Sunday, July 19, 2009

Video Games Are Awesome And So Are My Kids

My kids like to ride zebras and crocodiles. To race itty-bitty bright red sport cars and turbo prop airplanes. To build gigantic metal robots (complete with chainsaw arms and laser beam eyes!) and create nonsense words from random strings of letters. Believe it or not, though equally colorful and featuring many of the same themes, I'm not referring to their imaginary play. Instead, all this is made possible through the wonders of modern technology. Yep: video games!

It always surprises me how resistant many parents are to letting kids play video games. The prevailing cultural view seems to be that video games are an unhealthy, non-educational waste of time. Sure they're okay in moderation, but kids should generally be doing more important things: school, homework, team sports and other such sensible activities. So, yeah, it’s alright to let your kids play a few games here or there, but they should be watched closely, heavily managed, discouraged even. As a culture, we tend to lump our childrens' activities into educational or non-educational; sedentary or non-sedentary. And since video games are considered non-educational and sedentary, they should be strictly limited.

I so disagree with this attitude. I can (and will!) give you all kinds of super compelling arguments in favor of video games, but mostly I just don't see what the big deal is. Video games rot your brain? I don't buy it. I think kids learn from everything they do, and yes this includes "screen time," be it watching television, surfing the Internet, or playing a favorite video games... like, oh, say, Age of War.

Ahem. Yeah. So about that whole Age of War thing :) This game is awesome! For one thing: it’s hella fun. For another: it’s an amazing educational tool. (Seriously! It's even meta-educational-- as Eli played it and learned all kinds of good stuff, I was simutaneously educated in the value of video games!) He discovered it while messing around on the internet when he was four and a half. After playing for a few short minutes, he was smitten and after a few more, obsessed. And this obssesion, which lasted a little over a month, squelched any and all lingering doubt in my mind about the merits of video games. Sure he'd already played many a video game, but none had inspired such unequivocal devotion, such fodder for his imaginary play… such an explosion of his math skills!

I don’t mean to insinuate that Age of War is intended as an educational game. It’s not. It’s meant to be fun, plain and simple. The object of the game is to defeat the enemy base. You start out with lowly cavemen soldiers, who wield clubs and slingshots as weapons. Some of the cavemen are also riding enormous green fictional reptiles, which Eli endearingly refers to as "guys riding huge crocodiles." As the game progresses, you accumulate money (by killing your opponent’s troops), which you can use to buy more troops (reptilian and otherwise). You have to be careful, though -- you need to balance these offenses with defenses, which also cost a pretty penny. And once you've spent a certain amount of money, you can "evolve" (I use air quotes here, because as a biology geek, I’m compelled to point out this very loose definition of the word evolve). After the first stage, your cavemen evolve into knights and the green fictional beasts into horses (which Eli think are robots and zebras). Eventually, after a few more stages, you really do evolve into robots. But instead of horses, they have hover tanks. Oh yeah!

Sounds fun, eh? It actually is. And tricky too. Far more challenging than any video game Eli had previously tackled. At first he couldn't beat it. He continued, however, to play passionately and eventually invited me to join in on the fun (in hopes that I could show him how to win, I reckon). I played with him once and, much to his disappointment, was unable to do any better. Fortunately, David, swept in and, after watching us play for about 2 minutes, explained exactly what he thought we needed to do to win. We tried it. It worked.

Eli was quick to swipe David's strategy and, within 48 hours, was playing the game from start to finish on his own. Honestly, I was pretty much floored by the whole thing. It is by no means a kid’s game and I thought, for sure, way over his head. It never occurred to me that -- even with input from pop-genius -- he could learn to complete the game on his own.

This game did anything but rot Eli’s brain. On the contrary, he learned an immense amount from mastering it. His brain grew by leaps and bounds, neural connections were made, and so on and so forth. He learned strategy. And logic. Not to mention patience! (To give you an idea, it takes him at least 30 minutes to finish one game. And he completed it many many times.) And let's not forget the most important: he had fun! He loved playing and I loved how much he loved it. As is always the case with young children who pursue something deeply, his interest and joy were infectious (and hilarious!)

