One of the benefits, or perhaps costs, of having been in the business of developing games for learning for 25 years, is that you can see trends – especially with respect to the kinds of questions that come from audiences. There was a time, not really that long ago actually, when a talk on kids playing games online was met with skeptics who said that computers would never be cheap enough, or the Internet common enough for kids to have widespread access.
Another concern raised when talking about complex games, especially in meetings full of academics, was that young children didn’t have the cognitive ability to manipulate abstract ideas, or understand problems with multiple variables. I remember replying once “you must not have kids” – as, in my experience, mine were more than adept at manipulating the complex relationship between two adults that (by definition) predated their existence.
In any event, in recent years perhaps the most frequent audience response when I present data on the remarkable number of minutes, hours, years that kids (now with access) are spending manipulating variables and abstract ideas on Whyville, is that all this use of the Internet is bad for children – that they should really be doing something else.
My usual response is to say that we actively design games and activities that push kids off into the real world, and that we have been in the business of ‘blended’ reality from the outset, however, I find the persistence of this particular question remarkable
– BECAUSE –
The important question, it seems to me, is not how much time kids are playing online games, the important question is what they aren’t doing now, that they were doing before?
Turns out, it isn’t gardening.
What they were doing was watching television.
Which raises the somewhat more specific question, is playing online games better or worse than watching television?
I won’t bore you with the abundant neurobiological, cognitive, behavioral, etc. evidence that ACTIVE almost anything is better than almost anything passive for young minds.
I won’t even expand on my own deep held conviction that plugging into content delivered sequentially by supposedly ‘child friendly’ networks like Nickelodeon and The Cartoon Network, leads to much more brain rot than children actively making their own choices as to where they go, what they see, and what they do.
And is there any doubt which of these technologies are going to be in their best eventual economic, political, and social interest?
Instead, I want to ask the question, why isn’t this obvious to everyone?
The easy and context specific answer, of course, is that often the people that ask this question in the conferences and meetings were I speak represent (or are simply parroting) the media industry’s desperate concerned that children would rather do their own thing, than “their” thing, and that they now can. Those industries and their representatives are simply defending turf and trying to scare the rest of us off. Understandable, but shame on them (and good luck).
However, I think that there is another reason that this concern continues to resonate. And that reason is pretty simple actually – most of us older folks did not have access to the Internet when we were young and “impressionable” – but we did have access to TV. For this reason, TV is familiar; something we know how to deal with and don’t fear, the Internet in contrast seems new and scary. In fact, when I was young, I had to defend my use of TV against my grandparents, who didn’t think that children should be allowed access to such a powerfully influential device at all. (They were also convinced that the Beatles were going to destroy America – the verdict perhaps still out on that one).
Just to be clear, I am not advocating that as adults, parents, grandparents, teachers, government officials, game developers, etc., we simply throw up our hands and pay no attention. The truth is that this new technology is very powerful in its ability to engage and potentially manipulate children (as well as the rest of us). Some part of the concern over kids on the Internet is almost certainly a consequence of the other side of active vs. passive: which is that active minds are more susceptible to manipulation (as well as learning) – We need to be vigilant about who is trying to do what to our kids using this new technology. No matter how suspect the programming at Nickelodeon or The Cartoon Network, at least it isn’t that effective. The Internet can be VERY effective.
But, bottom line obviously is that the cat is out of the bag on the Internet. Our challenge now is not how to keep kids from using it – but to assure that its use is to their maximum benefit.