When our two sons were growing up in the 1980’s, we were some of the first people in our suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to own a PC (personal computer). My husband was always a bit of a geek about things like this, and he knew that in the future, families were going to embrace this kind of technology. So, he wanted to be an early adopter, and he knew how important that would be for our two sons.
Of course, inevitably, this included the advent of the video gaming industry, so it wasn’t long before we had the equipment to allow our children to go online and play the many games that were suddenly appearing on the market.
At the time, this seemed like an overnight industry, but gaming actually goes back to the 1950’s, where it was relatively primitive (like swatting a tennis ball back and forth). “Spacewar!” is generally accepted to be the first appearance of a computer video, hitting the market in 1962. This surprised me, as I was a child of ten that year, and had no inkling of video games until I became an adult.
Looking at these early games would certainly not give anyone reason to believe they might be a good sign for humanity. In fact, as our sons grew and became increasingly entranced with playing online, we became alarmed at the amount of time going into this activity, and agreed to restrict it, as our parents had restricted our television viewing in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. Surely sitting in front of a screen, oftentimes alone, for many hours of the day can’t be good for a child, right?
As it turns out, the answer isn’t obvious, and comparing watching television to gaming is not apples to apples. There are some drawbacks to gaming (especially if it’s done obsessively), but there are also some clear advantages that could give children a pretty big creative and social leg up in solving real world problems through collaboration, and even open doors of opportunity as they make their way through life.
There are an estimated 3.26 billion players worldwide, which is getting close to half the population of Earth (7.8 billion), and those gamers spend three billion hours per week playing.
We lived in Hanoi, Vietnam for many years as artists-in-residence in the early 2000’s, and one of our close friends was a twenty-something artist and gamer who spoke impeccable English. Where had she picked this up? As an avid gamer, she had been playing online for more than half her life. Multiply that to children around the world, and it becomes evident that learning language alone is a positive reason to play for kids, especially in impoverished countries. (Most game development companies are in the U.S., so the default language is English. Gamers who want to play with English speakers online must learn English.)
Something to understand about gaming, which I didn’t when thinking about my own children’s involvement, is that gamers are constantly solving problems. For instance, there is a game called Virginia where a female FBI agent is assigned to investigate another agent (the only other female in the precinct). Because of this setup, the gamer needs to learn and understand the history of racism, sexism, corporate culture, tokenism, etc. Obviously, if gaming carried this over to other problem areas, it could potentially solve some of the towering problems of our time: poverty, climate change, war, hunger, obesity, just about anything that needs creative thinking to solve. In fact, Jane McGonigal, who is widely recognized as a leading expert in video gaming and futurism, says that the 3 billion hours per week people are playing today needs to be at least 21 billion hours to effectively solve those monumental human problems. She points out that the negative feelings we have in real life - depression, cynicism, overwhelm, anxiety, frustration - those feelings don’t exist in games. All the player sees is potential, and the combination of audio, text and video enhances learning, and stimulates creative thinking, producing heightened cognition, faster reaction times, and improved memory.
But there are other benefits of gaming that are often overlooked. Gamers look upon their cohorts as a community, and that community functions with a purpose. Primal social and psychological needs are being addressed: feeling effective, achieving goals, belonging to and working toward something bigger than oneself. In the real world, when they see adults losing faith in the future, children can be confused and terrified. My own sons, now in their forties, are worried that they won’t have the financial resources needed for old age. This is just one of many fundamental concerns that children have today. But what if those issues could be solved creatively with gaming?
When it comes to mastering something difficult, ten thousand hours seems to be the agreed upon benchmark to shoot for, the same amount of time a child with perfect attendance spends in school for the first eighteen years of life. Children who play video games put in that kind of time, meaning they are expert gamers by the time they reach adulthood. This makes them extraordinarily good at solving problems in the gaming world, and has some important add-ons: optimism, social and creative adeptness, and empowerment with epic meaning. In other words, gaming prepares them for a successful, happy, fulfilling life.
But I think the biggest thing overlooked (or reviled) in online games is that word “game”. Human beings like to play, it’s vital to our mental health and our ability to communicate effectively with each other. The fact that it’s a game doesn’t reduce its importance to humanity; if anything, it increases it. Play decreases stress hormones and increases endorphins, the hormones that make us feel good, confident, happy. Play is a component of living well, and the chance of developing things like dementia go down when we play more.
We parents may go into control freak mode when we think our kids are “playing” too much, and “working” too little. What if they fall behind their peers? What if they don’t get a well-rounded education? What if they can’t support themselves? These are all fear related questions that discount the enormous benefits of play, and specifically video computer gaming. Spatial relationships, concepts and ideas, motor skills, social roles and interpersonal interaction are all beneficial outcomes of any kind of playing, but are amplified in online gaming. We need to change our model and recognize that there is a solution to many of the world’s most pressing problems right in front of us, and it’s as simple as opening a door to creativity online by having fun.