As you might have noticed, I spent the weekend preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from playing 24 hours of video games with my son.
When I woke up Sunday morning (er… I should say, afternoon) my brain was buzzing with the music from Super Smash Bros, but also with a new sense of understanding about what kids are doing when they play video games. As someone who spent a good part of his childhood in video arcades, you’d think I’d know why kids spend so much time with the silly things.
But games are different now. An old school game like Asteroids had a total of 5 buttons , each of which did exactly one thing (and the hyperspace button was for losers, so it should hardly even count). Nintendo’s GameCube has one of the simpler controllers on the market, with 8 buttons and 3 joysticks. Not only are modern controllers more complex, but buttons can have different meanings in different contexts, and very often commands involve combinations of buttons and joystick directions. It can take hours, if not days, to memorize all the functions for just one game. Learning to play video games is starting to look a lot like, well, learning. Take a look at these two images:
The picture on the left consists of a fraction of the knowledge necessary to learn Tony Hawk’s Underground: the “flip tricks” available for a skater and how to execute them. On the right is a fraction of the knowledge necessary to master organic chemistry: the major functional groups for organic molecules. To a novice in either discipline, it seems like an overwhelming amount of information. I suspect that any given video game contains just about as much information as an o-chem textbook.
You disagree? You haven’t played many video games, then. Not only must players memorize all sorts of arcane commands, they must also learn what the enemies they encounter will do and then figure out how to counter them. In addition, they must build a complex mental map of the game’s “world,” whether it be a complex power plant in a James Bond game or a cavernous space station in Metroid. The mental processes involved are incredibly demanding, yet tens of millions of kids beg their parents for video games. Meanwhile a measly couple hundred thousand pre-meds a year bother with o-chem.
O-chem promises untold riches as a dermatologist or plastic surgeon. Video games provide only the cheap thrill of watching a robotic-looking Tony Hawk execute a 900 in a New Jersey train station. Yet the vast majority of Americans pick the latter over the former. Why can’t we get kids as excited about the difference between a ketone and an aldehide as they are about distinguishing a double blunt slide from a daffy grind?
I’m not going to say that we should turn school into one giant video game. Even if it was possible, I don’t think it would be advisable. Sure, you could probably get kids to learn more if you made learning more fun. However, the real world doesn’t offer the sort of instant gratification that video games do. The people who are successful in today’s world are precisely those who can delay gratification. Doctors make tons of money, but only after they spend eight years in school and three more in residency.
What we can do is make it clearer to kids what the possibilities are. If millions of kids can master today’s complicated video games, then they’re also smart enough to survive tomorrow’s technological future. That future needs to be as crystal clear to them as the glory of beating a level-9 Jigglypuff in Super Smash Bros.
That is just some of what I learned playing 24 hours of video games with my son.