Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Why video games may be doing some good
I've been thinking about this for quite some time now:

Another key question: Of all the games that kids play, which ones require the most mental exertion? Parents can play this at home: Try a few rounds of Monopoly or Go Fish with your kids, and see who wins. I suspect most families will find that it's a relatively even match. Then sit down and try to play 'Halo 2' with the kids. You'll be lucky if you survive 10 minutes.

The great secret of today's video games that has been lost in the moral panic over 'Grand Theft Auto' is how difficult the games have become. That difficulty is not merely a question of hand-eye coordination; most of today's games force kids to learn complex rule systems, master challenging new interfaces, follow dozens of shifting variables in real time and prioritize between multiple objectives.

In short, precisely the sorts of skills that they're going to need in the digital workplace of tomorrow.

Consider this one fascinating trend among teenagers: They're spending less time watching professional sports and more time simulating those sports on Xbox or PlayStation. Now, which activity challenges the mind more — sitting around rooting for the Packers, or managing an entire football franchise through a season of 'Madden 2005': calling plays, setting lineups, trading players and negotiating contracts? Which challenges the mind more — zoning out to the lives of fictional characters on a televised soap opera, or actively managing the lives of dozens of virtual characters in a game such as 'The Sims'?

On to the issue of aggression, and what causes it in kids, especially teenage boys. Congress should be interested in the facts: The last 10 years have seen the release of many popular violent games, including 'Quake' and 'Grand Theft Auto'; that period has also seen the most dramatic drop in violent crime in recent memory. According to Duke University's Child Well-Being Index, today's kids are less violent than kids have been at any time since the study began in 1975. Perhaps, Sen. Clinton, your investigation should explore the theory that violent games function as a safety valve, letting children explore their natural aggression without acting it out in the real world.

Many juvenile crimes — such as the carjacking that is so central to 'Grand Theft Auto' — are conventionally described as 'thrill-seeking' crimes. Isn't it possible that kids no longer need real-world environments to get those thrills, now that the games simulate them so vividly? The national carjacking rate has dropped substantially since 'Grand Theft Auto' came out. Isn't it conceivable that the would-be carjackers are now getting their thrills on the screen instead of the street?
It makes sense to me—playing Halo and GTA and Bond and so on has never left me feeling violent—if anything, it leaves me feeling relaxed, and usually pretty tired.

And as far as the complex digital environments—my parents are often nonplussed by my ability to IM 8 people at once and read a book in between each typed sentence. My dad thinks that productivity will begin plummeting in the next few years because of Instant Messenger programs, but having watched myself and my peers, we're better equipped to handle this kind of multi-tasking because of those IM experiences. I think it's very possible that we'll see the same kind of benefit in the workplace thanks to video games.

I have to tell you, the smartest people I knew at Yale were typically among the best video game players (of all kinds) as well. The ones with simple book smarts and no common sense did not fall in this category, and could rarely be found connected to a console system. The ones who excelled in every social and academic pursuit, however, played at least a few times a week.

This is, of course, strictly observational—but I think it's important to think about.

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