I have dreams that my kid will be the next George Lucas or a spectacular Lego designer. That I’ll visit him at Skywalker Ranch where only people with wide ranging Star Wars vocabulary (Do you know what a Rancor is?) have a special key. Or maybe he’ll land in a creative position at some major gaming company.
Yet along with this technology/engineer career path fantasy come strings attached: an excessive amount of video games. There are some kids who would rather be outside shooting a ball in a hoop, and though my son loves a slam dunk, he’d rather punch rapid fire buttons so that Mario and Luigi can escape Bowser’s stomach.
I’m all for video and computer games.
I’m wildly impressed that my 8-year-old son can manipulate and create cartoon characters on multiple panels, and I shout like the house mascot when my 3-year-old daughter learns to read letters via some amazing pre-school iPad app. But just because my one-day-you’ll-be-a-brilliant-programmer fantasy feels relevant, it doesn’t mean I can allow a Skylander’s or educational app free-for-all in my house. Though it’s certainly tempting. (All day gaming = parental quiet time.)
I know I’m not the only parent who’s seen the unsettling paradox of video games. On the upside, all the research says games improve early literary skills, promote teamwork and positive test scores for college students. Certain schools (and colleges) have developed educational gaming tools and one New York City middle school even developed its entire curriculum around digital games. My son’s school offers a video-game making class and there’s multiple camps that offer all sorts of computer enrichment and development classes for kids as young as second grade. (There’s even one camp for hackers.)
There is a dark side to all of this as well: there’s the refusal to end a game without the “one more level” argument, the overstimulation and the inherent sexism of the video game community. Plus, some new research out of Brock University, in Canada, and published in the journal Developmental Psychology, shows a link between aggressive video games and aggressive behavior. (Yet this study seems like a no-brainer. Light saber fights and wrestling with his stepfather also makes my son aggressive in the moment.). It’s also been proven that too much gaming will turn your brain to mush. That’s not an official study. That’s just my personal assessment.
This dark side is the side that concerns me most. It’s not the video game itself, really. My son is at an age that he’s playing relatively harmless games. My daughter is playing Dora’s Snow Princess. It’s their behavior that How do you shut them off? How do you get your child to stop—the kind of child who refuses to look up at you because his eyes are fastened to his DS, or the iPad, or the computer, or the Wii so the only sound he hears is the hum of the game that even drowns out your Want some cookies? offer. (Manners and video games is a topic I’ll save for another article.)
The answer is enforced balance. Maybe it’s a hardware-based timer that shuts off the computer after 30 minutes. (My friend tells me she installed one of these in her computer and all it does is allow her child to bug her for 15 more minutes on the computer.) Or a token system like the old pinball games. Meaning, if you don’t have a token, you can’t play. I’ve tried consequences, as in, “You’re not playing for the rest of the week unless you turn it off now.” But those consequences work only until the next time one of them turns a game on.
Considering that Bill Gates once told an interviewer that he also times his kids–they’re allowed 45 minutes on weekdays and an hour on weekends—I’m thinking that limitations, even if it’s limiting their genius, is the right path.