When I was a student at Alpine Valley School (over a decade ago!) a number of my friends were gamers. They would gather around an Xbox or Playstation and do battle for hours and hours. This is one of the great benefits of enrolling at Alpine Valley School: students have the freedom to pursue those activities that they value and enjoy. However, in those days, I did not find the same thrill in liberating alien compounds as my friends did. I’d sit with them for a little while and attempt to get the hang of it, but would inevitably tire of running my character off a cliff or crashing my race car and head off to do something I found enjoyable.
Now that I’m a staff member and a soon-to-be mom, I have been contemplating video gaming from a different perspective. They may not be my cup of tea, but is there inherent value in spending so much time in front of a screen, whether you’re solving puzzles or assembling a fantasy football team? Do video games actually do anything, or are they just an entertaining waste of time?
To answer my question, I turned to gaming expert and entrepreneur Jane McGonigal and her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World. While I cracked the cover of this book a skeptic, I must say that by the end, it won me over. Not only does McGonigal make compelling points about the future of gaming as a source of social interaction, emotional activation, and positivity: she also points out how the current gaming culture provides all those benefits (and more) to gamers.
It turns out that games do provide a valuable service to each and every player, even ones who kind of suck at it (like me). They provide a quick and easy way to light up the pleasure centers in our brain, activating the positive chemical mixtures typically produced only when we do something really outstanding. Amazingly, whether you climb a mountain or bowl a perfect 300 on Wii Bowling, your brain reacts the same. The thrill of completing a challenge or, better yet, helping your friend achieve a goal boosts your mental state whether or not the whole activity took place in a virtual world. In summary? Games make us happy.
Not only that, but they also act as a conduit for our human instinct to play. As with all forms of play, video games are initiated by the players and have a set of rules that everyone agrees on. Whether solitary or collaborative, gaming involves the mind in an active way.
There isn’t enough room here to go into all the benefits of play and the huge difference it makes to both children and adults (check out Peter Gray’s amazing blog if you want to learn more about this subject), but suffice it to say that play is just about the most important thing we can do to enrich our minds, engage one another socially, and cultivate joy and meaning in our lives. No other activity provides so much bang for the buck.
What I’ve recently come to understand is that so-called “productive” or “educational” activities such as looking at flash cards or reading textbooks are actually less effective than video games at teaching people the skills they need to learn. And while not everyone may want to sit down and play a few hours of Halo every weekend, nearly everyone’s lives are enriched by the benefits of even just a few minutes of playing a game. So, to answer my earlier question- yes, video games provide enormous value, both to the players who are getting the mental and emotional payoff and to the larger community. Games can actually teach us how to be more productive, satisfied, and connected, none of which I would have expected before reading Reality is Broken.
I have since downloaded several games on my iPad, including Candy Crush, Piano Tiles, and others recommended by Alpine Valley School students. Even though I’ve only been playing for a few weeks, I already feel the benefits of gaming just a few minutes per day. I find that I have greater focus for tasks throughout the day, better hand-eye coordination, and, best of all, I feel like I am part of a community – both online and at school. And even though I will probably never come close to the high score set by any of the students, I can always ask for their help if I get stuck and, hopefully, gain even more knowledge in the process.