Author’s note: Lots of people, and parents especially, are perplexed at best and horrified at worst, about the extensive use of computers by children these days. It is not something that they have experienced, and thus it makes them uncomfortable and anxious. Having grown up prior to the invention of computers, I too didn’t quite get what the kids find so compelling about them. So, I decided to talk to two students, a boy and a girl, and let them explain why they like to spend so many hours in front of the screen. Following is a transcript of these conversations. I hope that their candid answers will shed light on this issue, and assuage the worries you have.
Hanna: I’ve talked to Teddy quite a bit, and I think it’s interesting to hear his view, as a member of the younger generation, on computer gaming, and on kids at Sudbury Valley using computers many hours of the day.
Teddy: Well, I’ll start with just how easy it is to open up the computer for most students here—turn it on and just put their self in their own world. In a sense, it’s very relaxing, depending on what you’re doing, it’s fun, it’s unique. There are a lot of good things about it. You can learn a lot. There are many games whose stories take place in different time periods, and while they have original stories for your character, for you, you get to be in a world that is realistic.
Hanna: You’re talking to somebody who doesn’t know anything about what you’re talking about, so you’re going to have to be a little more descriptive. Start over.
Teddy: Say you’ve just bought a game. It says it’s a very open game; you’re not sure what that means, but you buy it. You take the disc for the game, you put it into your computer and you start playing. The moment it starts, you are taken to a screen where there is a character, a person, on that screen, in this world that’s like a movie; but rather than that person moving on their own, you’re capable of moving that person around, using the controls on the keyboard and mouse. And that person acts as your avatar within this game.
You can control your character to do many different things using these controls. And depending on what game you get, there are different activities and different sort of games you can play within this world. It looks so real, and it makes you feel like: hey, I’m in this world and I’m jumping on trees, running around. It’s a cool experience that a lot of students have. Some of these worlds that you can enter in these games are very similar to real life time periods. For example, you could play a game where you are controlling a character in the 1800s, or in the 1700s, or in the Dark Ages, or the French Revolution—all these different places that you can be, these time periods, and you learn. You can have fun in this world doing whatever you want, and as you have fun, the knowledge, the history, about this time period is around you. It’s not being forced onto you, like: who was the first president. Instead of being told that, you see that. While you’re doing your own thing, while you’re having fun, you can see out of the corner of your eye: oh, hey, look, that’s President George Washington. You are learning, and it’s fun at the same time.
Hanna: Let’s say you’re in the time of the French Revolution. Do you have to have prior knowledge, or does the game itself provide you with the knowledge?
Teddy: That depends on the game. There are some games that have their own take on history. In those situations it will tell you what’s going on from the ground up. They create their own stories, their own time periods, and their own fantasy worlds, with monsters and magic and all sorts of fun stuff, while other games have real aspects to them.
Hanna: Do you have to have your own knowledge about the history period that you are playing?
Teddy: In some games, yes, but they, in a way, will teach you. For example, if you are in the French Revolution, there are other people as well. They’re not real people, they are virtual. And by walking up to them with your controls, you can talk to them and they will tell you things. They will give you information, they will send you on your next quest. Through these characters, you can learn a lot about the place you’re in, whether you know about it or not. If you’re going into a game already knowing about the French Revolution, then you’re just listening to the story that they provide. If you’re going into the game completely blind, not knowing what the French Revolution is, it can be fun to listen to them tell you what’s happening and at the same time bringing you into the story.
Hanna: How do you know that whoever created the game has knowledge that is not fantasy, but real knowledge about the French Revolution?
Teddy: There are many companies that make sure that they are historically accurate. There’s a genre of game called Historical Fantasy, which put you in a real world. Everything around you is real, but your story is fantasy—your specific character. Your character did not exist in that time. Maybe some of the protagonists in the story did not exist in that time. That is the fantasy. But the world around you, most of the characters around you—they are all real, they actually existed. And they’re sure to tell you, when you get a game, what genre it is. They can tell you if it’s completely 100% factual, or they can tell you if it’s completely nonexistent with fairies and rainbows and stuff like that.
Hanna: So, could you summarize why it’s good for a child to do that all day at Sudbury Valley, in your opinion?
Teddy: In my opinion, not only is it one of the best forms of entertainment, just because of how great it looks, how great it feels; but also they’ll most likely make more friends because many people play these games. There are some games that are multi-player, meaning this world that you’re in you can actually share with another person playing the same game.
Hanna: Are they sitting in the same room, or are they somewhere else?
