Video games have been maligned for decades.
They’re responsible for making our kids overweight, aggressive, anti-social and hyperactive.
Even so-called educational games are viewed like broccoli in cheese sauce. Sure, there may be a little green in there, but they’re really just an excuse to eat cheese. Likewise, an educational video game is just an excuse to stare at a brightly lit screen that offers immediate rewards.
What if, however, we’re wrong? What if the gaming industry offers our kids ways to increase empathy, connect with the larger world and effect global change?
It’s a tall order, but it’s one that Jane McGonigal tackles in her book “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How they Can Change the World.”
McGonigal roared onto the gaming scene with her 2010 TED talk, “Gaming can make a better world.” Her book is an outgrowth of her talk. In it, she writes:
“The people who continue to write off games will be at a major disadvantage in the coming years. Those who deem them unworthy of their time and attention won’t know how to leverage the power of games in their communities, in their businesses, in their own lives. They will be less prepared to shape the future. And therefore they will miss some of the most promising opportunities we have to solve problems, create new experiences and fix what’s wrong with reality.”
McGonigal points out the advantages of games to reward people and make them feel successful, something that can be hard to come by in the real world. She argues that we need to not only make the real world more like a game but also create games that make the real world a better place.
So what exactly should our kids be doing? Just like any other medium, not all content is created equal. There are huge differences among games like "Candy Crush," "World of Warcraft" and "Skylanders." As parents, where should we steer our kids? I am merely scratching the surface, but here are a few ideas:
Minecraft mayhem: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know all about Minecraft, the 3-D Lego-type world that has taken the game-playing industry by storm. Sure, you can battle with creepers and join servers. But Minecraft has staying power because it has endless options for creation and building.
The game comes with no instructions. You learn how to play by talking with friends at lunch, exploring the vast Minecraft Wiki, watching YouTube tutorials and reading the entire four-volume set of books. My kids will dabble in other games, but they always come back to Minecraft because of its potential. One man spent three years just walking across the Minecraft world, trying to reach its end. The intricacy of what you can build in such a world is impressive. I’ve seen kids construct computers, meat factories and roller coasters. These are virtual works of art.
Parents will want to be aware of how their child is playing the game. Playing solo in creative mode is much different from interacting with other players on the servers.
He’s not far off. I’ve heard my techie friends say that computer coding will be the language of the future, and kids should be learning it now.
Online tools like Codecademy allow kids to learn coding in a user-friendly way. The same goes for Code.org and Scratch, a coding website created by MIT that allows kids to build their own games and animations and share them with the Scratch community. For my birthday last year, my son made me a game called “Clean This House!” which goes to show that he has learned to speak another language — the mom language.
By allowing our children to use these websites, we’re encouraging them to be creators and not just consumers of video games while teaching them a valuable skill.
Games that give: McGonigal, who authored “Reality is Broken,” helped found Gameful: the games for change collaborative. These games don’t just build and destroy cities; they have a goal of making the world a better place. McGonigal herself has created games like "World Without Oil" and "SuperBetter," a game directed at those recovering from illness who want to increase their personal resilience. The website Games for Change features games like "Fold It," in which you can help with scientific research by mapping proteins in the body. "Half the Sky Movement: The Game" was created out of the New York Times best-selling book “Half the Sky,” written by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The game helps empower women and girls throughout the world.
There are dozens of games like these. Obviously, they are not just for children but also for those who want to interact in the gaming community in a meaningful way.
In the past, when my kids have come to me to report on their game playing, I’ve felt my eyes glaze over as I nod and only half-listen. They are speaking a language I do not understand in a foreign land that holds very little interest for me.
But I am learning to open my ears and really absorb what they're saying. “We are creating art,” they are trying to tell me. “This is the medium through which we understand and interact with the world. And it’s not going away.”
There will still, and always, be limits and rules. I believe in good old-fashioned books, the kind with paper, and good old-fashioned play, the kind with dirt. McGonigal can be a little pie-eyed about her view on games as change agents. Video games can have their merits, but while kids' minds and bodies are still developing, they need to balance both the real and virtual worlds.
However, I am learning to appreciate the good game, the kind that expands creativity, teaches a new language and helps to improve the lives of others.
It’s not a world we need to be afraid of, as long as we know where to look.