You’ve heard it all before: Video games turn kids into virtual gun-toting sociopath and reckless drivers that need to be reminded not to aim for pedestrians. Obviously, too much time flicking the ’ole joystick is never good for anyone, but not all games are created equal. In fact, there are plenty that let players hone worthwhile life skills (ie. how to set up an empire; how to use a turtle shell as a weapon) and absorb new information (how an agrarian society works; why dysentery is a bad way to go). These types of games can do a lot of good.
One of the major proponents of the positive effects of video games is Asi Burak. He’s the founder of Games for Change, a nonprofit that uses games to spur social change and author of the upcoming Power Play. Burak not only believes that video games get a bad rap but that they may influence civic engagement, social change, and up your kid’s emotional intelligence. Here’s why, in reasonable doses, he thinks the up-up-down-down-select-start world can be a big power-up in your kids’ life.
The Big Message Behind Gaming
Burak understands the blowback games receive. They’re violent. They’re stupid. They make kids think it’s okay to throw down a banana peel on the Go Kart course. But his main point is that “games have the ability to be connected to what we want to achieve in real life in amazing ways.” Where you see mindless button-mashing, he sees teaching someone skills. What can a game with impossibly stupid rules, terrifying goblin-like creatures, and infinite dead-ends teach you? How to enter the political arena, for one.
Don’t believe him? Burak begs you to bring that up with Sandra Day O’Connor. Yes, that Sandra Day O’Connor who sat on the Supreme Court for 25 years. After stepping down, she searched for a way to teach civics to kids and decided that games were the ticket. So she founded iCivics, a company that’s created more than a dozen civics-themed games that let kids learn the ins and outs of government and are used by an astounding number of American middle schools. That’s way better than Grand Theft Auto, where kids learn the tenets of anarchy.
Video Games Are As Much Of An Educational Tool As Anything Else
Why do people hate video games? Burak says there’s a perception “that the medium itself is of lesser quality or regard than films or books.” He says that in, say, books or films “it’s clear you can speak on anything. You can do entertainment, or social change, or education. But with games, we’re not there yet.”
He adds that video games can be just as potent an educational tool for any subject you would find in a book. Just look to the word-puzzle game acrobatics of Scribblenauts. Or the odd antics of Little Big Planet, which allows kids to create and interact with a fully-customizable world. Or anatomy, ala Mortal Kombat.
And They’re More Social Than They’re Given Credit For
Sometimes gaming means sweatpants, Cheetos, and not being clear if the sun is up. But games can also connect players who would never have met IRL. And those meetings can help teach your kids how to navigate conversations and not just pressing the “mute” button. “Some of the best games are about collaboration and getting to know people who are different from you,” Burak says. Having your kids sit on the couch and play Battlefield: 1 while some adult with the gamertag RydeORDie110 screams at him for not seeing that tripwire? Not positive. But, playing Civilization with other users and combining brainpower to build clean energy and stage a bloodless coup? Ain’t nothing wrong with political science.
Your Kid’s Emotional Intelligence Gets A Power Up
When they control a main character, kids experience how others see the world. And that provides them with a literal spin on that age-old saying about mocassins and walking in them. You know that one. “Games put you in someone else’s shoes,” says Burak. “It’s not about teaching empathy as a rational thing. It’s about embodying it; experiencing something that changes your feelings and thinking.” In other words? Problem-solving is good, but maybe putting your kid in the role of a soulless killer isn’t.