It's a controversial headline, I know, but bear with me and I'll explain in due course. Disclaimer: I was once a child, and I played lots of video games.
I didn't look anything like this child.
Ah, video games: that perennial time-waster that children love and parents hate. Or at least, that's how it was when I was growing up.
Nowadays, many parents are part of Generation X (and even Generation Y), and they grew up playing video games themselves; many of them still play. So the world isn't exactly the same as it used to be, but video games still manage to get a bad rap.
They're too violent, they waste time, they get in the way of schoolwork, they slow social development... the list goes on and on.
Very few people are talking about the good that video games do, and I'm actually going to make the argument that video games are not just good, but great. In fact, they're one of the most important things you can do as a child—even more important than reading books. I wish someone had told me this ten years ago.
Image by Ry Spirit.
First, let me tell you a little bit about myself.
I'm a 30-something guy who grew up not knowing what to do with himself. It took me a long time to graduate from college because I was relatively directionless, and I spent a lot of time in a variety of odd jobs, from working in retail to food service to journalism to even hot tub repair, and several others that also didn't really work out.
The school system did me a disservice by completely failing to interest me in the subjects I learned, despite the fact that I'm a very curious, bright guy who enjoys learning. If someone who likes learning has a hard time in school, the school system must be doing something wrong.
Still, I eventually made it through college, and, newly-dedicated thanks to a bout of cancer (from which I've recovered), I pushed on through grad school as well. Now I'm a professional writer, which is great.
However, I went through a long period in my life when I was afraid to try new things. It wasn't because I didn't think I was smart enough to learn new things, but because I didn't have the confidence to. I was too easily intimidated by things that seemed difficult, and I let that fear dissuade me from even trying. Ever since I realized that I really could learn new things, I've done so many more cool things with my life and I've been much happier and more fulfilled!
Now, I know, this is starting to sound like an ad for a self-help book. When are we going to get to the part about video games?
That impatience you're feeling is the result of growing up around video games and the internet, both of which provide near-constant stimulation. And when you experience such a high rate of stimulation, you're going to get bored very quickly when the stimulation is removed.
So, I don't blame you for being impatient, because here's the thing: that very near-constant stimulation which leads to boredom and impatience is what's going to prepare you for the coming world, a world in which workers are on call 24/7 via the internet, and where everyone is expected to multitask all of the time.
You can already see some of the potential benefits of computer gaming, and we haven't even gotten to the main thrust of the article.
In the last few years of my life, I've learned how to do more things than I ever imagined was possible. I've learned leatherworking, woodworking, and painting, but even more than that, I've learned how to build radios, how to assemble electronics, how to code interactive fiction, how to drive stick, and more. This year, one of my new year's resolutions was to learn how to sew.
So how did I go from being intimidated by learning new things to becoming a human sponge?
Image from Brooksy Art.
That's not a very intuitive leap, which is why I'm writing this article.
How do video games relate to, say, learning how to drive a stick shift? Did I play a game in which I had to drive a car in manual? No, and that's the best part.
People look at learning as a 1:1 process. That is, to learn how to do a specific thing, you must be taught to do that specific thing. But learning is more complicated than that, because the more you do it, the better you get at it.
How many times have we heard that your brain is just like a muscle, in that it gets stronger the more you use it? Well, I've heard it lots of times, but that's equally true of learning. The more you learn, the better you get at learning, and the easier learning becomes.
And what are video games, if not fun ways of learning? Sure, you're not usually learning practical things like how to get a job or how to make money, but you're learning how to play the game.
Let me explain a little something about games: each game has slightly different rules. If they all had the exact same rules, they would be exceptionally boring. So each time you play a new game, you have to learn how to play it. And simply knowing the controls isn't the whole picture; you have to learn how each button relates to an action, and how each action relates to the rest of the game.
For most people, this is a period of trial and error, in which many different combinations of things are tried and discarded until the correct combinations of things are achieved. For an experienced gamer, sometimes that whole process is subconscious, and they can pick up most games for the first time and just play them.
So, one day I made the realization that if I could learn how to play just about any video game, I could learn how to do pretty much anything.
Suddenly, all of my years of video gaming experience were providing the skills and the confidence for me to learn how to do, well, almost anything, and it was one of the biggest epiphanies I've ever had.
My parents probably tried to tell me something like that when I was a child in a desperate bid to get me to do something other than read and play games, but you know what they say about leading horses to water.
I had to realize it on my own, and part of that was because my parents wouldn't know how to play a computer game if it came with an instruction book. Which they usually do.
Sure, learning how to play video games isn't necessarily an indication that you can do anything. For example, I still can't draw to save my life, despite making a serious effort to learn; there's just something about my brain that doesn't like it.
The reason why video games do better at this than simply reading books about how to do something is because books aren't interactive. There's no feedback like there is when you learn how to do something in the real world, and books try to do exactly what school does: namely, try to teach you things by telling you how to do them, rather than by letting you figure it out on your own, like a good game does.
That's one of the reasons why the Portal games were so successful: they're teaching games. The first game introduces a mechanic (portals), and then teaches you how to use them by making you solve puzzles.
The learning is simultaneously fun, rewarding, and effective. If you can learn how to solve puzzles using portals, why can't you learn, say, physics? You could, if the learning was as fun and engaging as a video game.
This is where I introduce the name for this concept: gamification. The act of turning something into a game. Many studies have been done lately that explain this exact phenomenon that I experienced, and much work has been put into thinking of ways to make school and work more like games.
This isn't exactly what I'm referring to.
So rather than being a waste of time, video games actually introduce children to the concept of learning rule sets. After all, what is any profession but a unique set of rules? And those are only the indirect lessons that video games can teach. There are plenty of direct lessons, too.
For example, is your child having trouble reading? Have them play a particularly good text game. Having trouble with sports or coordination? Try Dance Dance Revolution. Spatial relations? Minecraft. Working in groups? World of Warcraft.
Photo from Major League Gaming.
Every game and type of game has different strengths, and if you take advantage of those strengths to instill your child with confidence, then those lessons can easily apply to real-world skills. If you're concerned about violence in video games, try suggesting any of the myriad games that aren't about killing realistic-looking people.
Support them, and be interested in their games and activities. Moderation is important, as we all know how addictive video games can sometimes be, and don't treat video games as a substitute for parenting; no amount of video gaming will teach your child how to brush their teeth, for example. However, you should also realize the benefits of gaming, and when the time is right, show them how their skill in gaming can be so much, much more.