similarities between the state of “flow” and what occurs while playing these games. Flow is when you lose yourself in a project. You lose track of time and you are engrossed in a task where your skills are matched to your challenges. Flow is a good thing and something we all hopefully experience often. When I watch Curtis playing Call of Duty, there are certainly extreme skills involved (I dare any of you to try and play against him). There is persistence (trying over and over again to win despite setbacks and losses). And anyone who has kids playing video games knows that loss of time is almost guaranteed. In addition, there is a social aspect that requires him to find ways to work with groups of friends and/or strangers to accomplish various tasks.

I do, however, suspect there can be a fine line between flow and addiction. This must be watched closely and managed. However, I wonder if the negative feedback that kids so often hear from playing these games isn’t doing more damage than the actual game playing.

How does a child who is told he is wasting all his time, never going to learn the value of work, and lazy react when something he is passionate about is attacked? My guess isn’t that he’s going to agree and willingly decide to walk away from such activities to pursue a more noble life. Instead, he will dig deeper into his gaming, now, subconsciously starting to believe he is wasting time, never going to learn the value of work, and is lazy.

These labels cause more harm than the behavior itself. Yet the irony is that when I see Curtis playing these games, I see fierce determination, extreme dedication, project management skills, social development, passion, and…get ready for this…hard work.

Before you criticize my entire post as merely an attempt to justify my parenting and my own love for computer gaming, let me just say that you are probably right…but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. I think my idea has validity.

Sitting in front of a computer for hours on end thinking, cursing, re-thinking, and solving problems is what both Curti and I do all day. Sometimes the tasks are intense, others boring and mundane. But we point, click, and churn away. He is doing it in a pretend world with virtual rewards, I am doing it for a paycheck. Instead of pointing out the negative to him, I want to make sure he understands the good things he is learning and label the productive aspects of his behavior with positive terminology that will build him instead of tearing him down. And I don’t just say that to put a spin on a “negative thing.” I don’t deny there aren’t negative angles to spending so much time playing computer games. But given the circumstance, his state of mind, the research, and what I have seen…I truly see a lot of positive aspects of this situation.

In addition helping our kids keep one foot in reality by watching their health/weight, grades, and interaction with family and friends, this is the message I think we should be sending to our young gamers.

You are learning to be dedicated and passionate, the same skills you will need to succeed in your career. You know how to focus and work hard to accomplish a difficult objective. You know how to accept defeat, learn from mistakes, and keep trying again until you succeed. You have learned that hard work will reward you and that by dedicating yourself to an objective, you achieve it. You have learned that when you don’t know how to do something you can research, ask, experiment and try repeatedly until you uncover the solution. You have seen the effects of acting foolish and of being cautious and careful. You have seen the importance of planning, coordinating, and working as a team. You have learned how dangerous it is to team up with somebody who is selfish and greedy (no matter how skilled they are). You know how to seek out people who will sacrifice themselves when necessary for the good of the whole. You know when you must do that yourself and you know when you shouldn’t.

These are important skills that can make you successful in life. Remember that. Just like you can reach your goals in virtual worlds, you can reach lofty goals and success in the real world. Clicking repeatedly for hours on end on monster after monster isn’t so different than the many repeated mundane tasks we face every day. The key difference is that the payoff and rewards come quicker in the gaming world. Real life moves at a slower pace when it comes to dishing out the treasure, but the important thing to always remember is that it does, nonetheless, come. Sometimes you will fail, others times succeed. But as you have learned, if you keep trying…you will ultimately get the reward. All of these skills you have learned can vault you ahead and help you accomplishing great things in the real world rather than seducing you forever into fantasy. You have the skills. You have the dedication. When life is hard and you feel discouraged, remember that you have already proven yourself in the virtual trainer…the world of gaming. You did it there, you can do it here. You do have the skills, you know how to work hard, and success is yours for the taking.

I know you love playing games, so enjoy yourself as long as you (insert your own list here):

  1. Keep your Grades Up
  2. Spend time with the Family
  3. Get some Exercise
  4. Do your chores
  5. Behave appropriately Online

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11 thoughts on “What are Video Games doing to my Kids?

  • By Tracy - Reply

    I agree with just about everything. But how would you feel if his preferences in games were of a more casual nature. Not the intense problem solving and goal/reward structure you’re describing. What if it was hours and hours of freecell?

  • By Warren - Reply

    That’s a good point, Tracy. If that was the case I would be concerned…but not necessarily because of the behavior itself. I think a mindless activity like that that would be an indicator of boredom, depression, discouragement and/or apathy. It should certainly be addressed.

  • By Curtis - Reply

    I agree with this 🙂

  • By Warren - Reply

    Another great article (Thanks Steve): http://discovermagazine.com/2005/jul/brain-on-video-games

  • By Brett Nordquist - Reply

    When I was back in Salt Lake last week, my nephew reminded me how I gave me a DOOM disk for his birthday. He must have been 12 or 13 at the time and his parents weren’t thrilled with my gift. But he loved it and remembered it. 🙂

  • By Grandma Henke - Reply

    As long as there are limits I agree, however in Japan during the 18th century, they had to ban the flying of kites because the people preferred flying kites to working. As long as a balance is maintained it can be both a good incentive for other endeavers and it does teach a lot more skills than watching TV.

  • By Warren - Reply

    Here is another good article:
    http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2009/09/01/2049186.aspx

    I’d really like to see a study done on kids who play TONS of video games. I’m sure there would be plenty of good and bad results…

  • By Warren - Reply
  • By Warren - Reply
  • By Warren - Reply
  • By Warren - Reply

    Jane McGonigal has some great talks on this topic. Here is one of them: http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world#t-35655

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