It’s often been said that the moral outrage around video games is the result of a generational gap: most people born before, say, 1970, are unfamiliar with video games, and as a result, they’re afraid of them. This speaks to the negative impressions involved in the debate, and seems to make sense. But the fact that so many people fail to see the immense value, the huge potential for good, in video games, is another matter. I think this part is due to widespread confusion between medium and content. Continue reading See the good in video games: just like in books
Peter Gray, my favorite education blogger, has recently written two posts I can highly recommend:
- “The Many Benefits, for Kids, of Playing Video Games”
- “Video Game Addiction: Does It Occur? If So, Why?“
The two most common activities in a Sudbury schools are talk and free play. Conversation and free play are great things for children to engage in. These are universal human activities that people everywhere engage in readily whenever they can. It comes as no surprise that children choose to pursue them in an environment like Sudbury schools where no academic structure is imposed on their time.
I refer the interested reader to other sources regarding conversation and free play; you may find these at the bottom of this post, under Further reading.
To close this series of posts about children and academic structures, I will now turn to one other type of activity: video games. On occasion, I have heard the peculiar claim that, “okay, people seek novelty, but video games are addictive! Like heroin! They ruin everything and take away children’s freedom!”
In my experience, as much as video games may seem to engage people, a game can only retain its charm for so long, just like any other activity. People get sick of bad games because they get annoying after a while; people get sick of good games when they have mastered them to the point that the challenge is gone.
In all my years of gaming and involvement in the gaming community, I have not met many “game addicts”. However, those few I have met have always had real-life issues to run away from. It may be trouble at home, or it may be depression, but it seems the root of this obsessive behavior is the need to escape from something more serious. This becomes almost painfully obvious when you get over any prejudice you may have regading the nature of video games. Some people point at games in blame in these cases, but clearly the games are symptom, not cause. Even if a vicious circle is involved, I have not known people to truly spend too much time on games unless they need to escape from something else.
Still, one type of game is increasingly implicated in those cases where someone gets “addicted” to gaming, and I would like to say some words in defense of these games: multi-player games. Multi-player games have risen to prominence in the past decade thanks to rapidly improving Internet infrastructures that now allow people around the world to play together in real time. Games usually fall out of favor after a year or two, but in 2009 there are a few conspicuous games from the late 90’s that are still being played. The two most notable are Starcraft and Counter-Strike, and the primary reason they are still played is their excellent multi-player experience. Multi-player games can offer something off-line games cannot – a built-in social aspect.
The most successful and long-lasting multi-player games are either games that have effectively become competitive sports, or they are “MMOGs” – Massively Multi-player Online Games. The former are games like Starcraft, which has become a virtual sport which aspiring players train for regularly, hoping to succeed at tournaments with real cash prizes. Counter-Strike, a team-based game, is played by teams of friends (“clans”) who play together regularly and are more or less equivalent to soccer or basketball teams. MMOGs, such as mega-hit World of Warcraft, on the other hand, engage players with intricately-designed virtual worlds that offer not only challenges but masses of other players, as well as means – and excuses – to interact with them regularly.
In both cases, these games are so exceptionally successful because of the social aspect – rather than isolating players, they bring them together. If a player abandons the game, they abandon their friends, and this makes it much harder to leave these games behind. Much of the gaming and communicating takes place in the privacy of one’s home, but it is common for Counter-Strike clans and their World of Warcraft equivalents, guilds, to meet up, face-to-face, to play together on a local network or simply to hang out. These games forge connections between people, united by a common interest, giving rise to friendships and in some cases relationships – even marriages. Such a game may hold a person’s attention for a surprisingly long time on their own, but sooner or later the virtual experience tends to escalate. More often, they are interwoven from the very start, helped by the online communities where players meet to discuss the games they play. In fact, the players who spend the most time on their games are the ones most likely to make friends with other gamers, perhaps because they spend more time with the games, or because they need new social connections the most. Games can enable these players to find other like-minded people, and in the long run may do more good than harm, eventually giving players a reason to go out after all.
