Don’t Judge New Toys in Yesterday’s Context

Dear Dr. Fournier,

My son wants a video game system: a Wii, PlayStation 3 or an Xbox 360. Until now, I’ve refused, but he has never given up. I don’t want to buy a toy that has him playing mindlessly for hours to make me have to take it away from him. Anyway, I want my child to use his time better. Please give me ways I can explain to my child why this is not good for him.

Carla, TX

The Assessment:

An old Gary Larson Far Side cartoon showed a child playing a Nintendo with “hopeful parents” in the background imagining help wanted ads in the year 2005: ”Nintendo Expert Needed. $50,000 salary + bonus” or ”Can You Save The Princess? We need skilled men and women, $75,000 + Retirement.”

The cartoonist’s message is obvious: Nintendo prepares our children to go nowhere in the real world.

As a parent whose child loved his video games, I wrestled with this thought, and the guilt trip it tended to induce. Initially, I thought, “Well, my son could be reading, building or doing other creative things.” Then I considered, “If my son is so attracted to video games, is it because he is lazy, mindless, unthinking and worthless?” My answer was a resounding ”No.”

Video games did not change the fact that my son is responsible, thoughtful and worthy. If he was so attracted to the game, my thought was that there could be something positive to that attraction. Today in 2010, degrees and careers in gaming and game development – both in programming and design – are in high demand for the exponential growth of this multibillion-dollar industry. The hopeful parents in the Far Side cartoon were heralds of the future!

What To Do:

As parents, we need to ask what we are rejecting before we simply write it off as a waste of time. Just because today’s parents either did not have a video game system as we were growing up, or grew up with many of these systems in their infancy does not mean that the boom in gaming we see today is worthless or bad for our children. After all, each generation had a unique set of toys to reflect the times. Think back to some of the games of your youth, and what these games taught you:

e Board Games – taught waiting your turn, going in order, and striving for bonuses.

e Erector sets / Lego – learning to design and build structures as future engineers.

e Operation / Doctor Kits – inspired us to become interested in health related professions.

Yet in today’s world, leaping ahead is more important than waiting. Engineers rely on computer-aided design, doctors are ever more dependent on diagnostic technology, and educational institutions are becoming increasingly dependent on the Internet and online interaction.

Our children’s workplace will be different from ours. Their toys already reflect this difference.

Children can learn many important skills from video games: They can learn to think in terms of goals and strategies; to take risks without fear of attempting; and – perhaps most important for the workforce of 2020 – to expect and accept failure without paralysis and know that success may take weeks or months.

My son learned about “real life” from the fantasy of video games. If he got bogged down, he telephoned a toll-free number to ask for assistance (decreasing his fear of asking for help). He was willing to risk a new way with the hope for success, and he talked with friends to see what they had to offer (research and interpersonal learning). A new challenge produced great enthusiasm, which he had to control in order to cope with frustration when the game outwitted him, which also gave him the opportunity to practice perseverance and determination.

Today, with the advances of the Internet, video game system technology, and Massive Multiplayer Online Gaming (commonly MMORPG) worlds and person-to-person competitions, a player will not go far on his or her own. A child will need to learn meaningful communication skills, seek out collaboration with others from around the world (many of whom they will never meet) and develop meaningful personal relationships for teamwork.

So, are these systems good toys? No matter whether the subject is video games, cards, board games or action figures, parents must still set their own “house rules” for the appropriate use of toys. Too much of anything can be a bad thing. With game systems, many more modern games are unfortunately based only on vice or violence, and with the advent of game rating codes the subject matter of some of these games can be of questionable value. However, these factors can give us the opportunity for discussions that we might otherwise be put off from having, and can help our children know that the boundaries we set have to do with our beliefs and values.

All too many people are ready to criticize; yet criticism is valid only if you can outline the good with the bad. Only then can you decide if the good outweighs the bad, and vice versa, so you and your child can make decisions together based on your child’s future and not your past ideas of “good toys.”

Dr. Yvonne Fournier
Dr. Yvonne Fournier