Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The right to waste time: video games and kids

(Cross-posted, with some modifications for a different audience, at The Clearwater School blog.)

Most SCT readers know my pedagogy is based on the notion that we do not learn best what someone else has decided we ought to learn. My model stems from the practices at the Summerhill, Sudbury Valley, and Albany Free Schools, which all downplay (if not outright dispense with) classes, grades, age segregation, and curricula. My educational heroes are people like A.S. Neill, Mary M. Leue, Ivan Illich, Hanna and Daniel Greenberg, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, Alfie Kohn, John Taylor Gatto, Sir Ken Robinson, David Deutsch, Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Peter Gray. There are serious differences between these thinkers; they do not all agree with each other about everything (nor with me, more's the pity!) But their orientation towards democracy and children's rights is fairly clear.

Recently there have been two pieces of media that highlight aspects of this orientation. I commend both of them for the way they present these models in three-dimensions, so to speak.

The first piece is a new short (13 minutes) film recently produced by Sudbury Valley School. You can view it here at the blog of The Clearwater School (where I am a volunteer). (The embedded video is small, but if you click on it it will give you a full-screen option.)

About two and a half minutes into the film, SVS graduate Ben mentions that many parents ask, when they are first exposed to the Sudbury model of education, "But--what if my kid just plays video games all day?!" (Ben notes that this is more or less what he did during the first of his four years at the school.) This issue also comes up in the other piece I want to mention. The Brooklyn Free School was recently featured in an episode of N.P.R.'s This American Life. The segment (Act 3 in the show) addresses the school's commitment to empowering students with all the decisions involved in running their school, which includes the degree of use to which computers will be put.

There's a great deal more to both SVS's film and This American Life's radio segment than computer games and movies. But for the rest of this post I want to focus on this issue, because in my experience, Ben is right. This question comes up again and again, and as the Brooklyn Free School learned, it may need to be asked over and over again by the students themselves.

I volunteer at Clearwater, but I make my moderate living working for an after-school program at a public elementary school. My program allows me to give my students a good deal of autonomy, but the notion of letting them just "do what they want" brings reactions from my co-workers that range from blank stares to deep you're-joking-right? discomfort. Surely, it is assumed, it's my job to give them "projects"-- mini-lessons in science, art projects in clay or wooden craft sticks, songs we all learn together. Won't they just waste their time if I don't? And when it comes to computers (I am able to make the computers in the school library available for not quite an hour and a half every week) well, maybe they could be using the computer to, you know, research something or finish their homework, but you wouldn't let them just play games? or watch videos?

I'm going to mainly talk about games here, though a lot of my considerations apply to videos (and I mean either mass-media or homemade) as well.
The concerns that arise seem to me to be motivated either by concerns about content (potentially violent or disturbing images, actions or plots), or about the medium itself (computer games being a “waste of time,” “addictive,” and so on).

My thoughts on this are in process and revisable, but they are also the fruit of long reflection and practice. I should first say that I have a threshold for what I consider “appropriate” content at my work. This standard is far stricter than what would be countenanced at Clearwater (anything less than AO, the resident student tells me), or than I would eagerly welcome in my own home, for instance. The reason for this is simple: job security. One or two angry parents are all I have needed to encounter before I decided to err on the side of over-compensating caution. In general I am prepared to trust the school district’s internet filtering program, but I keep a close eye on the browsing and playing that students do. So far I've never felt the need to tell a child they couldn't watch what they were watching, but I've had plenty of discussions about online content with kids. What I've found is that kids (1) can take in a tremendous amount of variation in even a short while online, (2) are capable of thinking critically and creatively about it and will do so aloud with you if they trust you and feel the need, and (3) are very good at enforcing their own “screening.” Whether its a game that's too violent, or a Wikipedia article with too-much-information about sex, material that triggers kids' own internal repulsion does not stay on their monitors.

