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MMO Family: Is the Google generation losing its inventive spirit?

Karen Bryan

I was witness to an interesting juxtaposition over Christmas vacation. On one end of the breakfast table was my laptop, with an article about an inventor who warns that the "Google generation" of children is growing up "brain dead" and without the ability to invent and create. But right next to it was my son's laptop, and he was deeply engrossed in a game of Minecraft with his sister and two cousins.

Are our children really losing their inventive spirit because of the internet? Should kids put down Minecraft and pick up Meccano instead? Let's take a look at inventor Trevor Baylis' concerns.

On the surface, the recent interview that Baylis gave sounds like just another example of a grumpy old man ranting about "kids today." But Baylis has had an extraordinary career and helped the disabled with his many inventions. He received the OBE award in 1997 and is best known for creating the wind-up radio, which he made because he wanted to help impoverished Africans receive educational broadcasts about AIDS to prevent its spread. His inventive spirit, he said, was sparked when he first was given a Meccano set as a child. He used the erector set to construct all sorts of things, like a motor car or a forklift. He explained that his Meccano set allowed him to make anything he wanted and that was something that stuck with him the rest of his life.

His concern is that children are becoming too dependent on mobile devices and computers and are missing out on learning to be hands-on with practical toys. He argues that schools should challenge children to push themselves, saying that if two classrooms were each given a Meccano set and told to build the Sydney Harbor Bridge, the students would gain valuable skills along the way. I think there's merit in what he says, but I think he might have a tendency to lump everything on the internet together, rather than evaluating the wide variety of opportunities it offers. There's plenty of "brain-dead" material out there (hello, Psy), but there are also some real gems that can teach and inspire inventive spirit and are actually more accessible than physical construction sets like Meccano.

Skills vs. tangibles

And that's the crux of the issue: Is it the tangible, physical manipulation of the medium (and the finished product) that's important, or is it the skills that get honed during the process? If a kid with a Meccano set and a kid with Roblox face off to construct the Sydney Harbor Bridge, do they both walk away having learned the same things and gained the same skills? Each is manipulating things in different ways: The kid with the Meccano set might struggle at learning to connect the pieces together and use tools correctly, while the kid playing Roblox might need to spend some time mastering the in-game UI. But both will gain an understanding of the factors involved in making something that's structurally sound, and both will have plenty of chances to adjust and experiment with designs as they construct their bridges. John Seely Brown once argued that he'd hire the high-end raid leader over a graduate with an M.B.A., but what about the kid who grew up with Meccano sets versus the kid who grew up with Roblox and Minecraft?

MMO Family  Is the Google generation losing its inventive spirit
Learning is fun

I think it's dismissive to say that the Google generation is growing up brain dead. There's no doubt that our online time needs to be in moderation, but that goes for all things in life. If kids sit in front of a screen all day long, Baylis is correct to think that it'll leave them with a glazed look and a large belly. But I watched my nine year old nephew's video of a Minecraft clock he constructed out of redstone circuits, and I can't help but think that he learned a lot of skills and concepts that don't come easily to a typical nine-year-old, skills that aren't nearly as fun when taught out of a textbook in a classroom. He actually built it for a teacher at his school who was getting ready to teach her class how to tell time. Along the way, he taught himself how to make and edit videos. What's ironic is that the Minecraft clock could have just as easily been used in a classroom to help teach circuitry as well. Through Minecraft, there's no doubt that my nephew has honed his spirit of invention. And we've looked at several examples of how family-friendly MMOs have sparked kids' creativity and desire to build and innovate, from impressive player-made homes to complex LUA scripts. There may not be a physical product at the end, but that doesn't mean these young players aren't learning and creating. In fact, they might even learn more because they're having fun at the same time, and as we've heard before, fun is learning.

Digital value

The irony is that Baylis might be dismissing something that is already greatly improving the lives of the same people he tirelessly tries to assist through his inventions. The digital age that we're living in has brought many benefits to the disabled, and when it comes to gaming, we've already seen amazing examples of players who dominate their able-bodied opponents. And as companies work to lower the cost of technology, impoverished areas of the world will finally have access to an incredible sea of information. Baylis' wind-up radio is priceless because it helped convey educational broadcasts to the poorest parts of the world, but imagine a tablet or laptop that's affordable to all. Baylis is concerned about the internet's effect on future potential inventors, but as more and more people are able to access it and access the wealth of information that's available, it's likely that the internet could help mold even more inventors than ever before.

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

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