This week sees the release of That Dragon, Cancer, a new game from Ryan and Amy Green. The game has already received a good deal of press coverage from outlets like The Verge and Kotaku. My own review is now up at Gamechurch. The game tells the story of Joel Green, who was diagnosed with cancer at age one; he subsequently passed away when he was five years old. The Greens invoke their faith throughout the game, and my review examines how their beliefs are integral to the story.
Many parents hold to the implicit understanding that video games are little more than a frivolous waste of time. Yesterday The Huffington Post reported on Jane McGonigal’s talk at the National Association for College Admission Counseling conference. McGonigal argued that video games should not be seen as essentially harmful to children, but she did not stop at simply returning video games to a neutral, okay-in-moderation, sort of argument. Indeed, according to the report, she argued that video games have demonstrative positive effects on the children who play them.
On one level, I find this kind of discussion to be largely positive. Part of technological progress involves the initial skepticism, slow acceptance, and eventual reification of particular artistic and creative forms. It happened with the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries. Novels were initially seen as a silly waste of time, appropriate only for weak-minded women, but this attitude shifted until novels came to be seen as one of the highest literary art forms. So I’m happy to see that an organization that is ostensibly unrelated to the world of video games, and therefore has no vested interest in promoting video games as valuable, is inviting a speaker like McGonigal.
And yet, when it comes to my own daughter, I find myself so easily reverting to the kind of problematic tactics that my parents used. Why can’t you play video games all day? Because it’s not good for you–it rots your brain and makes you lazy. Okay, so maybe I don’t use terms quite so harsh, but the temptation is certainly there. The problem, I’ve discovered, is in translating the values that McGonigal champions, and which I share, to my children in a way that also communicates restraint and moderation.
Right now we have our schedule set up so that she can only play on the weekends. This was the routine that I had growing up, and it seemed to work well. The problem that I’ve been having comes when it’s time to turn something off. Rose isn’t prone to huge temper tantrums, but she often expresses a palpable dissatisfaction with not being allowed to play for extended periods (more than 2 hours) of time. One thing we’ve considered is forcing her to only play for 30 minutes at a time, thereby breaking up the length of a single session. Ultimately, however, I would just like to make sure that she comes to see video games not as the ultimate leisure or entertainment activity, but one particularly enjoyable thing among many other interests. But often it seems like her entire focus throughout the week is honed in on those three days when she can play video games.
Perhaps the answer is to allow brief play sessions throughout the week–but I balk at the idea of using video games as a carrot for homework and the like. In the long run, I’m much more interested in my daughter developing a healthy and balanced attitude toward video games. I wonder what other kinds of restrictions or frameworks gaming parents have given their children. Am I the only one who suffers from a kind of latent anxiety that my devoted interest in video games will somehow mess up my kids? In any case, perhaps the most important thing is to remain connected to my daughter’s game playing, to be observant of how games impact her, and to be flexible with my rules on gaming. Still, striking a balance between healthy moderation, outright prohibition, and unrestricted permissiveness is proving to be more difficult than I expected.
By the time I was fourteen, I had yet to convince my parents to allow me to have a video game console. Yes, they had caved on the Game Boy years earlier, but a full system was another order of expenditure altogether. So during the Christmas season of 1996, just after the Nintendo 64 launched, my brother and I hatched a scheme to acquire this new piece of technology: we would pay for it ourselves, but as part of the bargain, we had to convince our parents to pay for a few games. We took this proposal to our father, who worked in plastics engineering and had a very systematic approach to these kinds of things, and he made us go back and put together a more formal presentation. In other words, we needed spreadsheets.
So my brother and I hopped on the computer and put together a spreadsheet breaking down how much a Nintendo 64 cost, what each of us would contribute, and how much each of the games would cost. We also needed to affirm that the family’s household video game rules would remain in force (no gaming on school nights), but my father was quick to insert a dispensation for himself, allowing him to play when he liked (a privilege I only recall him exercising once). My parents relented and we were allowed to purchase the system.
The experience of being asked to develop a more professional (for a 14 year-old) approach to making a Christmas gift request has ruined my ability to ask for expensive gifts. Part of me thinks this is a good thing; my parents didn’t want their children to grow up thinking that pricey gifts were a standard part of Christmas. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if their approach was too effective, because I can’t help feeling that it’s somehow wrong to ask for nice things, particularly electronics.
