In (Partial) Defense of Video Games for Kids

Yes, I still prefer reading. But video games can also teach complexity, courage and imagination.

Source: Shigeru Miyamoto via Wikipedia.com

In the grand scheme of things, our household is pretty far out there on the anti-screen-time spectrum.

Our kids — now both teenagers — never had DS’s or Wii’s or Playstations, we have always limited their computer time, and neither my husband or I ever plays video games.

I make no apologies for this lifestyle, as I’ve always believed — pace Roger Ebert and assorted others — that my time is better spent on other forms of art. Moreover, where my kids are concerned, I’m with those who maintain that children are better off learning to be bored.

And yet, a lot of my grown up friends play games. And many are firm believers that there is a lot to be said for gaming, beyond it just being fun.

In this spirit, and because — as an old-school journalist — I firmly believe that you need to check your own biases, I’ve assembled five intelligent arguments I’ve come across about the relative merits of gaming. I’m not saying that I necessarily buy into the following list hook, line and sinker. But it has made me question some of my own suppositions.

To wit, here are five putative virtues of video games:

1. They teach you about complex systems. According to the Boston Globe, the next frontier for video games are ones that teach you about current events. Whether it’s how to understand the causes of the credit crunch or preventing the outbreak of food-borne disease, these games are thought to force people to see the news as a realm of choice and complexity rather than as packaged information. And that is something that traditional news outlets — by definition — cannot do.

2. They reward courage, skill and honor. That, at least, is the argument put forth by writer Trevor Butterworth in Forbes, who only discovered the joys of gaming in middle age. While Butterworth acknowledges that the worlds he creates Online aren’t as labor-intensive as the model-building he engaged in as a youth, he feels that the games industry has become, in effect, “a tribal elder for the world’s teenagers, pushing them through ever more complex feats of prestidigitation.” Others also see the potential for the acquisition of “real world” skills via gaming, whether because they reward good behavior or because, like chess, they teach strategy or planning.

3. They are interactive. If you’re like me, it’s tempting to put video games in the same box as television — i.e. as a mindless, passive activity that saps the imagination. But as a commenter on Butterworth’s post pointed out, there’s actually a big difference between TV and video games. The former *is* passive, whereas the latter enables you to have input into your own story. In fact, he went so far as to favor video gaming over books on this point because you don’t have to read someone else’s tale; you are able to create your own. Food for thought.

4. They don’t have to come at the expense of reading. I think that a lot of parents — myself included — fear that video games will ruin our children’s desire to read. I’m not sure that we have conclusive evidence on this point yet. (One study suggests that having computers in the home increases a child’s computer literacy but not his or her literacy, although that’s somewhat different than video games per se.) But I was quite taken with this account by fellow-traveller Lorraine Rice who recounts how — despite her own reservations — she felt that video games taught her son how to read and to understand history. This whole question still makes me nervous, but I did find her piece reassuring.

5. They are inevitable. Of all the arguments in favor of video games, I find this to be the most persuasive, especially where children are concerned. Even if you try to eliminate violent video games in your own home, they are going to encounter them somewhere else. So you’re ultimately better off talking to your kids about what they are encountering in these games — and being part of that world *with* them — than pretending that this isn’t an integral part of today’s cultural landscape. A hard thing to swallow, but there it is.

So now I turn it over to you. What do you think? Are video games uniformly bad for kids or do they have some upsides?

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