When I grew up in the 70s and 80s things were very different. I remember very clearly my father blowing his whole paycheck on an Atari 2600 and getting into video games. My friend up the block had a Commodore 64 computer with a few games on it. Yet, mostly for us, we played D&D and did some form of LARPing with waffle-ball bats. Back in those days, gaming was the sub of a sub-culture. It was minor, there were few of us and I was very young.
When I look at the world now, kids in this decade will all have computers, tablets, cell phones, and most likely at least one console in the house. We have truly entered the digital age and the generation growing up now will be extremely adept and advanced at their digital world. The divide will almost become too great in some ways. So as a parent who plays video games, what do you do with your child? I say embrace the digital world they will grow up in, but temper them with plenty of outdoor sports, and social gatherings with their friends to find a balance between real life and electronic life.
My son is five years old. He has played Star Wars: The Old Republic in beta and even has beaten the Diablo 3 beta. I don’t say this to brag, please understand. In many ways I’d rather have my own game time. However, as a parent you always learn those days are quickly over the moment your kid can manipulate a mouse or hold a controller. My son comes into the office and watches what I am doing, and then of course wants to imitate. So here is the question: do I say “No sorry these games are too big for you?” Or do I try to use them as learning tools to get his mind working? Well I went with the second option. Screw it right? I mean learning math and economics is a pain, but learning math and economics when you are buying axes, light sabers, and armor, well that’s just gaming. So we took the leap and started playing these games together.
What is very interesting to note is how children see themselves. He is always very interested in how he looks and could care less about the stats on a weapon. Many times I have heard the line, “But Daddy, that axe has fire on it, I want to keep using it.” Sure the new axe he got was much better, but that didn’t matter. Kids are not min-maxers like some gamers. They go for the effect every time. Another important thing to note is that they like being the good guy. They like helping other characters in the game. This can definitely be used to create a positive self-image and also to make the right choices.
In Star Wars let’s face it: some of the dark side/light side choices are not for kids. But what is important is that he will say, “Daddy I want to help them.” He does, this reasoning has actually carried into his friendships and I’ve seen him make the right choices with friends when pushing starts or kindness is needed. I know this sounds like a weird approach to gaming, but there is a massive difference in what kids learn from a game vs. what they learn from watching a TV show. In a game, the child makes the choice for themselves and they live with the consequences.
By now you are probably asking yourself how I deal with death and gore in the games. Well, I keep things very simple and never use those words. When they are said in the game I very quickly remind him that it is a game. It is not school or home, or playing with his friends which are very much real life. I thought I was approaching dangerous ground here but then one day he said to me, “Daddy, I know it is just a game, and I am not scared.” Well there you have it.
Here is another strange story about this concept. His little friend came over to visit and ran in terror screaming when Scooby Doo was on the TV. He could not watch the show and was terrified of the ghost. My son just said, “It’s just a ghost, silly goose.” The time that my son does wake up with nightmares is when he has an issue with a teacher or a friend. His thoughts and fears are very much grounded in that reality. I suppose this is a good thing. My wife laughs and says, “Better he is afraid us and reality than some zombie.”
So to sum everything up, I have always been a huge fan of games that help you learn and think. All games do in some way, no matter at what level. For children I think too many people try to categorize games that make kids learn. Education is scrambling in many ways to catch up to how our new generation thinks. Do you think teachers can relate to beating a boss in Zelda? Some can I’m sure, but think of what it takes to get there, what it takes to learn the game and use your mind. In the digital age that is coming (or here already), kids will be using games to learn more and more. They will not be shaped by iconic pop culture characters in movies or on TV, they will be shaped by the characters they create themselves in the new media.
I will end on this note, the other day my son was playing Wizard 101 and was sounding out the words. I said, “Are you trying to read in the game?”
“Yes Daddy, I have to learn to read if I want to play by myself, you can’t help me all the time.” I laughed and thought, how can you argue with that? So my advice to parents in this day and age, is to keep a solid balance with your kids, but definitely embrace the world they are growing into, because sooner than you think it will be their own.