Teddy: They could be in the same room, they could be your best friend sitting across from you, or they could be in Australia. And you can meet them and hang out with them in this world. You can have your character within the game interact with their character. And through what most games like to call game chat, you can talk to someone like you’re talking to them over a phone, while playing the game. It’s a lot more social than many people realize. You can meet a lot of good people. And if you, for some reason, met someone who wasn’t nice or was kind of bullying you, there are many options within the game to deal with that. You can make it so that you can’t hear their voice in the game. So if they’re being mean to you, which rarely happens, you can’t hear them. Or you could change servers, which means you are going from one world to another where they are not there. So you can really choose to hang out with your friends and stay away from people you don’t like, and they can’t follow you. They don’t know where you’re going, so it’s safe.
Hanna: This sounds very sophisticated. How old were you when you started in that particular genre?
Teddy: I started when I was thirteen or fourteen. There are many video games that aren’t nearly as complex, that are just single-player—meaning that you would play it and other people can’t really interact with you.
Hanna: Can you tell me about those games?
Teddy: Those games are usually very small in scale. They are equivalent to grabbing a piece of paper and drawing. You’re doing the same motions, like you could have a phone and you’re playing a game on your phone that is very simple, like Tetrus or maybe tic-tac-toe.
Hanna: So why would that be good for you to play?
Teddy: Those games people don’t usually spend a lot of time on, but when they do it’s a great stress reliever because they’re relaxing. It takes you out of a bad situation for a little while. It’s not “addicting”, because they’re very small games, and you get bored quickly if you play them too much. If you play an hour on the game, you probably won’t want to play for the rest of the day. And then the next day you could play it again.
Hanna: So one of the critiques of kids playing, they say it’s “addictive”. What do you say to that?
Teddy: It’s not a bad thing. If you’re “addicted” to a game, it means you enjoy it a lot and I’ve never seen in my entire life or heard of a situation where someone is so “addicted” to a game that they stop eating or stop sleeping.
Hanna: Sleeping? Are you sure?
Teddy: Some people will play games past their bedtime, and I don’t think that’s good. But if you’re playing it here at Sudbury Valley, you’re not going to be sleeping, you’re not going to be in a situation where you need to sleep, because you save that for night. So there would be no problem here. At home, as long as you make sure that your child isn’t staying up until midnight with their games, then it should be fine. I don’t see any downside to video games, in general.
Hanna: Before there were computer games, kids invented games and a lot of the kids here invent all kinds of activities. You look at the little kids, they’re always busy and they’re creating their own little worlds, either imaginary or just games like hide-’n-seek. And a lot of people would contend that that’s more wholesome because you are friends with real people.
Teddy: There are many things I have to say about that. First of all, if you meet someone in a game and they’re in your school, and you meet them through the game, you have just made a friend that you can hang out with outside of playing video games.
Hanna: Does that happen?
Teddy: That has happened. I have made several from playing video games.
Hanna: So you actually meet—physically?
Teddy: Yes. And that’s the beauty of it if you’re too shy to go outside and talk to someone directly and be like: hey, do you want to go play tag? Playing a video game is so easy, because when you talk to them at first, it’s easy to think: oh, they’re so far away, they’re not people. And then when you meet them, when you become friends with them, it’s easy to see, like: yeah, you’re a person, obviously, I can see you and you’re great.
Another thing about video games is that there are many ways for people, for kids, to make video games. There are many different free websites, many different platforms, that allow you to make your own video games to play with other people.
Hanna: And you do that?
Teddy: Yes. There are also even games like the ones I’m talking about where you have a character in a world and you can have your character make up a game within that game for other people to play.
Hanna: And you do that?
Teddy: Yes. It sounds confusing, but it’s very simple. It provides a lot of options.
Hanna: What about physical activities?
Teddy: I think if you’re playing these games, you should also have an activity you do that involves running around, or sports, or something along those lines.
Hanna: Is that how you’ve lived?
Teddy: Currently, I go on walks, and bike rides, when I get home. You could be running around, and getting exercise. But as long as you’re doing more active things, whether it be outside of school or just in the middle of the day, when you take a break and go outside here, you’ll be okay. I have seen students who do take breaks and go outside, but I also see people who remain seated for the majority of the day to play.
Hanna: That is frightening to parents.
Teddy: I can imagine. But at the same time, you have to remember it’s not like they’re sitting down, hands in their lap and just sitting, doing absolutely nothing, because they are doing something—they’re socializing. They’re having fun, they’re doing what makes them happy. And there are people playing video games who don’t like sports, who don’t think they provide as much entertainment or as much freedom as games do. And it is problem solving. You can learn things like language, science and math, depending on the game. History is a big one. Most games give you something. All people who play games gain knowledge of some sort.
