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On Video Games, Kids and Outdoor Fun

A provocative editorial from The Times sparks some debate -- do kids really want to play video games, or are our Xboxes and PlayStations being used as babysitters?

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

"I have a weakness," writes Kevin Maher of UK newspaper The Times in an article headlined "Be honest, we make our kids play Xbox. They prefer outdoor fun."

"My 11-year-old son, he plays video games," he continues. "Not a lot, and only on my phone. But enough for me to suspect that given the right environment, and access to the right tech, I might lose him forever to an emotionally stunted and creatively inert online world of BioShock Infinite, Donkey Kong Country Returns and Modern Warfare 3 (I should know, I've played them all)."

While it's tempting to immediately fly off the handle at Maher's provocative use of language -- particularly the "emotionally stunted and creatively inert" bit -- it's worth examining his argument somewhat. It's possible that there are some salient points in there, so before anyone tears him a new one, let's take a look at what he has to say.

"A strange thing happened recently," explains Maher. "My son, the same son, after returning from a four-day school camping trip in the English countryside, announced to me, unprompted and unselfconsciously: 'You know, video games are great and all, but the outside is so much better!'"

"Given the right environment, I might lose [my son] forever to the emotionally stunted and creatively inert online world of BioShock Infinite, Donkey Kong Country Returns and Modern Warfare 3."

Kevin Maher, The Times
BioShock Infinite: "emotionally stunted and creatively inert," apparently.

There is a bit of a flaw in Maher's argument here, even leaving aside the fact that I somewhat doubt the veracity of the quote from his son. Maher himself states that he doesn't allow his son to play video games a lot, and even then it's only on his phone -- presumably only using games that have been "pre-approved." Now, this isn't an attempt to fire up the old "mobile phone games aren't real games" debate that we hopefully left behind us a few years ago, but this shows that Maher's son isn't necessarily a representative example of what "gamer kids" really think, since he's clearly not involved in any of what some commentators refer to as "lifestyle games" -- all-consuming titles like Minecraft, Call of Duty, League of Legends and massively multiplayer online games.

Maher knows this too, so he attempts to back his point up with some research conducted by London visitor attraction Ripley's Believe It or Not which apparently states that "two thirds of [the 2,000 children] surveyed said that they would love to spend more time exploring the world around them, but that their parents were usually too busy."

A fair point. Some of you reading this may be parents yourself, and while I do not have children of my own at the time of writing, I can at least appreciate the many directions in which modern parents are constantly pulled on a daily basis. While the amorphous concept of "good parenting" most certainly includes "spending time with your children," I completely sympathize with those who are more than happy to let their kids entertain themselves in virtual worlds through the medium of video games in the name of having a bit of peace for an hour or two. I also, however, agree with Maher's overall point that parents should spend time with their kids and encourage them to go outside, interact with others, get exercise and have fun without staring at a screen all day. However...

"In short, the reality is that we are all, as parents, responsible for turning our children into gormless, twitchy-thumbed dolts. That's the truth," continues Maher. Now just hold on a mi-- oh, wait, you're still going? Carry on. "The tragedy, both according to this survey, and according to that gut feeling you have, and that you bury every time you watch your kids sleepwalking their way through Call of Duty: Black Ops II, is that they don't even want to play video games in the first place. They want to go outside, and they want to be with us. But we don't have the time. And even when they don't want to go outside, they actually do. They just don't know it yet."

Flimsy logic there, since Maher doesn't provide any particularly compelling evidence to suggest that parents are "making" their children play games, nor that children "don't want to" play video games. It's also an argument which shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the video games medium as a whole. While I concur that it's not good for anyone to lead a completely sedentary lifestyle doing nothing but staring at a TV screen all day, that doesn't immediately mean that there is no inherent value in video games. It's not an "all or nothing" situation. The choice isn't "video games or outside, pick one and forever forfeit the other."

"We are all, as parents, responsible for turning our children into gormless, twitchy-thumbed dolts."

Kevin Maher, The Times
Maher's argument completely ignores the existence of games like Minecraft, designed to foster creativity and stimulate the imagination.