So it was with great fear and trembling that I sent my mother-in-law an email a couple of weeks ago, not long after the Nintendo Wii U pricing announcement in New York.
As you may or may not know Nintendo is releasing a new console in November. The cost is $350, which I know is a sizable sum, but I’m interested in trying to get one for Christmas. There are few points on this that I’d like to mention. First, I can trade in our original Wii (that you gave me a few years back) for a $50 discount at GameStop; our Wii has served us well and still works perfectly. Second, I’d like to make the purchase myself today or tomorrow–with these kinds of product launches, supplies are limited and preordering is often necessary to guarantee getting a unit. So, if you and some other family members are interested, let me know. I would also be happy to put forward some money as well. I’m not very good at asking for big ticket items, so sorry if this sounds like a business proposal.
Notice the ridiculous enumeration of “points”? What an idiot. But in my stage of life (still working on a PhD in literature), the only way a new console comes into my life is either years after its debut or with the help of others. I think that I try to handle my anxiety that this is asking for too much by making the request sound more like a business proposal. But its got to be the most transparent veneer of all time for a straight-up Christmas present request.
My in-laws are wonderfully generous folks, and they said this was fine. But I won’t deny that a sense of guilt or maybe just presumption lingers. Where is the line between asking for something out of a genuine belief in someone’s generosity and a presumption of generosity that preys on others? While I’m delighted to have generous family members, I never want to slip into a pattern of presuming that my desires should be met out of others’ generosity. In some ways, then, perhaps my dad’s insistence on spreadsheets helped to attenuate that tendency. Although it may be a bit early to be writing posts on Christmas, perhaps the spreadsheets have helped to remind me that the generosity of gift-giving is only meant to point us to the infinite generosity represented in the Christmas story.
A review of the headlines in the articles I’ve linked above demonstrate this trend. The New York Times reports that “‘Exergames’ Don’t Cure Young Couch Potatoes”; Forbes somewhat puckishly notes that “Science Says: ‘Active’ Video Games Do Not Magically Turn Junior Coach Potatoes Into Exercise Buffs”; and The Sydney Morning Herald rather blandly writes “No physical benefit from ‘exergames’: study”. Here’s what the study’s abstract concludes: The “results provide no reason to believe that simply acquiring an active video game under naturalistic circumstances provides a public health benefit to children” (e636).
Why is this news absolutely unsurprising? Because the study essentially found that simply placing an active video game like Wii Sports into the homes of children is not going to make them overall more physically active. An analogous situation would be to place treadmills in the homes of overweight adults and discovering (gasp!) that the mere presence of exercise equipment doesn’t necessarily create physical activity. The author of The New York Times article, Randall Stross, a professor of business at San Jose State University, claims that “‘active’ video games […] do not produce the increase in physical activity that naive parents (like me) expected.” The kind of naivety that Stross admits to in his article is troubling, as it suggests that there are a number of parents out there who did believe that simply putting some active video game equipment in the vicinity of their children would create a dramatic change in their children’s behavior.
Now, my daughter and I have often enjoyed playing Wii Sports Resort together. Rose is particularly fond of Table Tennis and Speed Slice, but I would never have assumed that our Wii games were a suitable substitute for, you know, running and jumping and splashing through a water-sprinkler. I wish that the researchers had looked at whether sustained use of something like Wii Fit Plus can have a measurable health benefit, because otherwise the findings hardly seem noteworthy. Indeed, the original journal article was published in March, but it wasn’t until two months later that the general media picked up on it, suggesting that its content needed to be properly finessed before being seen as worthy of being reported.
At its heart, the study undermined the very nature of the Wii’s success and its value. By translating video games into a language that many could understand, Nintendo’s unique control scheme allowed for much greater interaction between parents and children through video games. Yet this study’s entire approach necessitated its abandoning of the Wii’s core identity. As with any move to exercise and physical activity, encouragement from an outside source can be key. Without parents or friends to stoke the desire to play, children might have little reason to initiate play on their own, especially since the Wii has been around for a while now, and its novelty factor has diminished considerably.
So why has this study been reported on in the way that these news outlets have done? The reality is that science is not particularly amenable to the current news culture, which needs to frame their stories in such a way as to suggest controversy or conflict. As such, it should come as no surprise that a study like this one generates such misleading and downright ridiculous headlines, which, as you can see from my totally serious and not at all ironic headline, is something that I have (ahem) always avoided.