Last week I participated in a public debate that considered whether technology is making us dumb (e.g. The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein). I, of course, was tasked with the argument "technology is actually good for us". Needless to say, it was not an easy task--until I came upon "Everything Bad is Good for You" by Steve Johnson. One of his most compelling arguments has to do with the increasing cognitive demands of video games. According to Johnson, video games are truly making us smarter. While that argument is not the most obvious, after spending spring break with my gamer son and a new video game he thought I might "like", I am drawn to agree with him.
Because my son feels like one of his jobs is to train his mother in the intricacies and beauties of living in a high-tech world, he introduced me to a new game he thought might just be my speed--in other words it wasn't very hard, involved cute little aliens, and required very little hand-eye coordination. He got me to the beginning point and said "now, mom...all you have to do is get your guy over the chasm and into the other room. You may have to replicate the guy and get a jet pack, but that's pretty easy. I'll let you work on it for a few minutes, then I'll come back to see how you are doing." I figured well, I do have a PhD, after all, how hard can this be? After being killed at least 50 times, I yelled at the t.v. screen and declared "I quit!" I could see the disappointment in my son's eyes. He showed me how to do a few basic maneuvers and I said "well, you didn't tell me I could do that!" His response was "mom, you're supposed to figure that out for yourself. That's part of the game."
He was right. Video games are not for those who want to sit back and tune out intellectually. Most games are full of cognitive complexity. They require patience and step by step goal setting with layer after layer of problems to be solved. The gamer has to figure out the rules of the game (the days of things like chess where you know the rules ahead of time are long gone). He or she has to determine the "physics of the virtual world". In other words, by trial and error, he or she figures out what it takes to fly, speed, shoot, walk, fight, and stay alive. According to Johnson, gamers begin by exploring the world; they then define problems, make hypotheses, test them out, revise hypotheses and act upon the findings. Does that remind you of anything familiar? That would be the scientific method. That's right, as our kids are sitting around with controllers in their hands and blank looks on their faces, they are actually refining important problem-solving techniques that have a direct application to real-life issues.
As I was making these arguments in my recent debate, a young man raised his hand and asked if these skills are really transferable or valuable? The same could be asked of the types of problems we have students do in math and science classes. After all, how many times, in real life, will our kids have to figure out if 2 trains left a station 100 miles apart and one traveled 60 mph......? The point is, we are training our kids how to think. How is that different than what the video games are doing?
My conclusion? There is ALOT more to video games than what most people assume. Though they may have addictive powers and may contain violence and lots of well-endowed stereotypical women, they are also challenging our kids to think in ways that are much more significant than checkers or Uno. So the next time you see a kid (or a spouse) sitting and playing a video game, take a breathe before you tell him or her to get off that thing and get a life. He or she may just be getter smarter with every level that is conquered and every task that is mastered.