An "iFree" summer
In the Wall Street Journal article, Gelernter argues that the digital world (video games, Skype, Facebook, text messages, etc.) can't provide the "mental rope" that challenges children to reach and climb. He posits that video games basically teach one thing: how to play video games. Children's minds need to wander, poke, explore, and roam, but video games and iStuff, he says, turn kids into "click-vegetables" and prevent minds from branching out creatively.
He goes on to make a great point about the way the digital world distracts kids. If you plunk one kid down by a river with a book and another one with Angry Birds, they'll have completely different experiences. The child with the book will probably pause here and there to observe his surroundings, creating a correlation between the book's story and the picturesque location. The happiness of reading a great book becomes intertwined with the happiness of cozying up in a beautiful spot. For the child playing Angry Birds, there's more of a disconnect, and if he stops playing for a moment to look around, the game will often squawk back to pull his attention back to the game. There's no union between the activity and the environment; there's a conflict between them. This comes in handy when you want to take your child's mind off the impending tropical storm that's blowing in (Minecraft with the cousins worked wonders, let me tell you!). But it's not so great when you're at a beautiful beach and you realize that you can drive a train past your kids and they still wouldn't notice where they are or what's going on around them.
MMOs are OK!
We unplugged quite a bit this summer, and it was the most satisfying summer I've ever had with the kids. Part of that is that they're older now, so they plan out the summer activity schedule as much as I do if not more. They filled the day with all sorts of fun (and offline) activities, and the gaming time actually became something they did at the end of the day to wind down before reading and bedtime. You wouldn't think playing an MMO would be relaxing, but after an active summer day, a little time in their MMO of choice provided them a little downtime that helped the transition to bed.
I think it's worth making the distinction between passive video games, like the ones Gelernter describes, and the more open-ended worlds of kid-friendly MMOs because there is a time and place when they do have relevance (in moderation, of course). Our dialed-down summer was a success, and I think we all feel as if we can march into autumn knowing we got the most out of the sun and warm weather.
iStuff isn't always to blame
But then again, when we unplugged, that meant dialing down the programmed activities as well. Gone were the swim lessons, organized sports, and clubs. We skipped all the summer Cub Scout events, meaning no summer badge, but our little Scout was perfectly OK with that. In its place were day trips to historical sites around town, visits to New York City highlights, lots of games of dodgeball with Grandma, swimming in the ocean, sandcastle-building, and hikes to secret sea-glass hunting spots or to an uninhabited island offshore. Summer was slow, and yet it wasn't. In short, it was just as Gelernter had described: The kids' minds were free to meander, but that let them learn and fully channel their creativity. However, just as video games often fall short of that, so do many programmed activities and organized events. If we're going to blame the digital world for stifling our kids' minds, we should also look at whether all these adult-led activities also hold children back.
If you think kids are soft and unambitious today, is it directly because of video games, or is it because we're constantly following behind every activity they do, usually with some sort of helmet or padding in tow? Practically everything they do is directed by parents and adults. There have always been organized sports, but today, there's an absence of kid-led pickup games out in the street or in the neighborhood, so their only experience with sports is one in which an adult is telling them where to go and what to do. And the sheer volume of regulated activities is practically overwhelming. Even playing with friends has become an officially pre-arranged event, organized by parents. Somewhere along the way, we lost the ability to let our kids be kids without our benevolent hand, and ironically, video games are the one area where kids can get away from the shadow of meddling grown-ups.
Overall, our dialed down summer was fantastic, but while I'm happy with the limited presence of video games, I wouldn't go quite so far as Gelernter as to lump the digital world in with other adult products like alcohol and cigarettes. We should continue to look at video games and MMOs with a cautious eye, but we should also include the effects of programmed activities along with it. Maybe it's worth a little "offline" time from those as well.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.