When I was growing up in urban St. Louis, I spent my afternoons exploring the alleys behind our home and crossing vast concrete expanses on my “horse”—a banana-seat Schwinn. When the weather was bad, I would literally spend hours pretending to be a winged cat, unicorn or dragon, running and jumping through a circuit of “caves” and “mountains” made up of my bed, a settee and a window seat, and in the summertime, I would build forts and plot battles with my cousins on my grandparents’ farm in beautiful North Carolina.
Creating games, dreaming up adventures and spending time outside was an essential part of my childhood, but for today’s kids, it’s as though there are so many fun adventures and prefab, created spaces offered through tech, that going outside to play or using one’s own imagination almost seems like a punishment.
I think this is due, in part, to the fact that virtual worlds, video games and computer-generated characters have become incredibly compelling, interactive and beautiful. My husband and I recently caught part of Disney’s Aladdin on TV, and we were shocked by how “flat” the magic carpet ride read on screen compared to today’s animated and computer-generated creations. Looking back on my own 1988 F-19 “Stealth Fighter” game and the original “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” (both of which I played with a Floppy disc), I remember enjoying those games to a point, but I almost always ended up favoring my own flight cockpit (which my dad and I had fabricated in the back of a closet) and living into my own childhood mysteries and adventures above the computer-generated games. Back then, there was only so much you could do onscreen. Those games just didn’t quite compare to the worlds I dreamt up in my own mind.
Today, however, when I try playing offline with plugged-in kids, it’s a challenge for them to fully engage. Those that do “play” tend to follow the exact patterns and scenarios they experienced in the latest video game they played. They aren’t creating their own worlds, characters or creatures; they aren’t solving their own problems or engaging the world around them, rather, they are living into a second-hand virtual experience, one that was created for them.
Unfortunately, these video game worlds created for them, with their clear, programmed-paths and problems to solve, deprive our children of the ability to play in their own childlike ways, based on their own experiences, ideas and imagination. They aren’t problem solving, making creative decisions and learning in an open-ended environment the way we did growing up, through hands-on experience.
As one pre-school teacher shared in the book So Sexy, So Soon,
I used to put out interesting materials and the children would be excited trying to figure out what they could do with them. Kids might watch what others did, but most came up with their own ideas of what to try. Now when I put the same materials out, the children ask, “What do they do?” It really makes me sad. And often, when kids do actually start playing with the material, things quickly fall apart as children get into conflicts about sharing materials they don’t know how to solve.”
And as the book’s authors continued, “many children who have [technology-driven] childhoods suffer these two seemingly contradictory experiences—boredom in the midst of plenty, and increasing dependence on being plugged in… [However], when children see themselves as problem finders and problem solvers, they develop curiosity about their world and confidence in their ability to figure things out for themselves… they develop unique skills and interests, not quite like the skills of any other child. They are better equipped to think for themselves and to figure out creative solutions to real problems” rather than “learning the push-button, quick-fix approach to life” that could be exacerbated by our video game culture.
Additionally, today’s games are often filled with almost mind-blowing beauty, darkness and detail, and they are also often packed with highly sexualized characters and graphic violence. Unlike the flat games I played growing up, these highly developed, almost sensory gaming worlds are easy to become fully immersed in. While I do greatly admire the creativity of today’s game developers, I wonder if our gaming culture is creating a new generation of kids bored with their off-screen lives. Can a sunset over the Grand Canyon compare with a sunset seen from a computer-generated world filled with floating islands, star-filled galaxies and mythical creatures? What is more beautiful to a twelve-year-old boy: the girl down the street or the computer-generated purple-haired princess with her tiny waist, turquoise eyes and double-G-sized breasts?
As parents, we have some tough choices to make. Building forts, creating fighter cockpits and playing dress-up takes a lot more work and time than leaving them in front of a computer screen. Allowing kids to “play” can be messy. But I believe being hands-on, proactive and fostering an environment where our kids can be creative and engage in problem solving, and with one another, is critical to creating a generation that can actually imagine, relate, connect and appreciate the world around them.