I have spent some time with young people and their parents convincing them that video games are science. They are usually surprised by that idea until I explain that video games are nothing more than one long experiment. Faced with a constant stream of unfamiliar situations gamers are required to develop creative strategies in order to understand and eventually master their virtual universe.
In my work parents often find it hard to see the value in video games and typically feel threatened by their kid’s attraction to them. And while inappropriate content must be monitored, it isn’t necessary for parents to dismiss video games altogether as a worthless pursuit.
Jane McGonigal, a renowned video game designer, argues that gamers are not just an aimless group of slackers but a valuable human resource to be tapped. Who else but gamers are so supremely skilled at problem-solving? Who else can collaborate with such a vastly diverse group of random strangers? Who else can fail an estimated 80% of the time and remain intensely motivated? (see her speak here.)
What video games offer is an environment where kids can fail and learn without serious permanent consequences. It’s a safe place where they can make mistakes without harsh criticism; without feeling like a loser. They have endless opportunities to try over and over again until they succeed.
Many parents might react by saying life doesn’t work like that. You can’t just make mistakes in the real world and avoid the consequences. But who’s to say the real world doesn’t offer second chances? What keeps parents from giving kids a do-over when they make mistakes? What harm would it do?
I have frequently suggested to parents that an effective response to misbehavior is the “Try Again” game. If a child makes a bad choice, giving them a chance to try again (more than once if needed) can teach them the correct behavior and end the situation with a celebration rather than a conflict.
This takes the focus of the consequence away from what the kid did wrong and places it on what the kid did right and changes your relationship to one of support rather than scrutiny. The lesson learned is that persistence is valued more than punishment. And that’s a lesson parents can apply to themselves as well.