Computer games were in their infancy during my formative years and so I spent little time engaged in them as a child. (Arcade games held some appeal but were too noisy, cost more quarters than I wanted to spend, and I was rarely very good at them.) Consequently, I could not at first empathize with the unabashed enthusiasm for these games which I meet in kids. It took me a conscious and intentional effort to familiarize myself with them. I played alongside students and I played with my stepson. I have acquired a significant respect for the art and imagination of both the design and the play of computer games, which I almost entirely lacked when I first started working with students over a decade ago. Far from being a single monotonous activity (as the dismissal “just playing video games” might imply), such games are complex discrete units designed to build competencies in attainable steps. The advanced dexterity and the strategizing required will often hamstring anyone who tries to navigate one of the higher levels of a game before mastering the basics. This was borne home to me over and over, and it alone ought to have persuaded me that the notion that no learning was happening in these games was naïve.

It took me longer to come 'round than it might have; not because the games weren’t really learning tools, but because I actively resisted seeing them that way. It took me a long while to get over what I eventually conceded was a prejudice against the form of the game: I just didn’t like video games! I was reacting against the form; I found them strange and hard to understand, “cartoony,” and trite. My reasons weren’t all compatible (“too difficult” and “too simple,” for instance); but so long as I was content not to examine my motives, they tended to reinforce each other anyway.

My reticence was finally overcome when I asked myself: what's the salient difference between a computer game and any other game? Say, a computer version of Monopoly. I am not a fan of Monopoly--like most grown-ups I know, I find it tedious and frustrating--but I am at a loss to say why a board game that (despite my personal distaste) would never be banned from my classroom, should be any different from a version played on a screen. And once I have conceded this, I fail to see why games that more fully exploit the medium they employ are any less appropriate; indeed, they are arguably much more so, since they actually do familiarize players with the technology which is indisputably going to be no trivial part of our culture for the rest of our lives.

When I watch kids in my room play these games, I am struck by how social they are. They are not staring at a screen doing nothing; they are vocal, mobile, often jumping up to see what someone else is doing. They are excited, engaged, and interactive, not just with the game but with each other; far more so than they would be if, say, they were reading a book. Whatever is going on with the game, the kids are also navigating the always-more-complex-than-you-think terrain of peer society, not the least considerations of which are fairness and turn-taking, but also learning how to teach and learn from each other.

I regard the students in my class as capable of making responsible decisions for how they conduct themselves and I have found time and time again over ten years that they fulfill those expectations, and follow their passion if I get out of the way. But of course, students have more than one passion; the artist and the runner are often the same kid. A child has limits just as I do, and boredom sets in sometimes. In my experience, a child will indeed get bored with running, or drawing, or a computer game, in his or her own good time (and, chances are, not on my schedule), when they have stopped learning what they are interested in.

This is why, beyond all of the considerations I mention above, salient and even vital as they are, there is one concern which grounds my whole approach, and which would obtain even if I agreed (as I don’t) that computer games, or any other activities the kids pursued, wasted their time. It is often noted that my classroom style is somewhat “free.” This is a word I like and that I take very seriously. One of the most central values I have is respect for the autonomy of your children. Because my primary motivation is always to cultivate a respectful and honest relationship with each child, I want to give them exactly the same respect that I want for myself. It is true that sometimes I myself waste my time--by my friends’ standards, my family’s standards, even my own. I might fritter it away on television, or oversleep, or read a comic book, instead of working in the garden or writing my next essay. I might be decompressing after a hard day, getting valuable and much-needed down time; but let us assume I really am, even by my own standards, “wasting time.” Even assuming that this could be evident to the outside, I would still not want my wife or my best friend to tell me that I had to stop what I was doing, to impose a rule on my behavior that told me I had to do something more “worthwhile.” My wife might remind me that I have promised to wash the dishes; my friend might suggest that we have a jam session or even that I might find it rewarding to read this book he’s been recommending. But these suggestions are made in a very different spirit than laying down a rule or a demand. Would anyone say that the way to address this would be to invoke authority?

