As a 4-year-old growing up in Newberg, Oregon, Carey Martell learned a passion for reading not from picture books or nursery rhymes, but rather from an elf named Link.
"The only reason I wanted to learn how to read was the 'Legend of Zelda,'" said Martell, 31.
In the original 1986 game, the Link character "talks" with a cast of characters that help Link on his journey via text on the screen.
Martell was originally initiated into the gaming world when his father brought home an Atari 2600 and started playing with him. But once Martell was about 12 and his taste shifted to "Final Fantasy" — a console game where players rebel against dark, ancient forces taking over the game world — the rules changed.
"My dad was just a big kid and he was also a big gamer," Martell said. "Then he just stopped. He started saying things like, 'What kind of job are you ever going to get doing this?'"
Martell's father made him stop gaming, and that led the boy to sneak in gaming time while his parents slept. This time it was on a PC multi-player role-playing game called Nexis Kingdom of Winds.
Now, Martell is a former game developer and the CEO of Internet TV network Power Up TV — all of which Martell says wouldn't have been possible without skills he learned playing "Kingdom of Winds." He also is staunchly against the idea that video games are inherently bad for kids.
Martell's father's response is likely to resonate with many parents whose kids grow up gaming. What starts innocently with "Angry Birds" or "Mario Kart" when children are young can quickly enter territory that makes parents nervous as children grow. USA Today reported last year that 9 percent of all console games released in 2012 were rated Mature, and five out of that year's 10 top-selling games bore that rating.
"For me, the most disturbing part of (video games) is the subject matter and the lack of any educational value other than training young people for the army," Stevanne Auerbach, a toyologist and child development expert, said, referencing the popularity of shooting games.
But in recent years, something has emerged that could convert more adults to Martell's viewpoint on games for good: Minecraft.
"It's important to note," said Toronto-based game developer Ryan Henson Creighton, "that Minecraft is in a class by itself."
The 2011 world-building game is literally a game-changer for two reasons: It has a massive fanbase that surpassed 100 million registered users in February, many of whom are children under 15, according to a Minecraft forum poll, making it one of the most successful game franchises of all time, Forbes reported. The other reason, as gaming YouTube channel Extra Credits pointed out this summer, is that the millions growing up with Minecraft may change the way games are made. Because Minecraft encourages children to think creatively and build entire worlds of their own, it requires creative thinking, problem-solving and patience that sets it apart from the rest of the game market.
"Minecraft is radically different than the types of games most of us grew up playing," Extra Credits posited. "This doesn't mean we'll lose first-person shooters or racing games, but it does probably change the percentage of the industry that's going to be focused on strictly action-oriented play."
Dr. David Bickham of Boston's Center for Media and Child Health said all this change is good, but researchers now need to figure out what it means.
"There's a lot of hypotheses about the positives that could come from Minecraft, that it promotes things like problem-solving and cognitive skills," Bickham said. "It's a really great choice, but it’s unclear if it’s more than just a good way to have fun."
Not all games are created equal
Since 1993's popular first-person shooter game "Doom," the gaming industry has created hundreds of such shooter games and the theories for the genre's success are varied. The New Yorker reported last year that the games are addicting because they use the player's ability to achieve what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called "a condition of absolute presence and happiness."
Extra Credits takes a more evolutionary approach, suggesting that first-generation gamers, like Martell, came of age on action-based games like "Super Mario Bros." When some of those gamers went to work in the industry, they created a different version of the only principle they knew — that is, that games required heavy action to be won— creating shooter games like "HALO."
Creighton theorized that the rise of violent shooting games lies partially in their mechanics. From a basic design standpoint, they're easier to make, apart from the creation of high-end graphics that make characters and setting look real.
"It's easier to put a bunch of things on the screen and have a player remove them. But if I add something, all the sudden I have to play chess," Creighton said. "I have to worry about what it could collide with, with physics in some cases, and it's just harder."
All of these theories are reasons why Minecraft is such a sharp departure. The game's popularity signals a return to patience-based game play that was all but forgotten amid the popularity of consoles like the original Nintendo Entertainment System.
"Focus on what the game system teaches the player," Martell said. "In my experience with the MMO (massive multiplayer online), you have to develop organization and social skills to win. If all the game requires you to do is run around and do head shots, that's not necessarily applicable to real life."
Auerbach said the onus is on the game industry to create more games less focused on destruction and more focused on creativity and education.
"Our kids are what we help them to learn. If we are constantly nurturing and buying violence, which we are doing, that’s what they’re going to learn," Auerbach said. "(Minecraft) seems like it might be a step in the right direction."
Navigating the game space
If parents want to protect their children from the potential downsides of video games, they shouldn't necessarily take them away, says University of Texas psychology professor Art Markman.
"Parents have a very difficult line to walk between communicating their values and giving kids the opportunity to make decisions — even bad decisions. Keeping games from them when they're young is one thing, but there's another issue when they're 15," Markman said. "Eventually, they're going to leave the house. It would be the shame if the first time they made mistakes, it was the first time out of the house."
Markman said parents should be educated about the game their children want, talk with them about it, establish limits and make sure to check back in with them if they've been allowed to play.
Children's Technology Review founder Warren Buckleitner said video games, like films, must be judged on an individual basis.
"They're going to outgrow Minecraft and move onto other games," Buckleitner said. "The answers lie with the individual child. They'll tell you what's right if you just watch them."
Creighton added that it's important to remember that games have a stringent ratings system. A visit to ESRB.org can tell a parent a description and rating for any game on any platform.
"There are definitely games that are not age appropriate, but there's a ratings system and everything you need to know about the content of a game is there," Creighton said. "Parents should really be thinking twice before they pick up an M-rated game for their kid."
Buckleitner said that in the game of life, balance is key. That means giving kids a broad exposure to both games and real life.
"The winner at the end of childhood is the one that’s had the most quality minutes playing with other kids," Buckleitner said. "The loser is the one that's just playing one kind of game for hours and hasn't had a broad exposure. That means putting it all in context. Nothing will ever replace zoos and parks. Don't forget that."
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