For me, this is evidence enough that video games have become an awesome part of Eli's development. But, just in case you're still not convinced, I'm gonna get you where it counts. I mean no one, not even the most skeptical curmudgeon, can deny the importance of a kid learning math, right? Well, as he navigated his way through this game, something unexpected happened on the periphery: his math skills exploded. You see, as mentioned, it costs money to build up the offences and defenses. So, if, for example, a soldier costs 5 bucks, Eli needs to understand that he needs at least that much money to buy one and at least 10 bucks to buy two, etc. This requires that he recognize numbers, understand the larger number principle, and have at least minimal command of addition and subtraction. Okay, so you're thinking no big deal, easy enough. And, in fact, Eli—a lifelong fan of any and everything math—has been doing all this for a while; by 3.5 years he loved to recognize and point out numbers 0-100 (which he saw everywhere) and could intuitively add and subtract simple numbers. But here's the thing: in Age of War, he needed to recognize and understand numbers much bigger than anything he'd previously encountered. Like in to the 100s, 10,000s, 100,000s and beyond. This is the first game that challenged him on this front and it’s been a hoot to watch him differentiate between numbers like 20,000 and 200,000 and 2,000,000. Also exciting: his renewed interest in math has snowballed into near math mania around here. He’s started picking up simple multiplication, talking about big numbers (the bigger the better, really), and a whole lot about the concept of infinity...!!!

Apparently all this video game madness is contagious. Little bro is also cashing in on the fun (and learning; let’s not forget learning!) After a frustrating few months of dutifully standing by (well, sitting next to) as Eli played, offering advice and encouragement, Micah is now surfing the Internet and playing simple games on his own. He taught himself to operate a mouse by simple trial and error and is currently enamored with, which I originally sought out for Eli, in an attempt to keep him challenged on the learning to read front. Eli dabbled in it and still does, but Micah has really taken off. He was already very into recognizing and pointing out all the upper- and lower-case letters of the alpahabet, but is now recognizing simple words. The first one he learned to read (other than his and Eli’s names) was "robot"...!!! What can I say? This makes me smile. And again, it looks like video games are becoming important to him.

When I speak to the importance, I'm not trying to insinuate that I think my kids could not live without video games. I don't and they could. The catastrophe would be short lived were video games to disappear from their lives, and they would be fine had they never discovered ‘em in the first place. And though Eli would do his darnedest to convince you otherwise: no, video games are not one of life's basic necessities. But my kids are fortunate to have access to them for exactly what they are: a fantastic tool.

As an unschooling parent, I am always on the prowl for tools like this -- seeking out new ways for my kids to interact with and see the world. As I see it, that’s my job: to expose them to all kinds of things and activities — be it a new book, a trip to the science center, playground or library, a pile of rocks to count and sort (or chuck at trees), an afternoon in the garden or mucking around the woods, a trip to the movie theatre, or a video game. I don't teach them anything, I just support their interests and answer their questions. And if I hadn't been paying close attention -- and wasn't of the mindset that learning happens all the time -- it’d have been easy for me to dismiss their interest in video games, and in particular Eli's obsession with Age of War, as a waste of time. To have been put off by the violence and grumbled that he was playing so much. But instead I chose to follow his lead and, as is almost always the case with interests he chooses to pursue deeply, I have been pleasantly surprised -- blown away even — by the indisputable value of it.

This unschooling model works super well for my kids. Despite the distinct lack of school in their lives, they’re both learning to read, to mess around with math, to generally make sense of the world around them. And they're having a blast to boot! It really pleases me to witness this endless thirst for knowledge and, in particular, their interest in things like math and reading, subjects that are traditonally thought to require formal instruction. I think because it gives me the nerve to say what I already knew: "See! Formal teaching really isn't necessary -- children really do learn all the time, even the academic stuff!" For my kids, this "academic" learning seems to happen in one of two ways: either they find something interesting in and of itself and study it (this is how Micah taught himself letter recognition and Eli early reading) or it becomes relevant, necessary even, in order to do something else (like, say, when Eli needed to majorly sharpen his math chops in order to kick ass at Age of War).

To be honest, this is one of the greatest joys of parenting for me. I love to watch them grow on their own terms, by their own drive. They never cease to amaze me by the always fascinating (though sometimes odd. Eli's current infatuation? Brain eating zombies) interests that they choose to pursue. I fully expect to be amazed for many years to come and look forward to watching as they pick up new interests. Irish dancing? Alchemy? Lacrosse? Woodworking? Sculpture? More video games? Who knows. I sure as hell don’t. But I look forward to being dazzled.

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