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.