Play but play what we want you to play

5 10 2006

A generous slice of British intelligentsia wrote this letter to the Daily Telegraph recently, bemoaning the developmental conditions of children in our modern world. Their argument was that the highly wired, super-accelerated lifestyle of modern kids, not to mention the expectation that they act like very small grownups, messes with their heads. The accompanying article goes into greater detail about the scholars’ concerns, most of which are pretty valid and worthy of consideration.

Indeed, the letter is absolutely right on many subjects: too much junk food is bad for kids. The rise of standardized, test-driven curricula has resulted in a generation of half-educated zombies who can pass exams but can’t name all nine (or eight, or twelve, or whatever) planets, the capital of Australia or the Secretary of Defense. Marketing and media of all kinds pummels them with messages that are contradictory, confusing and sometimes dangerous to development. Kids are now contents under pressure, driven to mature in a world that still sees them as children but paradoxically demands that they act like adults, refusing them the space to simply be young.

But I take umbrage with the remark “[children] still need what developing humans have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed ‘junk,’) real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment)…” Sounds to me like these people want kids to play, but only according to their rather anachronistic and narrow-minded definition of the word.

No one in the entire games industry, no one, would say that kids should eschew playing outside, or playing with friends, or reading books, or spending time with parents, in favor of exclusively playing video games. Not one person could favor that viewpoint with a straight face. Sedentary, screen-based entertainment has its place in development, just like everything else. To compare it to junk food is frankly insulting; as insulting as politicians who want to treat gaming like a disease or legislate it according to the same rules as pornography. Such claims demean you as developers, devalue your life’s work, and call into question the validity of one of the most vibrant, innovative and unique art forms in our history.

Do kids sit around too much and eat the wrong stuff? Sure. My neighborhood is filled with twelve year olds twice my weight. Do these kids play too many video games? Probably. Indeed, new research is suggesting that the whole theory that core gamers are 18-34 year olds is actually false, and this fact can’t really come as a shock. Grown-ups don’t have the time to be (hard)core gamers, no matter how much they may want to. Kids do. But don’t say that kids play too many video games in one breath and then insist that what kids need is more time to play in the next. Play is play, British Scholars, whether you like it or not.

There’s a Luddism implicit in the claim that technology in general, and video games specifically, are partially responsible for the decline modern children’s mental wellbeing. Kids are surprisingly adaptable – more so than adults – and they tend to take new advances in stride, only losing that ability as they age. Computing has fundamentally and wonderfully altered the way we live our lives. Adults are the ones who are freaked out by that, not children.

Kids do need time to just be kids. The thing is, in this day and age that means spending some time with sedentary, screen-based entertainment. And the truth is that though it’s sedentary in the sense that you’re sitting, it’s hardly passive. The imagination and reasoning centers of the brain are profoundly engaged when playing video games, which encourage players to assess information and make quick, informed decisions. There’s no doubt that games are a workout for the brain – much more than other sedentary, screen-based entertainments. And we’re seeing a lot of games these days that aren’t even sedentary: Dance Dance Revolution, EyeToy stuff, Guitar Hero and so forth. Properly leveraged, some video games may even get pudgy kids to exercise.

Which is not to say that video games should supplant all the other important trappings of childhood. This is, as usual, where parents come into the equation. Everything a child does, not just their game-playing time, should be observed and regulated to a certain degree by an authority figure. Children, being children, have no ability to manage their own time and no particular desire to do so. I’m not saying that moms and dads should tack a daily schedule to the fridge (“1:30 – 3:30: Cops and Robbers with the neighbor’s kid”), but they should make a point to ensure that their children are exposed more or less evenly to all the things that children need exposure to, like sunshine, friends and milk.

So when the letter-writers proclaim that “sedentary, screen-based entertainment” is somehow part of an evil machination to undo childhood, they’re saying more about themselves than about their concern for young people. I’d wager that many of these people don’t like video games because they have never played them, or are overly influenced by misleading media reports about the supposed danger and meaninglessness of games. When they say children need to “play,” what they mean is that children should be allowed to play only on their terms.

Which to me sounds a lot like the rigid, high-pressure childhood structures that the letter supposedly rails against. Being a child is hard these days; soon we’ll be facing young adults of a generation weaned on internet porn, schooled by standardized tests rather than teachers and, yes, exposed to more realistic depictions of violence than previous generations of the modern age. Frankly, we should examine childhood and make some changes, because it’s becoming increasingly unpleasant and un-educational. But if we’re going to fix things, fix what’s broke, not what makes a tempting target for ignorant vitriol.
by Matt Sakey (IGDA)

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