This is one of those posts that address pieces that have appeared in the media and I didn’t address at the time.
July 2, 2011: Virginia Heffernan’s piece How Games Steer Us Through Life appeared in the Opinionator section of the New York Times. I’d like to bring a few things to light about this piece and the attitudes that seem to be behind Heffernan’s approach.
“Steer” is a strange word to use in the title of this article, since the situation she describes is one of a family emergency where there was a rush of activity an emotion and her nearly-six-year-old son found escape in his iPad Frisbee Forever game. To the extent that “steer” is appropriate, it would be because the self-leveling games that match difficulty to performance direct the attention to a world that is completely unrealistic, tailored to one’s abilities and with never a dull moment.
While acknowledging “some parents look askance,” the “ambivalence even the most serious gamers have about their hobby, “that she “winces” at some violent video game themes, and that self-leveling games do not teach how to deal with frustration and boredom, Heffernan does not hesitate to enthuse over the state of flow her son achieved, the calm he found amidst turmoil. In addition, she throws in the Supreme Court decision against regulating violent video games to support a case for Frisbee Forever as art, without a word about the implications of that decision for her child as he grows older. The rosy picture painted at the end of this piece where son cheers on mother in playing Forever Frisbee is typical Heffernan: she and her son find a way to share the technology and have a family moment, wrapping it all up with a tidy, positive bow.
This lack of analysis needs to be balanced with hard reporting about the effects of using screens, particularly mobile screens, to anesthetize our young children, to mute the world around them. Perhaps someone who does not spend quite so much time with “zillions of rounds with Angry Birds. Zoodle Jump, and Scrabble for iPad” would be a good choice for that work. The Times should consider putting such considerations on its news pages, or in the Science section, rather than the “exclusive online community” of the Opinionator or in the Style section (read “Women’s Pages”) where a preponderance of material on any of these issues resides.
Some questions for consideration:
Who is served by this habit-forming activity? Is it the adults who are helped to avoid having to explain to the child what the situation involves, even engage him in its particulars? What are the long-term habits that are formed? The child who is handed an iPad in the midst of a somewhat chaotic situation is being given a clear message: we can’t deal with you right now and this is your companion through this crisis. The consequences of this modeling remain to be seen, but we need to be looking for them.
What about the children who spend a lot of time with these seemingly innocuous games without adult interaction? What happens as they get older and the content of the game changes? How will they deal with chaotic situations in the future? How would that family and that child have dealt with that situation without the technology? Since the ways in which we use our time and how we communicate during crises can deepen communication, what opportunities were lost in those hours with the iPad?