I played Halo Reach the other night. I'm not one for "shooting or killing" games necessarily, but there is something about Halo that makes it fun. It is a game filled with tasks, missions, and rules. It requires that you learn about various movements and techniques, and become familiar with weapons. But there are also modes in which you can simply run around, chase other people, and experiment, with no goals or ideal outcomes. In short, I really enjoy it; it is flexible enough to simultaneously be entertaining but not overwhelming.
Over the years, we have become supporters of video games as a great, fun option for our kids. I don't ever recall evaluating video games for their "educational" content, like I did with TV, and I never really paused to consider whether or not video games would be - or could be - harmful for my children. But it is precisely this consideration that gives many parents pause.
Most parents who resist, passively or actively, allowing their children to play video games do so for one of two reasons. Some people believe that the behaviors and actions depicted in the games are inappropriate for the children, due to "mature" content such as violence. Other parents simply believe that video games have no redeeming educational value. I get those arguments; in fact, I used to rely on the first argument when I restricted my on children from the internet, TV, and video games.
For the first parent, concerned about exposing their children to violence in a world that really has more than enough violence as it is, I simply say "I hear you." But I also say that if you believe that you can shelter your child from the darker aspects of our world, you are sorely mistaken - unless you plan to lock them up in a box.
They will see it on the news, on the streets, between their friends, and often in schools. Now, I am not suggesting that because exposure to violence is largely inevitable that you should let your three year old watch "Saw" or run out and purchase "Call of Duty" for your six year old daughter. And I am definitely not suggesting that, if you do decide to allow "mature" programming and games in your home, you should merely hand them over and walk away while your child figures it out for themselves. In fact, I am suggesting the opposite; go slow, go gradual, stay connected, answer questions, calm fears. We're supposed to do that as parents anyway. But don't fall into the trap of assuming that your kid will grow up to be violent by watching or playing violent video games; if you are with them, talking to them, listening and watching and available, I bet that they will quickly understand the distinctions and conduct themselves accordingly. Even without video games, isn't it more likely that your kids will experience difficulty if you leave them alone, ignore their questions, and make yourself unavailable? Of course it is.
For those parents who believe that video games have no redeeming educational value, I simply ask you to sit down and watch your child for a while - not just once for a few minutes, but over a period of time. If we take the time to really pay attention - to put down our iPhones, step away from the TV, lay aside our book - and really watch them, we can see some amazing things. Some of those things are obvious. They can learn about history, art, music, adventure, and a wide array of other things that virtually all parents view as "beneficial learning."
But if we scratch the surface just a bit deeper, we can see their learning in a much more expansive and inclusive light. We see that working through missions and levels can help their critical thinking skills, as they develop a sense of what does and does not work. We see them being exposed to different ways of approaching problems, different characters and settings, and different accents, as they develop an understanding of the vast diversity of thought and approach they will encounter in the world. We see them reading what is on the screen to discern meaning, or better yet inferring meaning from other clues, as they adapt to the wide variety of ways that we acquire and process information -and then we see them use that information to guide their decisions. We see them try the same thing over and over again, often achieving different results if from no other reason than their own unbiased and calm perseverance.
I love this. They can learn history, art, and music; they can also learn critical thinking, diversity, application of new skills, and perseverance. But why stop there? They also learn interpersonal and social skills by playing games and working out their differences with other people (including children of different ages and, dare I say, ADULTS), that gives them practice in understanding the viewpoints and needs of other people. They learn the value of connectivity, as they meet and interact with people from all parts of the world -a critical skills in a global economy. And goodness knows they learn the technology, as any three-thumbed, fumbling parent knows; most of our children are far more adept at using technology than we are.
So, to our wonderful list of advantages (art, music, history, diversity, critical thinking, etc), we can add conflict resolution, viewpoints and needs of others, connectivity, and technological savvy. But there is still one more benefit, beyond all of these, that for me is at once fascinating and relieving. As an adult, over time I have been conditioned to identify and solve problems, to find the best ways to approach an obstacle and overcome it immediately. Accordingly, before I start out - on a project, a trip, or a new game - I like to know what the rules are. What is the objective? What controls do I use? How much life and health do I have? How do I maneuver? How much time do I have, and how do I keep track of it? When you wrap this all up, it becomes about how to succeed, how to thrive - and how to win.
My kids do not approach games that way. Instead of asking which controls to use, they say "I wonder what this does!" Instead of asking how much health they have, they try to kill themselves a few times and learn that way. Instead of asking how to maneuver, they try every possibility and learn things that the game booklet doesn't even mention. And instead of worrying about the objective, they take the time to calmly explore and enjoy the journey.
That focus on exploration and enjoyment for the simple sake of enjoyment is something I could never teach my children; I'm not sure that if I tried to pull such a lesson out of context and objectify it that they would even recognize it as having any value at all. There may be other ways to learn this as well; playing imagination games with their friends comes quickly to mind. But video games offer options that imagination games do not - the ability to rewind, the consistency of the experience, the ability to walk away without fear or concern, and the ability to come back and play when you're ready, even if it is 2:30am. Moreover, there is something about the complexity and depth of many video games, as well as their sheer attractiveness, that make them excellent vehicles by which children can learn without needing to be taught. Through their own preference and experience, my children have gotten to the point where the means are more important than the ends, and I love that they approach things this way.
Don't tell me kids can't learn from video games.