The fact that he attends a Sudbury school means that he has the freedom to play video games during the day at school. This is not a solitary activity - he often includes his friends in the gameplay, and they take turns playing and watching each other play or they help each other when the game becomes too challenging. Often one will have the laptop open, searching for walkthrough instructions or YouTube videos of gameplay, while the other has the controller listening for directives about how to solve a puzzle or defeat a boss. They collaborate on missions in some games, or square off as opponents in others. They often recommend games to each other, or trade titles to play at home on weekends.
Most parents would tell me that I am crazy to allow my son to spend so much time gaming. They would say that I should limit his game time, and I definitely should NOT allow him to play games at school. They have the impression that I am somehow damaging my child by allowing him to follow his passion, simply because that passion is gaming. As a Sudbury parent, I believe in freedom as part of the basis of education. I believe that children learn best those things that are of interest to them. And I believe that if we say we are going to provide students with the freedom to discover and pursue their passions, then we cannot draw a line and separate what we perceive as a “good” passion (allowed) from a “bad” passion (not allowed).
Two decades ago as a teenager I was criticized for being a “bookworm”, for spending all of my time alone in my room, with my nose in a book. I was told I was wasting my time and I should be “outside doing something.” These are the same criticisms that are heard by gamers today. The fact is that many parents are ignorant about video games. What they do not understand they cannot support. Just as choices in books include classic stories with engrossing plotlines as well as those that are poorly written with disappointing endings; choices in games include those that are well-made, interesting and engaging, as well as some that are repetitive, boring, and unnecessarily gruesome. Just as some books are controversial, with exposure to topics such as homosexuality, war, or racism, some games are violent, bloody, and feature senseless and repetitive killing.
But for every game that showcases pointless violence, there is another that has amazing visual artwork, creative puzzles, and absorbing stories. My son will not play a game that isn’t well made – he just doesn’t enjoy playing if it isn’t interesting. This is similar to my own aversion to Harlequin romance novels. Reading isn’t something one does just because there are words on a page, and gaming is the same way – not every game is worth playing. Some people love role playing games, some prefer puzzle games, some like first person shooters, etc. And within every genre there are ‘good’ games and ‘bad’ games. Many parents’ only knowledge of games is the mental picture they have when they think of Halo – with lots of guns and shooting and killing of enemies in a war-like setting. And plenty of kids, including my son, enjoy playing Halo. But that’s not the only game on the market.
Getting back to reading, consider that one of the most popular authors of contemporary novels in the last decade is James Patterson. Since 2006 Patterson has sold nearly 220 million copies of his novels worldwide. He tends to write books in series – one series is entirely about a detective working to solve serial murders (which are quite gruesome and described in graphic detail), and another focuses on a group of kids that were bred in a laboratory and subjected to scientific experiments that left them 98% human and 2% aviary. That last series is marketed specifically for ‘young readers.’
So, playing a video game that portrays war scenes against aliens (including green blood) is very bad and may cause irreparable harm to society, but reading book after book about senseless murder sprees and scientific experiments performed on human children is ok. I just don’t see the sense in that statement. Of course, some parents would argue that although they encourage their children to read, they would not allow them to read books like those by James Patterson. I suppose instead they might allow controversial classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (racism), To Kill a Mockingbird (racism), A Wrinkle In Time (witchcraft, demons), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (rape), Catcher in the Rye (vulgar language, sexual scenes), or The Color Purple (sexual explicitness).
Parents are concerned about exposing their children to violence through video games, and the effect it may have on their future behavior. But despite decades of research, there is no proven link between video game violence and real-world violence. If violent entertainment caused real violence, logic would dictate that the violent crime rate would have skyrocketed in recent years. In fact, exactly the opposite occurred: Violent crime has dropped significantly over the past 20 years—just as video games have become more prevalent and more violent. In fact, one could make the (equally illogical) argument that violent video games actually decrease violent crimes.
Few parents are aware that there IS a proven link between gaming and the development of inherent resiliency in children, that games facilitate strong social bonds, that gamers are more likely than non-gamers to serve a larger cause and to collaborate with others, or that gaming is an excellent way to improve problem-solving and cognitive skills. Perhaps the ultimate example of the potential benefits of gaming is the very recent discovery of the structure of a molecular protein that may hold the key to finding a cure for AIDS. Scientists had been struggling for over a decade to solve this biological riddle, but after the University of Washington created and distributed a video game designed to leverage the ingenuity and spatial reasoning abilities of gamers, the puzzle was solved in just ten days.
Violence does not appeal to me, and I’m not personally a fan of video games (or any games) in general. But I know that following his passion is what inspires my son to learn and inquire and investigate. Through video games he has become interested in Renaissance Italy, Israeli martial arts, Greek and Roman mythology, dark humor, physics, brain teasers, and The Divine Comedy, to name a partial list.
Kids sometimes have interests that serve as nothing more than a platform to inspire. The art of dance is a perfect example. Those who are passionate about dance will practice for endless hours, patiently watch others dance, and choreograph steps in their spare time. They will beg for dance lessons and dream of attending a dance academy. In reality only a very tiny percentage of these fervid dancers will achieve a career in the dance industry. In fact they are risking serious injury and possible heartbreak by immersing themselves so deeply in their one true obsession. Yet it is doubtful parents will say their dancing should be limited, or that they are wasting their time. In fact adults look to these students with appreciation – how wonderful that they are studying the arts, developing their creativity, learning about dedication and perseverance. They function within a community of others who share the same passion; they are focused, determined, engaged and interested. All the things most parents would want for their child. These dancers are developing characteristics that will translate into success in adulthood.
Likewise, my son will practice gaming for endless hours, patiently watch others play, and dream up new story lines in his spare time. He is developing his creativity and learning about dedication and perseverance. He participates in a community of others sharing the same passion. He is focused, determined, engaged and interested. And the development of his character through gaming is not much different than the dancer, aside from the criticism and disapproval of adults.
I titled this article “The Case Against Video Games” because I wanted people to read it. The truth is that in our home, there is no case against video games. My son is happy, healthy and well-adjusted. He loves school, his friends and his dog. He is friendly, talkative and intelligent. He is not violent or temperamental. And he is a gamer.
Post Script: This article was written two years ago, when my son had been a Sudbury student for about two years. Now age 12, he has since moved away from gaming as his primary activity at school. He's still interested in video games, but now he spends more time reading and learning languages. He speaks a little Indonesian and a little more Italian, and his most recent Kindle download is The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I point this out because many parents assume that if they fail to limit their child's access to technology then the child will never become interested in other things. In fact, sometimes even video games get boring.