Moreover, Maher's assertion that video games turn children into "gormless, twitchy-thumbed dolts" and that the industry as a whole is "emotionally stunted" and "creatively inert" is a fallacy. There are plenty of dumb games out there, sure, but to completely ignore the existence of those titles which aren't dumb is grossly unfair -- not to mention the fact that even dumb games have their own value with regard to stress relief and relaxation.

Maher mentions two different Call of Duty titles in his article, which admittedly won't win any prizes for intelligence in their respective single player campaigns, but which in multiplayer make use of a lot of the same non-physical skills as playing sports -- teamwork, communication, tactics, sportsmanship. The reputation of the foul-mouthed, racist 13-year old CoD player isn't entirely undeserved, but for every loudmouth like that, there are plenty of other people out there who are playing and enjoying the game together with friends as intended. That's kind of cool -- not to mention the fact it gives a lot of people a mutual interest with which they can engage with one another outside of deathmatches.

CoD aside, Maher's argument also totally ignores titles like Minecraft, which is designed to be an experience that stimulates creativity and the imagination. It ignores titles like Flower and Journey, which are beautiful, artistic productions that leave themselves open to interpretation while still being fun games in their own right. It ignores titles like Nintendo Land, which are designed to be played together with other people who are physically present, encouraging good socialization skills. And it ignores titles like League of Legends, in which practice and working together with teammates are both absolutely essential -- and in which the community tends to react harshly (perhaps overly so) to those who are not a team player.

I'm reminded of a post by the late, great Roger Ebert in which the dearly departed film critic asserted that video games can never be art, but then went on to unravel his own argument by revealing that his hypothesis was based on three games that he didn't even play himself. The war cry of an established critic feeling threatened by a new medium which he had no knowledge of, perhaps.

"No video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form."

Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert did not, it's fair to say, "get" Flower.

Maher's argument is a lot clumsier than Ebert's, but it shares a degree of common ground: an apparent lack of understanding of the medium as a whole (despite, in Maher's case, protestations that he has played all the games he is complaining about); a seeming unwillingness to learn or engage with the medium on anything more than the most superficial level; and a sense that both started from a bold statement -- "video games can never be art" in Ebert's case; "kids prefer outdoor play to video games" in Maher's case -- and worked backwards, rather than making any attempt to explore and reach a conclusion after examining all the evidence.

While Maher's main point that parents should spend more time with their children rather than relying on computers and consoles to do their babysitting is a sound one, he's approaching it from the wrong angle. Rather than attempting to demonize video games as he is, he should instead be looking at ways parents can use video games as an alternative means of engaging with their children. If parents don't have time to take their kids somewhere fun outside, why don't they instead spend a few minutes talking with their child about the games they play -- or even participating? Why don't they grab a controller and take a wander around their child's Minecraft creations?

Articles such as Maher's scaremongering are not helpful for the mainstream perception of video games in society at large. Games can be a force for good when consumed in moderation -- just like almost anything else. Parents shouldn't be scolded or made to feel guilty for allowing their children to play games; they should instead be pointed in the direction of good resources to educate them further about the medium. They should take an interest in what their children are playing, and they should feel confident enough to say "no" if they feel their child is engaging with something that is not, in the parent's eyes, age-appropriate.

Sadly, those resources are quite hard to come by, even in these days of relative enlightenment -- attempts have been made with sites such as the now-defunct What They Play and the more recent Games with Purpose, but there's still a long way to go before widespread mainstream education and acceptance of the medium as a whole. In the meantime, editorials such as Maher's really don't help, just as scaremongering reports from Fox News-esque outlets blaming video games for violent crime don't, either.

Since you're reading this site at all in the first place, I'm assuming you're someone who is at least somewhat sympathetic to the cause of games. Do your bit, then; celebrate the medium however you see fit, and feel no shame regarding your chosen interests. If you're a parent, take the time to engage and bond with your children over the games that they seem to enjoy; perhaps even give them some of your own recommendations.

Games arguably don't "need" mainstream acceptance -- the medium as a whole is doing just fine, even with articles such as Maher's out there, after all -- but it would be nice to one day not have to feel like we have to defend our hobby to those who don't understand it, wouldn't it?

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