Sunday, September 13, 2015

What I Learned From Video Games


The educational value of video games has been debated since the medium’s ascent. While there are plenty of studies and essays related to the academic, technical, and vocational merits of gaming, these scholarly analyses often overlook some of the more simple and fundamental benefits of playing games. Video games, as much or even more than traditional games and sports, can teach important character traits such as discipline, perseverance, teamwork, and self-confidence.

I grew up playing games. Mario and Sonic were integral parts of my childhood. I admittedly spent way too much time in front of a screen and no doubt neglected some glorious summer days to stay cooped-up inside trying to catch-up to my friends in a certain game or just getting whisked away in a virtual adventure.

My family was supportive of my interests and passions. There was an NES at my grandparent’s house since before I can remember and some of my earliest memories are of my first Gameboy. I am eternally thankful for their open-mindedness and indulgence as I believe these games helped teach me integral character traits and planted the seeds for my deep-rooted love of culture, narrative, and art.

Other adults were not so empathetic. Much more so than today, a majority of parents, teachers, and other authority figures simply didn’t understand games or see any value in them. I don’t know how many times I heard that they were a waste, distraction, or nothing more than childish entertainment. This mindset was immortalized for me by Mr. Feeny, of the popular after school sitcom Boy Meets World, who said: “[Your generation] has the highest level of technology at your fingertips... and how do you use it? To beat King Koopa and save the princess; shame on you - you deserve what you get.” I can remember, even way back then when I first saw that particular episode as a kid, feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and prescient. I loved Mr. Feeny and had the utmost respect for his faux-authority and episodic moral lessons. I could understand his point and position, and see that there was some truth to it, but was a little shaken that someone so smart could get something so wrong and be so unfair.

In a roundabout way, this was one of the first lessons I learned from video games: to think for myself. I may not have always been able to articulate it but I have always believed in the artistic, narrative, and aesthetic value of video games. I read ferociously as a child and was a movie junkie but to me they were all one in the same. I never subscribed to the idea of a hierarchy in mediums of media and always felt I was taking as much from Final Fantasy as I was that week’s reading assignment. That I had a disagreement and fundamental philosophical difference on the issue with so many teachers and adults taught me to question authority and perceived norms as well as to stand up for my beliefs and hold true to them even in the face of adversity. It also taught me at an early age that the world and culture are ever changing landscapes and different generations don’t always see eye to eye. Finally, I had to learn how to disagree with someone respectfully and recognize that just because we may differ on one issue doesn’t mean we don’t have anything else in common. These types of epiphanies from generational rifts in media are not new to video games -others could say much the same about comic books, television, and rock ‘n roll - but for generation X, gaming was the revolutionary medium.

Now, what about those “important character traits”? Can video games really teach such integral life skills? If you believe in the power of sports to be a positive influence on developing minds and young spirits, the answer has to be the same for video games. Like any game or sport, the goal in every video game is to win. However, that doesn’t mean that the game only has value when you beat it. In fact, as a kid, I rarely finished a game or saw it through to the end. Still, there were lessons to be learned along the way and trying to reach that goal, with all the setbacks and challenges inherent to the task, was as educational and positively formative as achieving it.

If you have ever played them, you know the later levels of Mario and Sonic games can get pretty tough. My friends and I may have been able to cruise through the opening worlds without breaking a sweat, especially after playing them ad nauseam, but getting past the last world of Super Mario Bros. 3 or the final boss in Sonic the Hedgehog 2 seemed like a nearly insurmountable task at the time. Still, we would play those levels over and over, trying and failing countless times, investing limitless hours into conquering the obstacle. I recognize now that what we were really doing was practicing. Like any skill or hobby, gaming doesn’t come naturally and overcoming the big challenges takes discipline, commitment, hard work, and perseverance. The struggle also evidences that it’s okay to lose and that the only way to get better at something is to brush yourself off and try again. This is a foundational lesson I learned from bitter defeat at the hands of King Koopa more than on a baseball diamond or in a gymnasium.

Of course, winning is also nice, and finally overcoming a challenge that seemed unconquerable is a pretty neat feeling. It is satisfying to drop Bowser into the lake of lava or make it out of the Pillar of Autumn without a second to spare. There is a real feeling of accomplishment in sticking with a game long enough to overcome even its toughest obstacles and this can be a subtle but effective confidence boost, especially for the young-and-awkward crowd that composes gaming’s stereotypical audience.

In addition, as hard as some may find it to believe, games are a social tool, or at least a very adept social catalyst. Nowadays, this is more true than ever with the popularity of online gaming, but even before this golden-age, games were a communal bridge through local multiplayer and just as conversation fodder in lunchrooms or at water coolers. Often when someone gets stuck in a game or experiences something special, they reach out to others for tips or just to share the moment. Growing up, my friends and I played games constantly and I have no doubt that this common interest facilitated our relationship and strengthened our friendship.

Video games have already forcefully inserted themselves into the field of mainstream entertainment - Grand Theft Auto V is the highest grossing entertainment release of all time (in any field) - but there is still antiquated resistance to recognizing games as art or educational tools. This old-fashioned opposition will inevitably fade with time, and one day in the near future there will probably be a new medium that is debated, and video games will become passe instruments of entertainment for grandparents. Until that time it is important to understand and recognize the value and merit of gaming so as to best extract the strengths and benefits of the medium.

Posted by Terry Pierson, Library Clerk