This is what it comes down to for me: respecting the right of a child to decide what to do with his or her time. And I have found that if I cultivate respect for the children I work with, I can have far more fruitful engagements with them about things that matter, including the things they will, sooner or later, wind up being "exposed" to--"adult content" included.


  1. No need to convince me on any of this. I played video games throughout my youth. I've played less in my adulthood, mostly because I dislike the genres (first-person shooters) and controllers (the large pile of buttons) that are most popular today. Much of what I learned about the history of technology, I learned from playing Civilization. And my wife's career is in designing educational computer games at MIT.

    Which gives me an idea: what age group are the children you teach? If they're anywhere around grades 7-8, you might consider introducing them to Vanished:

    It's a game she's worked on as the project manager, which will "go live" in the spring, and it sounds like it will be great fun and teach a lot of things. I can't say much more than what's on that website, only because the plotline of the game is a secret that the kids are supposed to discover for themselves. But I am sure they will have a lot of fun doing it.

  2. Thanks, skholiast, for introducing me in the wild wood of my prejudices against videogames.

    I have not played much with them during my childhood and youth and I tend to share the pre-reflexive concerns you mention (and possibly some more). They seem to me antisocial, a waste of time, addictive, violent, and although I do not believe in "adult contents", I would not like children to learn sexism through games focusing on dominance over women.

    I just have a minor point I would like to raise about the autonomy of children: I often experience children who need help to be saved out of something. For instance, they are tired, but cannot really switch off the TV and go to bed and need someone to do it for them. They are then grateful for that. Do not you notice similar patterns?

  3. Hi Elisa.

    I still have a number of the concerns you name about video games (e.g., about sexism-- though I have this concern about more media than just games). Just because I'm prejudiced doesn't mean I'm wrong! I have just decided, for the most part, that being authoritarian is not the most successful way to cultivate values in kids.

    As to children needing, as you put it, to be saved from something. This can be as mild as your example (needing to go to bed) or as extreme as, say, an eating disorder or deep depression. To take the former case, I'd want to say that respecting autonomy is not the same thing as having no rules (negotiations over chores and housework come to mind). Even in the latter cases, though, when one makes an intervention that does expressly limit or curtail someone else's autonomy, it isn't a question of doing so because they are a child. What I most want to call into question is the default ideology according to which what I want is what happens because I am older. But there is no question that I do make judgment calls sometimes about someone's "fitness" to decide (e.g. bedtime). I am not as radical as some schools of thought on this count, but I have to acknowledge that I am making the judgment call and take responsibility for it.

  4. Your comment on someone's "fitness" might answer some of my concerns about video games, which stem largely from having a brother who has been, as far back as I can remember, addicted to computers. I know addiction is a strong word, and I would jokingly apply it to all sorts of my friends. But in all seriousness, my brother hasn't learned how to care for his body in tandem with being an avid gamer. I do have prejudices against them - the form is unappealing to me - but I also have a fear of them as a result of seeing someone I always thought was so smart and capable gradually put on more and more weight, before waking up one day to discover, and resign himself to the discovery, that he was overweight and didn't know what to do about it.

    However, this does get into questions of how the issue is handled by parents. Because for a variety of reasons, my parents were never good at sticking to things with my brother. A well-intentioned, "You can play on the computer for an hour, but then you really need to get out of your room and do something else," was rarely followed through on. Ditto for eating habits. Having worked as a nanny off and on for over ten years now, this seems to be a common issue with second-borns, which makes me think it has a lot to do with parents being tired. In respect to computers and video games, as a result of all of this, I can't fully get on board with the idea of just letting kids determine their path all by themselves. But I agree that the "because I am older" argument is a default ideology, which means it probably isn't clearly articulated even in the mind of the person using it, let alone for the child.