Computer wars, 2: Wake up call

by Wolf Pascoe on January 9, 2011

Part 2 in a series of five posts.

Read: Part 1. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

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I am thinking about something much more important than bombs. I am thinking about computers.

John Von Neumann, 1946

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“You know,” Nick’s teacher at Fern Hill said to me, “You might take this as an opportunity to think about what shooter games are doing to Nick’s brain.”

I had just told her about Nick’s busting my computer in frustration.

“You think they’re making him violent?” I said.

Nora and I had often considered whether the shooter games were teaching Nick to be cruel and brutal. We hadn’t noticed a change in his behavior.

He’d begun his love affair with swords and guns when he was around four, and there seemed nothing we could do to influence it. He had never confused fantasy with reality. And we worried that trying to restrict his play would only backfire and increase his obsession.

“The video games may not be making him more violent,” said Nick’s teacher. “But they may be damaging his ability to learn.” 

She noticed the bewildered look on my face.

“It’s like the brain becomes so accustomed to immediate gratification that it closes down to other modes of input. It can’t tolerate frustration.”

I hadn’t heard that. There were a lot of things Nora and I hadn’t heard about video games, it turned out. How we’d managed to parent Nick eight years in the 21st century and remain oblivious this particular body of information remains a mystery to me. But I soon set about filling the blanks in my head.

Once I became conscious of the issue, of course, it appeared everywhere, especially on the internet. There were blogs, for example. Blogs by angry parents. Blogs by defensive parents. Blogs by frustrated parents.

There were tweets, newspaper articles, magazine features, research reports. Most of all, there were opinions. Opinions, opinions, opinions. Computer games=good. Computer games=bad. Computer games=get a life.

Through the fog a picture began to emerge. Brain development, it turns out, is conditioned by the environment, including the digital environment. Grammar school kids are especially vulnerable, because at that age the brain is still learning how to learn.

Nick’s teacher was right. First person shooter games, those hypnotic, thoughtless, violent, realistic adventures in which the player and his gun are dropped into a rapid-fire war zone, are the worst offenders. Played hour after hour, they habituate the brain to instant gratification and lower its capacity to tolerate frustration. They change the wiring.

We had three such games in our house. They’d been there for a couple of months. They were the first thing Nick wanted to play with in the morning, and the last thing at night. Negotiating the limits of screen time had become a daily ordeal.

I think Nick would have played constantly if Nora and I had let him. In my lighter moments, I had begun thinking of those games as digital junk food. Now they seemed more sinister, like digital heroin. And whether or not that was an exaggeration, it was clear they had to go.

What wasn’t clear was how to tell Nick.

. . .

Next time: Family Meeting . . .

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You might enjoy: Fast Times at Woodside High

This seven minute video, produced by the New York Times, addresses the scope of the digital problem in schools:

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http://vimeo.com/17379870

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You might also enjoy the following NY Times article:

Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction

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And this post from The Good Men Project about a father’s nightmare:
First Person Shooter

And this discussion from Singlemommyhood on how texting is replacing social skills.

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Any thoughts on kids, brains, or media? Express yourself. I’d love you to add your comment below. I always respond here.

Want an alert to the next action-packed episode in the amazing adventures of Just Add Father? Scroll up to “Get E-mail updates” in the column to the right.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

BigLittleWolf January 9, 2011 at 3:48 am

You are masterful at leaving us hanging…

As for those video games, if I remember correctly, my boys were older than your son when a handful of games made their appearance in our household, which doesn’t mean they didn’t play at friends’ houses, but again, older.

The more adventure oriented games (Legend of Zelda for example) got the parental OK around here (they were cool).

At times, there’s so much “information” available – substantiated and not – it’s nearly impossible to know how to interpret it.

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Wolf Pascoe January 9, 2011 at 11:57 pm

Yes, it’s hard to know what to make of the information out there, even if you have the background for it. Here’s a revealing and ultimately depressing New Yorker article on the “migration” of scientific truth: The Truth Wears Off.

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Charles Bernstein January 9, 2011 at 8:25 am

This is so very important. I’m sure this post will be shared by a lot of parents (especially of boys). As parents of a girl, we swore that there would never be Barbie Dolls or Bratz in our house. But, like these video games, they somehow sneak in before we can bar the door. Good to sound the warning. Forewarned is forearmed.

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Wolf Pascoe January 9, 2011 at 1:54 pm

They do sneak in before you can bar the door. They sneak in even if you don’t have a TV. I’m sure kids in Fiji have them. They’re in the walls.

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Vicki January 12, 2011 at 6:19 am

This post seems particularly important because it shows the continuing process of the development of sensitivity and responsibility. This time gives us an abundance of unhealthy stuff that our kids are forced to deal with and parents are placed in an almost untenable position. How do you deprive your child of something that all their peers are enjoying. It’s definitely easier to not know or just assume that something so desired will be OK.
Again I applaud the courage that it takes to continue to look at what your son is showing you. It certainly would have been easier to punish him for hurting the computer rather than inquiring into what else was being shown to you.
You also had to admit that when you allowed him to play the games that you didn’t know the implications of their continued use. And to top it all off, you had to be willing to be the BAD GUY, taking away something previously given. You had to trust that your relationship with your son was strong enough that he would ultimately experience guidance rather than arbitrary punishment. Thank you for sharing your growth. It is inspiring.

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Wolf Pascoe January 12, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Well, we’re not quite there yet with the experience of guidance. Stay tuned …

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Tracy TC January 20, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Damn! When I heard you speak on this topic at Fern Hill last night I so hoped that it was the violence that was the issue. Now I’m going to have to get a little more mindful about my daughter’s Club Penguin time. I haven’t been completely mindless, but um, maybe I do need to dig in a little deeper. =-)

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Wolf Pascoe January 20, 2011 at 5:33 pm

We thought it was all about the violence, too, before this mess happened. Not that we could ever keep him from slaying monsters with his soft swords.

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