By Eugene Gan
We've all heard how sports help kids learn important life lessons, including perseverance, teamwork and all the rest. I propose -- and this may horrify some of you -- that computer games can play the same formative role.
It's a good thing, too, because computer and video games are increasingly a part of the environments navigated by U.S. children and have taken a dominant role in our nation's media consumption. (For example, the game "Grand Theft Auto IV" -- which I don't recommend -- made $310 million in the first day of its sales, making it the most profitable entertainment release of all time. For comparison, the previous record, $220 million, was set by the book "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.")
Not that we should be indiscriminately feeding this industry, mind you, but we should be very aware of the media landscape our kids play in and, at the very least, pay close attention.
Given the medium's pervasiveness, I was not surprised when my 5-year-old son begged to play the computer game "Lego Star Wars II." The game version of this combined franchise plays up on the action of brandishing a light saber or, depending on the character, a laser pistol. It adopts a more lighthearted and humorous view of the movie's story line and shows no gore: Characters are dismantled into their component Lego bricks when struck, and the game tries to encourage team play by having players build constructs and solve puzzles that are sometimes only surmountable with two players working together.
Talk about team play: It was in one such level in the computer game that I could hear myself coaching my son to persevere and not to give up so easily.
"Stick with it, son. You can do it."
But he was too quick to whine, "I can't do it," without really even trying. Aha, a life-lesson opportunity. I paused the game to talk about the importance of facing challenges, recovering from failure, and relating it to Our Lord's falls while carrying the cross on the Via Dolorosa. (That last one didn't seem as much a stretch at the time.)
The key is to look beyond the old perception of computer games as solely eye-hand-coordinated diversions for real opportunities to encourage more coordination through thinking and purposeful movement.
For instance, I want my son to realize that swinging the little Lego light saber while leaping around may look cool, but doesn't get you far in the game (of life). And meandering randomly through the maze of doors and passageways is not as effective as working your way logically in a goal-oriented way -- for example, methodically exploring rooms and sub-spaces before moving on to the next one versus the 5-year-old method: here, no here, no here, no wait, we've been here before.
I want him to exercise his creativity and problem-solving skills, opportunities that are available aplenty in this particular title (something I checked beforehand in the trailers, reviews and demo of this computer game). And talk about learning to work efficiently within deadlines: some of the levels require that players perform specific tasks within a specified time before the floor literally falls out from under you.
I want him to learn that spending reward points aimlessly on a super-blaster that the Lego Jedi characters never use when one should be saving it for something more "important" like health points or access to other fun characters is really an unwise use of resources. Like when he spent 20,000 points on that super-blaster when I stepped away to get a drink of water; that won't happen again.
To be sure, the life lessons aren't just limited to game play. The conversations and activities surrounding these computer- game times are as important as the game-play time itself. Take learning self-discipline, the gateway to theological virtues. And demonstrating good manners and cleaning up whatever he was playing with (or getting his workbook done first), which are expressions of charity and obedience.
And then there's learning moderation. He can feel sad about not being allowed to play, but when it holds him to a degree that sparks a tantrum, I'm concerned. I love him too much to let him be a captive of the game. I want him to be free. I try to explain to him: If we are unable to say "no," what does our "yes" mean? (You can imagine our surprise and delight when he declared that he was giving up "Lego Star Wars" for Lent this year.)
Our son has gotten to the point where he's (mostly) able to immediately and calmly exit the game and shut down the computer when he's told to do so, or when the computer-game time has come to an end. And while on occasion he needs to be reminded, he's even able to shut down the computer despite having to stop in the midst of a very exciting moment in the game.
In no time at all, my oldest son and I had progressed to flight simulators on wintry Sunday afternoons -- checking out maps and atlases before our virtual trip, then trying to navigate, sightsee and make it to the airport in one piece without having to restart the mission.
At the end, there was excitement in his eyes: "I earned the captain's epaulet!" Doing difficult things can be fun.
He had remained focused for a full 30 minutes. During that time, he took control of the flightstick. He adjusted heading, altitude and speed. He actually followed instructions without complaint -- mine and the control tower's. And I had fun helping with the flaps, gears, light, cabin announcements and landing (my hands were over his on the flight stick). Not bad for a virtual trip from Rome to Naples on an Airbus A321 one Sunday afternoon at home.
It's at this point in time, amidst a media-saturated society and culture, that we must ask ourselves: Do we think of computer games as objectionable, as mere waste of time, perhaps even as unpleasant activities? The magisterial documents of the Catholic Church refer to media as "gifts of God" (Communio et Progressio, No. 2) and as "marvelous things" (Inter Mirifica) and urge Catholics to re-examine their attitudes toward the rapid development of media technologies.
While being careful and prudent about the media we choose for our entertainment, in more ways than we have done in the past, we need to strive to listen to Mother Church and reclaim media technologies as gifts from God for our use and betterment.
Could my son have learned these life lessons through other noncomputer related family activities? Absolutely. Should the lessons be limited to just non-media activities? Absolutely not. Not if we are graciously accepting Our Lord's gift to us.
Eugene Gan is professor of communication arts at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
blog comments powered by Disqus
Catholic Faith Resources | For Catholic Parishes | Order OSV Products | RSS | Advertise | About Us | Contact Us | Jobs