Our boys (ages 10 and 12) love video games. And following the truism that every generation has media choices that baffle their parents, they also love watching videos of other people playing video games. They would play and watch all day, if we let them. On weekdays, by the time they get home from school and finish their homework, we don’t mind if they spend the free time that remains playing games. On weekends, we have always limited their screen time.
This policy has always chafed. A few months ago, our twelve-year-old protested, exasperated, “Do you have any evidence that too much video games is bad for you?” I patiently explained, “It’s not that video games are bad for you. It’s that we want you to have a balanced life—read a little, get some exercise, play some video games, practice your saxophone. If you did any one of those activities to the exclusion of others, we’d ask you to balance more: ‘Put down that book and go play a video game! You can’t read all day!’”
Five months ago, it occurred to me: Why not make the policy better match the rationale? Instead of limiting our kids’ screen time, we started requiring them to do a variety of activities each weekend day: read, exercise, and practice their musical instrument. As long as those things are done at some point during the day, they can have as much screen time as they like.
So far, the policy is a huge improvement. There is much less grumbling, and better balance in their weekend days. When asked how the policy is going so far, our twelve-year-old explained that he agrees that reading and exercise are important. (He’s less sure about music practice!) He also finds the new policy makes for a more relaxing weekend day. Our ten-year-old comments, “I like it better. The point is so that I do other things with my day, and I think it’s fair.”
The day-to-day implementation is not without challenges. We still need to remind them, “Did you exercise yet today?” And if the reminder comes too late in the day, it’s just not going to happen. If we forget to remind them and monitor, the new system deteriorates to a full day of screen time. But then again, the old system did too (“Did you forget to turn the timer on? How long have you been playing?”)
It’s encouraging to me that our kids have embraced the values that underlie this system—that you must make choices about how you spend your time, certain activities are important, and balance is important.
What approach does your family use? Leave me a comment!
My husband said at the breakfast table this morning:
I saw an article yesterday that Peyton Hillis is number two on the Giant’s depth chart. And you know what? I don’t care!
He grinned and we exchanged fist bumps. Hooray for not needing to know the Giants’ depth chart!
I have played fantasy football since 2001 and been commissioner of a league since 2002, and this year I quit. So did my husband. We’re relieved.
There’s a lot to like about fantasy football. I feel a genuine sense of comradery with the friends I play with. I love statistics, and pouring over charts to find the overlooked gem of a player is great fun. I’m not bad at it–I almost always make the playoffs (though I rarely actually win the league). But about three years ago, I stopped looking forward to my annual summer pre-draft research, and started dreading it.
Success at fantasy football is built on three things: knowledge, strategy, and luck. I am a bit deficient in the knowledge department (I like reading sports news, but I’m not obsessed with it), but I like to think that I make up for that in the strategy department. Which adds up to making me a pretty good player. But why did it stop being fun?
Fantasy football isn’t just something you do in addition to watching football–it transforms the entire viewing process. And that’s both good and bad. The good part is that I can be watching a game between two teams I don’t particularly care about and rejoice when a player on my fantasy team scores. The bad part is that I can be watching what is truly a great football game, but fail to see it. Instead of seeing the Broncos’ offense as a thing of beauty, I’m thinking “Oh no–don’t throw it to Wes, throw it to Demaryius!” In fact I’m not watching the real game at all–I’m watching the fantasy game, and whether Peyton gets the ball to my man Demaryius Thomas is the only thing I actually am seeing. Which is particularly bizarre if the Broncos happen to be playing my home team, the Atlanta Falcons. So we intercept a ball targeted at Demaryius and I’m sad? Wait, what am I cheering for–for my fantasy players to score, or for my real team to win? Which game am I even watching–the real one or the fantasy one? You’ll often find me in our seats at the Georgia Dome hitting reload on my phone–forget what’s on the field in front of me: how are my fantasy players doing?
Fantasy football also has a crazy frustration factor–injuries. Sometimes these are foreseeable–if you draft someone with a history of injuries in the past, you know you’re taking a risk. But some of them are just random. Even more random when the injury occurs off the football field.
I’ve gotten better over time about not being over invested in my fantasy team. Sometimes on a fall Sunday if we’re out for a hike, I actually can wait til we’re home to check my fantasy stats, instead of reloading them on the trail. But it’s still hard not to feel like you’re under a black cloud on Sunday if everything is going badly. Or to grin like a Cheshire cat if things are going well. But if my husband and I are both playing in the same league, how often is it that we’re both rejoicing at our fantasy football luck? Someone is usually fumbling their way through a weekend disappointment. Not that we care that much–we don’t–but it still can be dispiriting. So in the end the game does not improve our net household happiness.
For this year, I say goodbye to fantasy football and hello to real football. And maybe my former fantasy football buddies will watch a real game with me some time.
I wrote a couple years ago about how much I enjoyed playing Farmville, and how glad I was to quit it. And a week ago I quit another fun game: Words With Friends (WWF), Zynga’s version of Scrabble on Facebook. It’s been a peaceful week. My quality of life has improved. Which is odd because the game seems so lightweight–a social and casual game that doesn’t demand your attention at any particular time (like Farmville does), or any particular quantity of time (you can play for a minute or two). So why do I feel like a burden has been lifted?
I first need to tell you how much fun WWF is. I like word games, and WWF is a challenging one. I take genuine pride in a good play. And though there is certainly luck involved, it’s primarily skill based–and I’ve been improving in both knowledge and tactics. I can tell you now that there are no valid two-letter words beginning with c or v, that there are five s’s and two blanks, and that a ‘ratel’ is a small african mammal also known as the honey badger.