If you believe that children do indeed need structure, I would like to hear from you in the comments: What kind of structure do children need? Do all children need it? If not, which kinds of children do, and why? In particular, do you see video games as an especially disturbing activity? And finally, I would really like to hear from you what you are afraid may happen to a child who attends a school like mine – what could go wrong without adult structure and guidance?
- Peter Gray at Psychology Today has posted extensively on the subject of free play, for instance in this series: link.
- “We were a small group of people bouncing ideas off each other” – the experience of a Sudbury Valley School graduate who played a lot and never took a class. (From Kingdom of Childhood)
I wrote a piece published in unerzogen magazine in 2008 (link [English, PDF]), where I argued that free and open communication enables school democracy and free learning, and that these also reinforce the freedom of communication in return.
If you are concerned about video games, I have a book recommendation for you: Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes and Make-Believe Violence, by Gerard Jones. I found it exceptionally informative and interesting.
I am back, and I would like to continue this series by addressing one more aspect (or interpretation) of the argument which I have called “some children need structure”. This version reads something like this: “some children, if not provided with extrinsic academic structure, will make bad use of their time and never succeed.” In conventional schooling, it is implied that this applies not only to some children, but to most. In the context of discussing democratic education, this argument, in only referring to “some”, implies something like, “many children can handle the freedom given in a democratic school with grace and make good use of their time, but some of them fail to make good that freedom and will never amount to anything without adults helping them along the right path”. Sadly, I have mostly heard this kind of argument coming from parents, talking about their own children. Unlike the version of this argument which I discussed in Part 2 of this series, this version suggests not that these “some children” will be unhappy in the short-term future (because of inability to cope with creating their own structures), but that the unhappiness will come later on in life, even if the child is perfectly happy right now.
This is where the distastefulness of this argument lies: who is to say that an individual should not be allowed to pursue a course of action that gives them present enjoyment and fulfillment? Is it justified by the promise of future success (or, one would hope, happiness)? After all, there’s nothing wrong with suffering for the promise of something that you want. But then, this is not about a child electing to have less fun in the present to secure the future they want – it is about adults saying the child should be enjoying life less than they do, to enjoy a future the adult judges best. And even when the choice is made by one for oneself, I fear that the long-term consequence of this attitude (so pervasive in Western culture), is that we forget how to enjoy life; if all we can do is busy ourselves with improving the future, when does the point come where we truly enjoy the present 1? And is any point in our lifespan too soon for this? Should we not be enjoying the present as much as possible?
However, in this case it is not an individual’s personal choice we are discussing. It is an adult individual’s choice for a younger individual mostly powerless to resist coercion. In the short-term, this amounts to adults making children miserable. Although the theories of how these structures will help them are fine, the reality is that increased structure does not promise happiness, nor even material success. Many students do their best in traditional schools and still end up unhappy and/or unsuccessful (by their own standards or those of others.) And many students in traditional schools do their best to avoid the academic structures’ influence, get horrible grades (or flunk, or drop out) and end up having a fabulous adult life they are perfectly happy with 2. And even if we were to assume that the right structure increases the likelihood of success, the end result is still making a kid have less fun because of the mere likelihood of enjoying their life more later on. If it were discovered that surgically removing all of your teeth statistically contributes to a longer life, would these same people elect to lose their teeth and switch directly to dentures? After all, the statistical probability does nothing to promise a particular individual will enjoy the benefits – it merely means such an individual has a better chance at them. The price is paid whether or not the results manifest.
But I doubt it is so effective to provide a child with academic structure or any sort of guided path to making the most of their time. Putting aside the argument I have already made in Part 2, that children need to learn to deal with free choice, I would like to take a look at the actual use children make of their time and free choice. When parents say “my child needs structure” about a perfectly happy child in a Sudbury school, likely as not, that child spends most of their time either talking or playing. If it is a younger kid, they are probably playing with friends most of the time 3. If it is an older kid, they are probably talking with friends, or playing video games, which some (very rarely) do alone 4. In the next part (or possibly parts) of this series, I will take a brief look at each of these activities and their value for young children.
1Alan Watts wrote wonderfully on this topic, among many others.
2Many end up rich and/or famous, so I challenge the reader to think of five famous examples from the past 100 years.
