We have all seen the children seemingly addicted to video games and have certainly also heard of a number of adults who still sit at home playing video games for hours on end. Video games seem to absorb so much of our children’s time and too often our first reaction is one of negative frustration, “You’re always on your computer/iPad/Xbox!” But for me, the most fascinating thing about this phenomenon is the question of why. Why do young people seek out video games? What makes them so absorbing?
In most video games players explore, create, build, strategize and increasingly connect and interact with others. Players have great freedom and control in the worlds they experience through video games. These are all positive aspects of our universal human experience and so is it any wonder that children gravitate to these games? However, a key question that needs to be asked is, when and where else can children experience this freedom and control in their daily lives?
For most children, their daily lives are often a parade of adult-led, adult-directed or adult-organized activities. In school, they are constantly being told where they should be when they should be there, what they should do, and how they should do it. Even in sports and music practices after school the same patterns continue, not to mention the fact that for many children this is their experience of home life as well.
Humans crave freedom and the chance to create our own destiny, though sometimes we don’t realize it. We gravitate to those things that do give us freedom and allow us to feel in control. We want to see that our actions have an effect on the world and that we are not just passively being pushed around by others. For many children, video games is their main chance to be in control of their world, albeit a virtual one and just a simulation.
This brings me to my next question; what are video games essentially? Video games are a form of simulation. As humans, we are strongly drawn to simulations and they play an important role in our lives as they allow us to work out likely cause and effect scenarios without facing the dire consequences that sometimes occur in real life. We surround ourselves in a wide variety of simulations. Novels are a form of simulation where we are able to see the possible consequences of being in a certain scenario. Films and TV dramas also function in much the same way. Video games are more powerful simulations in that the player has far greater control over the parameters that are used to explore these cause and effect scenarios. But these simulations are not just found in the world around us, they are also in our heads. We are constantly using our imaginations and running simulations along the lines of; “If I did this, then that might happen…”
Simulations are important because observing these simulated scenarios allows us to calibrate what our own reactions will be to real-life scenarios. The simulations that we then run in our heads allow us to predict what the possible outcomes may be of a certain action.
However, while simulations are important and helpful, the whole point of them is to take more effective and powerful actions in the real world. Staying indefinitely in the realm of the simulation becomes a waste of time. It is essentially overthinking problems to the point of not getting anything done. We’ve all done this at some point where we have overthought a problem to the point where we became paralyzed to actually take a meaningful step.
So this is the problem I see with video games in today’s culture. Yes, they are an escape to a certain amount of freedom for many children but at the end of the day the time spent on these games also further alienates children from taking actions in the real world. It is good for children to practice creativity, courage, bravery, resourcefulness, strategizing and communication in a simulation, but if they never get the chance to practice these skills in the real world the simulation is simply a distraction.
I very rarely play any type of video game, however, I do certainly enjoy playing board games. Board games are also great for children in a variety of ways including the use of coins which many board games use. Children are able to, in the simulation of the board game, exchange and deal with money in a playful and exploratory way that does not lead them to real-world bankruptcy. However, if the skills they are learning are just limited to games then there is not much point. Children need to actually use what they have learned in the simulations and take this knowledge into the real world. If you’re wanting to learn how to fly a plane, a flight simulator may well be very useful, but you cannot just stay in the flight simulator. At some point, you will need to go up in an actual airplane, see real pilots acting in real life situations and feel the plane reacting to your controls in real life.
So a key message of this article is that it is understandable why children are turning to video games and spending so much time on them. Adults continually speak of children in terms of “preparing them for life” as if they were not part of the real world already. Through our schooling system, we seem to be forcing children and young people to live in abstract simulations for multiple decades and refuse them access to the real world. So what would be so bad if we let children access the real world? What if we let them take actions in the world that really meant something and that gave them control? What if we let children have the freedom to pursue their passions and provide real value to themselves and the world around them in the here-and-now?
I have personally experienced the transformation whereby simulations have become a far smaller part of my life as I take more actions in the real world. Mark Twain gave us the phrase “Truth is stranger than fiction.” It certainly is and maybe if we allowed children to have greater access to reality then they, in turn, may feel less need to turn to fictional simulations.