Sunday Thoughts: 24/05/09

Playing a video game 20 years ago would have seen you being branded a geek.  Plenty of films from the 80’s feature these so-called geeks with their computers, tapping away at their keyboards and occasionally nudging the glasses back above the bridge of their nose, in desperate need of Clearasil. But back then playing a video game required a hefty dose of technical know-how, and it was a puzzle in itself just to get a game loaded and ready for play.  Yes I’m looking at you Mr Commodore 64! Ah, those tapes – they’re not missed a single bit.

It is common for this industry to target children and youth, as it recognises them as a driving force for new products, such as music, fashion and games.  Decisions were made to make gaming much easier to take part in, and accessible to all, negating the need to be a computer whizz.  With video gaming more accessible due to the introduction of cartridge based consoles, you no longer needed to be a “geek” to play games.  The introduction of Windows OS also took away a lot of the effort needed to enjoy games on your PC.

It was in the early 90’s that video gaming started to take off. That is, it became widely accepted as a hobby and games were played on a daily basis – mostly kids with their Nintendo or SEGA consoles.  The plug and play generation was gathering speed, and would see many improvements in hardware and a massive increase in the gaming population.  It is much easier now for a youth to play video games than it ever has been before, and many parents are failing to understand that gaming is not necessarily a bad thing.

Today you couldn’t imagine going into a house and not seeing a gaming device of some shape or form.  Youths on Xbox Live, PSN or network gaming on the Wii, whilst chatting away on messenger and spending their Dad’s hard earned cash on phone credit. The bills will likely state there has been more broadband activity than there has been water used. The question is: what effect does this have on the youth of today?  Does gaming and social gaming give kids and teenagers skills that can be applied to everyday life?  Or are we looking at a generation that will become mindless zombies that tea-bag pensioners after a mugging and do not have the skills to obtain an honest job when leaving school?

My view is that games, in moderation, can indeed offer skills that are applicable in everyday life.  Playing a game can offer a student something to talk about with others at school, get debates started and help be more sociable.  It’s no different to talking about the latest film or football results.  A game could fuel a young person’s imagination and encourage them to be more creative, even inspire them to take part in the real world equivalent. Rock Band and Guitar Hero are great examples of creative and fun games that could inspire a young mind to become more creative with music and even take up playing an instrument.

I believe games can educate too, in a more fun and interactive way.  Buzz and Brain Challenge can teach all manner of things about various subjects.  FIFA can teach anyone the rules and tactics of football, the leagues, teams and players.  The same goes with any decent sports game.  Racing simulations can teach the theory behind gear changing, racing lines, even basic physics with slipstreams and friction.  Most games will certainly improve hand to eye co-ordination, observation and problem solving.  This is all learnt through a fun and engaging activity, where the gamer may not even be aware of the skills they are picking up.

I also think that social gaming, in the right game with the right people playing online, can see a person improve communication, team work and leadership.  What if a game such as Call of Duty 4 inspires a young mind to pursue a career in the forces, and he’s not shy to communicate or dish out instructions because he spent time doing so online?

At the very least it keeps kids off the streets and at home hopefully with family.  I personally encourage youths to play outside and be active during daylight, but once night hits – the option for your child to go home and play with friends online should be welcomed.  It keeps them safe and away from any temptation or peer pressure resulting in bad behaviour and a trip home in a police car.

As with all activities a young person takes part in, it is up to parents and teachers to observe the behaviour and attitude of their child or pupil, and make sure the activity isn’t having a negative effect on other important activities in their lives.  It is also up to the parents to police the games your child is playing, and ensure the right age related games are played.  As a father, my son will be encouraged to be physical and creative out in the fresh air.  But he will also be supported if he takes up video gaming as a hobby, and I believe it can help him with everyday aspects of life and inspire him to investigate new hobbies and activities to take up outside of video games.

As long as gaming doesn’t become a substitute, but instead recognised as a potential aid to your child’s development, parents would do well to support the activity.  I find it sad to hear a mother or father say; “you spend too much time on those games, it’s not real and a complete waste of time and money”.  How about taking part in your child’s activity, and thus getting a better understanding of the positive effects the gaming hobby may actually have on their life?

I would like to take this opportunity to offer advice to anybody currently in a situation where you feel your parents do not understand your gaming hobby.  Ask for a sensible discussion with your parents about why you like the games you play, and what you feel you gain from playing them.  Be prepared to listen to their views too, as it may be that you are spending a lot of time in games, resulting in you missing quality time with your family.  Ask them if they would play a game with you, and give them the opportunity to get a better insight into what you actually do within a game.

To other parents I ask: can you take that corner as well as your son or daughter just did?  Can you lead a squad of real online people, from 5 different countries, and successfully take a “capture and hold” point whilst protecting your own backside? There is no substitute for going out and meeting real people.  Games cannot educate the youth of today as effectively as a teacher or assigned coursework.  But on a rainy day, and in moderation, video games can provide a good social and engaging experience in a safe environment, and perhaps give your child a few skills that could aid a very successful life.

I invite you all to discuss your thoughts and experiences on this topic.