3But there are exceptions: my little brother, when he was 7-8 years old, spent most of his time simply walking around with a friend and talking.
4This is not to say that the majority of older students play video games – only that this is very often the cause for parents to start saying their child needs more structure.
Martin Roberts, a colleague on EUDEC Council, brought up an argument yesterday that you often get when talking about Sudbury schools. “Why not offer classes? Some children need structure.” (These are not exactly his words, but this is the argument in a more general sense.) I replied to Martin directly, but because of how common this line of reasoning is, I would like to discuss it more extensively. In this series of posts (originally a single post that got out of hand) I will explore this issue from a few angles and hopefully provide you with something interesting to read, if nothing more.
First, let us clarify what the “kids need structure” argument actually means – after all, it does not refer to children creating structures to meet their own needs on their own terms. No, what the argument actually says is that children are not all capable of getting everything they need independently and some of them need adults to provide them with an extrinsic academic structure.1
Before I explain why I disagree so strongly with it, I will point out an unpleasant implication of this claim that seems problematic to me: when making this argument, Martin implies – although I am sure this is not his intention – that children are not capable of managing their own lives. Moreover, I am willing to bet that Martin, like most people, would never make this claim about adults. If you, dear reader, happen to be an adult currently in the workforce, can you imagine making this claim about your colleagues? Or your friends? I assume most people will answer with a “no”.2 So without meaning to, Martin is not treating the vague age-group called “children” with the same respect as he would afford to fellow adults. This does not mean the claim is false – in fact, as we will see, I think it is true and disagree nonetheless. But equal respect for people, regardless of age, is not only an essential requirement for democratic education, but a necessary step for society to make as a whole. It makes very little sense to disrespect people because of their age and leads to the ridiculous situation where everyone is disrespected for no good reason sooner or later. But I digress.
Let us turn to the argument itself: “[some] children … need adults to provide them with an extrinsic academic structure”. Before I start to address it I would ask what “need” really means here. Surely it is not used in the same sense as “children need a regular intake of oxygen, water and food” – no child ever died from lack of an academic framework. Rather, what is intended is “need” in the sense that some children are unhappy, or experience hardship, when lacking academic guidance (this is the sense Martin meant this is). It is true that some young people have a very hard time when they aren’t prescribed academic structures by adults, a matter which I will return to in the next post. The final possible intention I can see for this claim, which is not the intention in Martin’s case, is that some children “need” a framework of instruction in order to grow up to be successful adults. This is an important interpretation, because people outside of democratic education very often claim this when defending the practices of traditional education.
In the next post, I will address Martin’s sense of this argument, that it is difficult for some students to deal with a lack of instructional framework. In the posts following that I will examine the last sense of this argument and go in more detail into how this claim ties in with video games (which so many people view as dangerous for children, especially when no structure deprives them of the chance to play them.) I have already written much of this text, so these posts will be more frequent than I have otherwise been posting.
1A similar argument is that children are not capable of controlling their diet in a healthy way and need adults to dictate when, what and how much they eat. When a teacher says “kids need structure” this is usually not what they are referring to.
2The exception is totalitarians, who explicitly believe human beings need to be led by a charismatic male who tells them what to do. I will not bother arguing against that kind of claptrap here.
A new study confirms something I have long suspected: the thing that makes videos games fun and attractive is the sense of achievement, not the violence. In my school and in many others, concerned parents have voiced their fear that their children are spending too much time playing video games, which is allegedly a waste of time and, depending who you ask, possibly dangerous because of the glorification of violence. My own parents used to take issue with my spending so much time on the computer, too, really.
But what is often misunderstood is what actually makes video games so attractive – what, in fact, makes games attractive in the first place. Let me give you a definition: Games are sets of restrictive rules, designed to create an artificial challenge that requires specific application of skill to surmount. This is the same in every context, from video games through board games through roleplaying games through card games and parlor games. It should be no surprise that children like games – children are incredibly eager to challenge themselves. Anyone with marginal involvement in the video game world knows that a game has to be challenging to be considered a good game.
Gamers and game-players are all in it for the challenge. And children, natural born learning machines, are challenge fiends. They love a challenge. So it should come as no surprise that they really like games.