Sunday, May 4, 2008

Maxim Gorky, on video games

"You must write for children the same way you write for adults, only better."

Or maybe that was children's literature. Hmm...whatever. The two genres are similar enough.

I wish I could write less reactionary things, but it just isn't in me very often. And this here is mainly my reaction to things like this and this, mainly the second. I've swung back and forth on whether or not video games really ought to be treated as an "us vs. them" war. Upon reading the Richard Bartle article my gut said he was taking things a little too far and a little too serious, but in a world with women like the author of the second, I might have to agree with him.

Now, I'm not a parent and I'm not a psychologist. But I'm writing this as a person who has done a lot of volunteer work with children, and plans to have my own in 8-15 years from now. Also I'm the proud daughter of a damn good mother who has encouraged my love of games.

Brief summary of the second article: A woman bought a Nintendo DS and a fat stack of games for her four children. Her household then proceeded to descend into chaos and Nintendo-based obsession as her children ignored chores and other hobbies to play video games all day.

Well, if she thinks her anecdotal evidence is good enough to scare people off from gaming, I've got some of my own. The first games I remember my parents getting for me were educational. Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, I'm sure most people are familiar with that bunch. I never overplayed them, I still washed dishes, took out the garbage, practiced my cello, and did extra-curricular school activities. I liked them, and I probably even learned something from them. However, the games that really stuck out to me were the ones that didn't try to teach me lists of facts, they were the breathtakingly beautiful ones. Loom, Myst, King's Quest. The feelings I got from those games stick with me today and recur whenever I play a game I love. They make me want to draw, write, create, learn, and share all those feelings with my friends. The only difference now is sometimes they come from GTA, or Rock Band, or Mass Effect.

Surely this woman wouldn't claim an appreciation of art is useless for her children, would she? If she's taking her children to music lessons but only making them practice 10 minutes a day then clearly she's not trying to make virtuosos out of the little ones. So what, then? Probably she's trying to instill a love of music and an enriching hobby they can enjoy all their lives. But wait, you can get those from games, too!

There's another thing that's developmentally very important for children that games provide: fun! One of the biggest ruckuses in children's literature was in the 40s when the first four Pippi Longstocking books were published. Why was the now arguably best children's book ever written so controversial? Because it showed a child and especially *gasp* a girl, who thought playing was the most important thing for children. In a world mostly dominated by stories about children being proper and working and never questioning authority, Pippi was seen as "totally anti-social rubbish."

To quote the author of the article: What is constructive about playing football on a tiny screen, or washing a virtual dog, or watching a hideous pink pony trot around a pink palace decorated with shells?

Seriously. Go get a time machine and find yourself some pre-WWII literature critics. Because it's playing, and because in 2008 most people agree that it's okay for everyone (even children!) to play.

But, this woman didn't just bash video games with no rhyme or reason, she did actually state what they did to make her family life hell. there anything she could have done to avoid that?

Well, a single DS for 4 children is a stupid choice. Maybe she wanted to teach sharing, I don't know, but if she really wanted a "family Nintendo", passed around lovingly by everyone as we all played Brain Trainer together she should have gotten something that her whole family could have enjoyed at the same time. The first console I ever owned was a regular old NES. After washing the dishes and taking out the trash my mom and I often would sit down and play a few games of Dr. Mario together (she usually won.) Now, my mom loves to play cards and sometimes the occasional falling block game, but she isn't a "gamer." She bought me games, let me find time to play them, and listened to me talk on and on about them because they made me happy and thoughtful, not because it was any real interest to her. Another thing I loved to do, as a younger sibling, was to sit and watch my older brother play games, and annoyingly shout out things he should do. A tiny little DS doesn't even allow for this kind of sibling interaction, just excludes everyone who isn't holding it. Get a Wii, get a 360, get a freaking NES off ebay, get 2 DSes (using the money you can save by not buying crappy games, covered next), just don't get one "family" DS.

And now, I have come full circle to my beloved Gorky quote. The other thing you should do is get your children good games with child appropriate content but quality that transcends all age groups. I don't know any kids that love Brain Trainer...geez. What a boregasbord. I guess that's just my personal opinion, and seriously, if someone loves Brain Trainer or My Little Pony, fine, they're perfectly good frivolous toys, if you like that sort of thing. Get them some works of art too, though. Try Animal Crossing. Nothing in that game is inappropriate to children, but I'm 22 and of all my DS games I've gotten the most hours of real satisfaction out of that one. (ESRB notice: Experience May Change With Online Play. Especially if you come to my town with its The Boobs constellation.) Or what about Electroplankton? Also maybe just a frivolous toy, but a visually and aurally stunning one that can encourage a love of music and maybe even more practice time on instruments. Rock Band is in fact what motivated me after a long hiatus to play my cello simply for my own enjoyment. Instead of Brain Trainer, try out the puzzles of Professor Layton, and its accompanying mystery. It's a twofer! You get to learn logic and math as well as good narrative!

In a few days I'll be roadtripping to my parents' house for Mother's Day. I'm going to give my mom a big hug and thank her for not being like Ms. I Hate Fun. Then we'll probably play some Dr. Mario, and she'll still probably beat me.


Ayesha said...

Thats great...Maxim
It is wonderful to see a different point of view about child development.
Fun and play along with mental skill really works.
I wish all new mom's read this blog. constructive learning will have a lot to do with games that kids play...!

Zach said...

Boregasbord? It sounds like you're hitting the lingonberries pretty hard.

Amelia said...

It sounds like you aren't hitting them hard enough!