As I wrote in my last post, I feel close to people when I play WWF with them. I’ve played with my cousin, colleagues in my field, friends from high school, college, and graduate school, a former student, and my new department chair. I feel closer to all those people as a result. You do learn something about people based on the words they play. I had to laugh when a mischievous friend from college was playing naughty words, while in another game a kindly colleague from another department was playing Christmas words just in time for the holidays. People are funny.
It’s a fun game, and making a move takes only a couple minutes. You can play right away after your opponent, or you can wait a day. It’s creative, challenging, and fun. So what could be wrong?
Well, one big thing: WWF was slowly taking over my life. Consider the following situation. I’m picking my kids up at aftercare at their elementary school. When I arrive, they are somewhere in a large school building (Doing art in the cafeteria? Out on the playground?) and they are paged to come to the lobby. It usually takes about five minutes for them to stop what they’re doing, clean up, travel across the building, find their backpacks and coats, and be ready to go. So it’s a perfect time to make my WWF move, right? Perfect except that if I’m playing a couple different games, I won’t be done when they arrive. So I put away my phone, but part of my brain is still thinking about my move (what words end in ‘u’? ‘Tofu’? ‘Bayou’?) rather than paying full attention to what happened at school today. Until I finish making that move, I won’t fully be there. And it’s like that through my entire day. The little gaps I have don’t match the amount of time it takes to make my WWF moves. The fact that you can play on your phone makes the temptation pervasive.
The design of WWF draws you into playing more and more games in parallel. Once you start a game with anyone, it will suggest you as an opponent to other friends. And it seems rude to decline, especially when invited by someone you are fond of but haven’t seen in a while. After each game, it asks both parties if you’d like a rematch. If you don’t say, “OK, one more,” your opponent probably will. It seems impolite not to–especially if you just won. And pretty soon one game at a time becomes four or five. A single move can take less than a minute. Or you could pore over it for longer than you realize (‘I know there’s a seven-letter word in these letters!’)
I confess that I can get intense about the game. It’s funny because I don’t care if I win at other computer games I play like MMOs or puzzle games. But I guess I take pride in my skill with words more than other things, and I take the game too seriously. I don’t mind if my opponent makes a spectacular move–bravo for them! But if I accidentally leave a triple word score open when I didn’t mean to, I’m genuinely angry with myself. When I’m focusing on a WWF move, I’m seriously concentrating. It brings out a competitive side of me that I don’t like.
Fitting WWF into my life worked better when I was playing fewer games. And it worked better when I decided I would only make moves at the start and end of the day. But then I’m waiting for a meeting to start and folks are late… OK, I’ll make a WWF move. But wait, now the meeting is finally started and I’m still thinking about words ending in u again. You’ve heard this story before, haven’t you? This story was weaving its way through my life.
I’m definitely never playing Farmville again. I’m not sure about Words With Friends. The challenge for all of us is to understand how the technologies we use affect the daily rhythms of our lives. And to make mindful choices.
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.
At the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) this year, my PhD student Betsy DiSalvo was struck by the irony of a bunch of middle-aged white men debating whether social games are evil. Social games are aimed primarily at non-traditional gaming audiences. The new hard core gamer is 40 and female. The irony of a bunch of guys dismissing the games liked by women was apparently lost to the GDC panel. “Dear ladies, instead of playing free games with short play times per session in which you pretend to grow vegetables or run a café, please pay $60 to buy a game with one-to-two hour long play sessions in which you shoot at things. Thank you, The Game Developers.”
One underlying issue is diversity in the game industry. Now that we have a more diverse gaming audience, we need a more diverse community of game developers. And game scholars. I remember folks at GDC back in the late 90s dreaming of finding games that would appeal to women. If only we could find what they like–we’d double the potential market for games! Now that we’ve achieved that goal, we have a tiny little problem: many of the developers now don’t like the kind of games they have to make. Hence the hostility at GDC. (Be careful what you wish for….)
People don’t go into the game industry to get rich or have a great quality of work life–they go into it out of love for games. If you hate the stuff you’re working on, that’s a problem. Will game companies now have to offer developers more reasonable working hours? That might be a silver lining.
Researchers in computing education have often argued that love of games is one factor that draws young men to study computer science and pursue CS careers. Now that there are more women playing games, will more young women choose to follow that path too? I’m guessing that they will, but the effect may be smaller than the industry needs–because the new social games tend to appeal middle-aged women, not high-school and college students choosing career paths. The young women who do go into the game industry will likely find themselves in demand.
The other consequence of this turn of events is that there will be a much greater need for good design practice. It’s relatively easy to design for yourself and others like you–you figure out what you like and do it. As game developers are challenged to design things they would never play, they are going to need to actually read an intro human-computer interaction (HCI) textbook and learn about techniques to get input from members of their target audience before they invest development time to make something.
I agree with my colleague Ian Bogost that these games have privacy implications, and also that it can be problematic to treat your friends as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. (That’s the definition of unethical, according to Kant.) But the games also connect you to friends and family in a positive way, and have shorter playtimes that better fit into adult lives. There’s a lot to debate here both positive and negative.
And to the organizers of GDC: maybe the next panel on social gaming could have panel members (other than the moderator) who actually play social games?
Addendum: This is a somewhat unfair shot at this particular panel (which I heard about second hand from multiple sources, but did not attend), but the broader points about the game industry hold.