Sunday, May 4, 2008

My Misspent Youth?

When I was a kid, I played a fair amount of board and video games. All right, I played a lot of board and video games.I suspect that there's a general cultural consensus that I wasted my time doing so. But I older I get, the more I question that assumption. I fact, I'd argue that playing video games was a positive good for me when I was growing up. To make my point, I'm going to walk through what I hope isn't too boring a depiction of my game playing history and the impact it had on me.

To start, I need to back up a bit to look at myself before video games. I went to a pretty mediocre working-class public high school outside New York City. My friends and I were, by all accounts, slackers at best. Corporal punishment was common, despite whatever laws there were against it. Why? The kids just assumed that we deserved it for acting up. There was a solid core of kids who did well and went on to college, but I was definitely not one of them. Games quite literally changed my life.

Before I played video games, I used to play board games quite a bit. I played Strat-O-Matic Baseball for hours on end, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone. I learned quite a bit about the sport itself, but I also taught myself math -- I used to replay entire seasons and compile statistics on the players. I also played a lot of Avalon Hill board games such as Squad Leaderand War in Russia and Caesar's Legions. These games were my first exposure to history in any real and meaningful way. To learn more about the games, I actually did something I never did in school -- I researched the topics extensively. I remember sitting in my living room scouring every page of our 1959 World Book Encyclopedia for information on Zhukov, Rommel, and Augustus. These games got me excited about history and made me want to learn.

From these games, with pretty much no input from my school, I learned about the origins of WWII, the Holocaust, the Gallic Wars, Athenian democracy, and a host of other things. I learned some rudimentary statistics and honed my skills in arithmetic. I learned to follow complex directions -- some of these games had rulebooks well over 50 pages. I learned an amazing amount from these games.

In a similar fashion, video games taught me a great deal. I played a game called something like Wall Street Investor or something like that. I played games that covered topics as diverse as European imperialism, the American Revolution, Greek mythology, the Spanish conquest of the Americas. The stereotype of video games today seems to be on a spectrum ranging from some mindless form of Pong to the ultraviolent Grand Theft Auto. The types of games I played seem to be lost in the shuffle and don't get noticed.

I read quite a bit about "kids today" and how video games are destroying their brains and bringing about the end of civilization. I admit that not every video game out there is a top quality, guaranteed-to-make-your-kid-a-genius product. But are books any different? Is every book a masterpiece? Video games inspired me to read, to look more into the topics that video games introduced to me.

There is enormous potential to use video games to inspire kids in our various subjects. Kids play video games -- it's just true. If we abandon the field and don't even make an effort to use this to our benefit, we are missing out on an amazing opportunity to teach our kids.

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