Serial entrepreneur and homeschool advocate Penelope Trunk claims that videogames, not traditional schooling, better prepares children for a future world of highly collaborative, analytical knowledge work. With that in mind, Trunk essentially allows her children to decide how often and how long they want to play.
A kid who is completely absorbed in a video game and can't hear a word his mom says is actually exhibiting the behavior psychologists like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi call flow — which is the highest form of learning because it's such engaged attention toward mastery of a skill that you don't notice anything around you.
While it's easy to dismiss Trunk's embrace of video games as silly and extreme, the current school model is hardly a wellspring of success, either. Consider that only 78% of students graduate high school - even fewer for many ethnic groups. That's not college graduation - that's high school.
A Common Sense Approach To Video Games
So should you allow your child to choose video games over school?
While there is ample evidence that video games can improve learning, collaboration skills, analytical skills and motor skills, Trunk's hardline position of choosing video games over traditional schooling simply does not stand up to the totality of data.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a role for games in the growth and development of kids.
For more insight, I spoke with Douglas Rushkoff, who has written several books on related topics, including Playing the Future, which embraced the notion that constant immersion in a world of digital tools, sims, role-playing games and ever-present screens could prove beneficial for children - and ultimately the planet's future. But even Rushkoff wasn't willing to replace school with games.
ReadWrite: Can videogames offer benefits to children?
Douglas Rushkoff: I absolutely see the benefits of gaming - both as a new form of narrative and as an entree to critical thinking about digital environments, and even as a first step toward programming. But most games, and gamers, are not particularly biased toward that advancement.
ReadWrite: Given that there appears to be so much evidence that at least some video games can be beneficial for children, why do most parents see them so negatively?
Douglas Rushkoff: There's a lot of evidence that video games cause harm, as well. It's a bit hard to balance one's knowledge that gaming might enhance a kid's programmatic sensibilities with the experience of one's kid being hyper and hard to control after extended video game sessions. I mean, try talking about the benefits of video games with a parent who is contending with a kid who refuses to do homework or throws tantrums when he can't get time on Wipeout.
ReadWrite: Is there a clear path for schools to positively incorporate gaming into their curriculum?
Douglas Rushkoff: There may not be a clear path, but there are many possibilities. There's Katie Salen's model at Quest to Learn, which uses gaming as a metaphor for all sorts of subjects. I think the object of the game here, so to speak, is to use gaming as a way to transcend winner-takes-all models and understandings.
We don't' play to win, anymore, but to keep the game going. There are sustainable models implied by gaming that are not necessarily implied by books and traditional stories.
The other clear path is to make sure kids understand how any digital environment they're encountering is put together. They must come to understand these are not neutral spaces, but designed environments with embedded agendas. It's the same as television or anything else: who made this, how do they want me to feel, how are they making their money?
ReadWrite: Should parents let children set their own limits on how long to play or what to play?
Douglas Rushkoff: It depends on the child. I think children depend on their parents to set limits on how much candy they eat. Kids haven't internalized discipline, particularly when they are two or three or four years old. They really depend on parents to make sure they eat right, wear the right clothes, do their homework. Gaming falls into the same category.
(See also Why Video Games Are Good For Your Kids.)
Not All Games Are Created Equal
Lisa Nielsen - a former New York City public schools teacher and author of Teaching Generation Text writes that "at their most basic level video games are similar to books." Like books, vdieo games can be anything: "trashy novels, historical fiction, non-fiction, classic literature" - each type offering varying contributions for learning.
According to Nielsen, parents should focus on what "learning" a particular video game offers their child.
If given the choice to learn about Roman history by reading, watching, discussing, or being a citizen of the Roman Empire, which would you choose? With simulation games you are no longer a passive recipient of information. You are an active member of a meaning-making experience where you have been transported to an alternate time, place, or reality.
As a parent, I like Rushkoff's balanced approach. Video games may indeed enhance a child's socialization skills, mental focus, ability to collaborate - and even improve their intellect. But as Rushkoff and many others warn, they can have more negative effects as well. The problem is that the science is simply not yet conclusive enough to convince parents that they should abandon long-held beliefs and start encouraging their children to play Grand Theft Auto instead of doing their homework.
Even with definitive, easy-to-understand proof of the benefits - which is far from certain we'll ever have - that kind of paradigm shift could take decades.