My son plays on Massively Minecraft, a wonderful Minecraft server for kids. And recently they banned TNT. I’m relieved. Minecraft is a great constructionist learning environment, and I’m happy to let him play it. But his fascination with blowing stuff up was getting a bit too intense. They disabled TNT on the server because someone (not my son) blew up someone else’s creation. My son would never do anything like that. But I still would rather see him building a castle than piling up explosives to see how big a hole he can make.
People often ask the question “Are video games mimetic?” I was at a conference on games at Georgia Tech a few years ago, and one of the speakers at one moment was waxing poetic about what kids can learn from games. They’re having fun, and look at all the things they can learn! And then moments later, the same speaker dismissed claims that violent games can make kids violent, because kids don’t transfer things from games to the real world–they know it’s just a game! My friend Liz Losh and I had to hold our breath to avoid laughing out loud, the speaker’s self contradiction was so comic. She whispered in my ear, “Either video games are mimetic, or they’re not. He can’t have it both ways!”
I’ve read a bunch of studies on this topic that have contradictory findings. I’d love to see a good literature review or definitive large-scale study. But I would rephrase the question somewhat. We shouldn’t ask whether games are mimetic, but under what conditions. Can kids learn things from games? Of course! Do they magically absorb all that great content? Nah, not most of it. Do kids become serial killers after playing violent video games? Of course not! But could they sometimes internalize some degree of insensitivity to violence through playing violent games? I’d be very surprised if that wasn’t true. So the question for the research community is: What specific design features of a game or aspects of the context in which it is played lead to more or less transfer to the real beliefs and behaviors? How can we deliberately engineer games to support more transfer of learning content, and less of things like violence and obsessive consumerism that pervade many games?
There’s a lot of important research to do in this area. But in the meantime, I’m glad my son plays Minecraft. And I’m glad the kids’ server disabled TNT.
Since I do research on kids and the Internet, folks often ask me about Internet safety for kids. My student Sarita Yardi is studying how parents cope, and finding that they are struggling. There aren’t simple rules. Parents are legitimate gatekeepers for what sorts of things kids and teens are exposed to, and the Internet can often take the parent out of the loop.
The Internet has lots to offer kids, and you can’t just take it away. They need it for school, they’ll need it for their careers, and they need parental guidance to learn how to use it responsibly. Even the most involved parents can’t watch what their kids are doing every moment. You need to talk with your kids about responsible Internet use, and create a culture of accountability in the home. Parenting Internet use is a microcosm of parenting in general, with the difficulty level turned to 11. While there are no easy answers, there is one golden rule:
Put the computer in a public room in the house.
You have to learn to trust your kids–no doubt about it. You won’t always be there, and what matters is what happens when you’re not watching. But while their judgement is maturing, a little deterrence can go a long way. OK, you’re busy in the kitchen–but you just might walk through the family room and look over their shoulder. They shouldn’t be doing anything they wouldn’t want you to see.
Laptops are a terrible idea for kids. We will be getting our sons laptops as high-school graduation presents. And in the meantime, our computer will remain in the dining room. This doesn’t solve all problems–we did find a certain small boy using the computer once in the middle of the night. But he lost all computer use for two weeks for that escapade, and he won’t be making that mistake again. Accountability is the first step towards independent responsibility. And visibility of behavior supports the growth of accountability and good judgement.