Kids, Video Games, and The Game of Life

With the internet down, my wife turned to the downloaded games on the old XBOX 360, and found a game I picked up cheap after wandering into a couple ridiculous Let’s Plays on youtube. Goat Simulator. My 5 year old daughter loved it. Like, seriously, jumping up and down, exploring, excited, loved it.

“Does this game have ads?”

“Nope. Daddy bought it.”

“Good! I hate ads.”

Cue the pangs of guilt.

We use games or videos on the tablet as break time for us adults, or wind-down time for kids. I liked when Janelle was interested in games, and started enjoying a more interactive media, but kids are fickle, and it’s hard to justify spending money on an app to remove ads when they may never play it again.

NOTE: Many of these games don’t even offer ad-free versions, all you can buy is more opportunity to play the game or premium games.

Watching her pass mindlessly through ads, or worse, ask me about the game the ad promotes, made me pine for the days of a gameboy.

A complete experience, engaging gameplay, a reward and accomplishment system based on actual challenge, and a balanced, bug-free playthrough! (at least, for the good games)

Though Goat Simulator was an ad-free, silly sandbox, it was a dated interface, and one less likely to be useful in the future.

I see real occupational value in learning how to navigate apps and modern UIs, and certainly value in playing with an interface, but it all came with a big ugly monetized albatross around its neck.

So the question is; what do I, or should I ask of video games for my kids?

The Good

  • Enjoyment/Accomplishment levels get off the charts
  • Video games sparked my interest in coding
  • Fine motor skill, hand-eye development
  • A base to intuit UI navigation

The Bad

  • Frustration levels get off the charts
  • Microtransactions, ads, and daily “coins”
  • Simplified to the level of pointlessness

I don’t think it’s nostalgia to say I remember where and when I first beat Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Nostalgia applies a blanket of rose colored glasses over a set of experiences. I played many games (some bad), but this one stands the test of time. I was in the living room and after many attempts, beat the final form of The Nightmare.

I cried.

A movie-cry, not an ugly cry.

There was so much emotion mixed in that ending cutscene. Accomplishment, dozens of hours of my life dedicated, difficult puzzles, tricky bosses, finally being able to take out those electrocuting squids that I had to run away from for most of the game, Marin; all of it culminated in the cathartic 8-bit trill of the Windfish, and Link’s actual awakening.

Frankly, I get misty now thinking of it.

It was a frustrating, joyful, challenging, rewarding experience that I CANNOT forget.

So when I see my daughter engaging in a minigame of “tap the screen a lot” so she can get coins to see how much of the game she will be allowed to play today without daddy’s credit card, I feel like she’s getting cheated.

But, I don’t want to indulge in self-righteousness, or oversimplification…

There are reasons for this… Just a few off the top of my head;

  • I haven’t invested the GameBoy + Game Cartridge inflation adjusted dollars into a quality modern game
  • More studios make more games so the market is flooded with lowest common denominator
  • With popularity, games, have become easier in order to appeal to a broader base
  • She’s 5, and I was about 10. Much more willing to delay gratification and invest time
  • The game is free, and the devs gotta eat too

But if we’re going to get real, we need to remind ourselves that there is a more perverse element to games like this.

The psychology.

Like movies, video games dwell within a questionable zone of mental engagement.

Movies engage to absorb as many senses as they can, to simulation being an observer of the events of the film. We actually have something called mirror neurons, which cause us to (on some level) feel like we’re INSIDE the movie we’re watching. When we see Nathan Drake doing parkour, beating up the bad guy, or getting the girl, we feel like part of us is doing it. Arguably, a bigger part, as we’re actively interacting with the medium unlike a movie.

Since video games became big money (which was somewhat recent) the cinematic experience has been emulated in video games to great effect, and great profits. The guy in the movie doesn’t die 20 times to the boss before beating him, so it’s likely your video game boss is going to go easy on you. Learning how to enter and clear a room using the game’s mechanics requires skill and time; so why don’t you just press X to slow motion breach? Don’t worry; take your time. We just quicksaved anyway.

The result is an ego-stroking experience of epic accomplishments for pressing a button.

And the psychology only gets worse from there.

This ease of mental gratification is in many ways worse than ads, microtransactions, and daily coins. It’s the marshmallow experiment, except that it actively drives your kids away from the correct answer.

Life is an often dull and more often difficult slog through menial tasks that accomplish little more than maintaining the status quo.

The most popular poison circulating the veins of recent generations (including my own) is that life should be a series of rewards and fulfilling experiences of growth and emotional balance.

The unmentioned and obvious converse to this flowery notion, is the damning charge that if your life it not; you must be doing it wrong.

From this comes depression, anxiety, and withdrawal to the comfortable places that foster that hollow achievements that got us here in the first place.

Except…

This digital analogue for achievement doesn’t work once you know things aren’t really this easy.

The dissociation worsens from there, along with your perception of your life.

I guess I don’t have the answer to all these questions, but writing about them has helped crystallize these points and counter-points.

Allow me to attempt to draw conclusions here:

  • Spend money on good games if you want good games
  • Easy games are short-term fun, long-term harmful
  • Psychological gameification is a dangerous play-thing
  • Balancing difficulty is hard
  • It’s difficult for a 5 year old to invest time in anything not instantly gratifying
  • Always be wary of the media your kids consume, lest it consume them.

This is a complicated and multi-faceted problem, and requires more minds than my own.

What do you think of these conclusions?

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Kids, Video Games, and The Game of Life

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