Why Video Games Aren't Turning Kids' Brains To Mush
It's summer vacation. The kids have acres of time to fill. So, of course, they're in the basement playing some video game that involves either weapons or skateboards.
Who can doubt that their minds are turning into chipped beef on toast as they sit in the dim light, their educations and social lives leaking away? As a conscientious baby boomer parent, you might feel a gravitational pull to say: "Turn that off and read a book!"
Or play piano, or run outside, or get in a street fight. Anything but play more video games.
Except that kind of thinking might be all wrong.
The sense that video games are bad is about to become as dated as the four basic food groups, the philosophy of spare the rod and spoil the child, and asbestos as a safety feature.
Video games might be about the best thing your kids can do to ensure their future success. Better, even, than reading. At least that's what two books (ironically enough) and a growing chunk of conventional wisdom are saying.
Yes. Right. If you want your offspring to pay your Florida condo bills when you retire, better start telling them to put down that stupid Faulkner novel and get back to "Halo 2."
Which feels a lot like the moment in "Sleeper" when Woody Allen finds out that in 2173, cream pies and hot fudge are health foods.
The most prominent argument for video games comes from Steven Johnson, author of the much-discussed and often tsk-tsked book "Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter." Johnson's previous book, "Mind Wide Open," was about the brain, which gave him insights into how video games affect the minds of kids.
"With most video games, at every point you have to make decisions," Johnson says. "You have to think about patterns and long-term goals and resources, and then you make decisions and get feedback from the game, and use that to adjust your decisions."
Which is exactly what a Silicon Valley entrepreneur does every day on his or her way to becoming a multibillionaire. Games such as "Halo 2," "EverQuest" or even the lurid "Grand Theft Auto" hone the kind of decision-making abilities that define a successful person.
"And whatever the benefits of reading, you are not making decisions," Johnson says. "You are following someone else's decisions."
Pair that with the social research in a book out late last year, "Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever," by John Beck and Mitchell Wade. They say that video games' importance in the lives of anyone growing up in the 1990s and beyond is changing the way coming generations will work and manage data.
Part of the book's message is: If your kids aren't fluent in video games, they'll wind up at a disadvantage on the job and socially.
"It's hard to see your kids playing a game and feel happy about it," says co-author Wade, a mid-40s parent who struggles with his own boomer instincts that say reading is better than gaming. "But it's worth asking how we know gaming is NOT good for them. If the assumption is that kids should be reading a book, I'm not sure how much good reading will do because it's so unrelated to the way they'll be living their lives."
Isn't the violence bad in video games? Well, yes, but for some reason we don't worry much about violence in books. So what if there's a bloodbath in "King Lear?" Or boys kill boys in "Lord of the Flies?" They're classics!
Now, the authors of the video game books are not saying books are as dead as vinyl records. After all, these individuals decided that writing books was the best way to communicate their points. Writing remains perhaps the most efficient way to get across a lot of complex information. And reading helps kids learn language and how to structure a narrative — both helpful when, say, pitching a company to venture capitalists or arguing a case in court.
But the authors are challenging the belief that books are automatically better than video games. Johnson writes a funny bit about what critics would say if video games had been around for 300 years and books were just invented. The send-up calls books "tragically isolating" and says libraries "are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and socially interactive, sitting alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers."
Here's the test, though: How do Johnson and Wade respond when their kids disappear into video games for hours at a time?
Both say they basically let it go but add that if your kid has an addictive personality and does nothing else, then it's probably time to intervene.
Johnson makes the point that all video games are not created equal. Racing games and shooting games probably don't do a young mind much good. But story games such as "The Legend of Zelda" or "Halo 2" or so-called god games such as "The Sims" or "RollerCoaster Tycoon" push kids to think and make decisions. Parents might want to choose which games their kids play for hours on end.
While you're at it, you might want to ask your kids to teach you how to play their favorite games.
Back in the frontier days, illiterate farmers probably didn't think highly of their young-uns "wasting time" reading. It's not that much different for boomers and video games. It's difficult to like something you stink at.