Hanna: What about the fact that in real life you have to interact with people and learn to get along with them, with your language, with your activities—how does that work here? I’m not sure that the kids who are playing all day long are working on that. How are they going to learn to interact with real life people?
Teddy: As I mentioned before, through multi-player games where you meet someone online and if you end up talking to them in real life, that helps a lot; it can give you a push.
Hanna: What about a very shy person? What if you’re shy about meeting girls and you’re not doing anything about it? How are you going to practice it if you are sitting there in front of the screen all day?
Teddy: Well, eventually everyone gets to the age where, whether they are “addicted” to video games or not, they get to a point where it just kind of hits you like: you know I could keep playing this, or I could go talk to her. It’s not that quick, it will take a bit, but I can’t imagine any straight guy just deciding video games are better than a girlfriend. It gets to a certain age where that interaction just becomes more important, naturally.
Hanna: So what you are saying, basically, is that people eventually balance the human needs that they have. How do you learn to be tactful, to know how to console people when they’re sad, how to share with their joys, when it’s all so virtual?
Teddy: Even if it’s virtual, you can learn by talking to people. Eventually, maybe you say to someone something that hurts their feelings that you didn’t necessarily mean to say. That’s not really a video game thing, that’s a thing in general, even if you’re talking to them through a video game, you can tell if it has an impact or not, and through that you can learn through experience what you should say and what you shouldn’t, at certain times.
Hanna: I’m sure you know that people say life is not fun, you have to learn to cope with stress and hard work to prepare you for being an adult who has to go to work every day.
Teddy: Well, I don’t like that mindset. Life should be fun. And video games can help with that.
Hanna: Kira has been in the school since she was five years old. She is now fifteen. One of the things she does is use computers to play games. How old were you when you started playing on a computer?
Kira: I had computer games when I was really little because my sister had computer games, so we played these point-and-click PC games that are crappy by today’s standards.
Hanna: Tell me how it became part of your daily life, if you remember.
Kira: A new young child enrolled who played a lot of MineCraft, and he probably piqued my interest in that. I was probably six or seven.
Hanna: Is it a simple game that six-year-olds can play?
Kira: MineCraft is hard to explain because it’s pretty free; you can do whatever you want. It’s like a sandbox game. It is just sort of a platform and you can do whatever you want in it. You can do it in survival mode where you’re building houses in the wilderness and surviving. Or you can just be in creative mode where you can fly around and build giant castles. You can do whatever you want—that’s the point.
Hanna: Do you have to know how to read?
Kira: I don’t think so. I probably didn’t read very much when I started playing MineCraft. The only things you have to read are the options menu, but you can memorize those things.
Hanna: Do you still play it?
Kira: Occasionally. Not quite as much.
Hanna: So you can sit there alone in a room with your computer, but you play with other people somewhere?
Kira: Sometimes. It depends on which game. In MineCraft there are servers where you can play multi-player with people online, or you can play on your own worlds and servers that you make. So it depends on what you feel like doing.
Hanna: What I noticed walking around the school is that mostly boys spend a lot of time on computers, and girls don’t. Is MineCraft designed for girls too?
Kira: Sure, I would say so. I know plenty of girls who play MineCraft.
Hanna: Do you care if it’s boys or girls?
Kira: It doesn’t really matter. There are other games that probably get more attention from boys—like Skyrim, which is medieval romp, a medieval kind of adventure thing, but I play a lot of Skyrim. I particularly like a lot of medieval things.
Hanna: How many hours a day do you think you play?
Kira: I don’t know, it depends on the day. I used to play a lot—like all day, every day—and now I just play occasionally whenever I want.
Hanna: Do you play it at home too?
Kira: I mostly play at home because it takes time to set up your computer. So I don’t really play as much at school unless we have an organized thing we’re going to do. Like today we’re going to play Don’t Starve, and it will be fun. Oftentimes we just play single-player and watch each other play.
Hanna: What do you do at school when you aren’t playing?
Kira: I watch people play, I draw, I do crafts with my friends. We watch videos, listen to music.
Hanna: So it’s important to you to socialize with these people, rather than using the computer?
Kira: Well, you can use the computer and socialize at the same time. That’s what I was saying. In multi-player games you’re playing with your friends, which is even more fun.
Hanna: A lot of parents find it stressful or perplexing to see their kids using a computer all the time because you are going to a school and you’re supposed to be educating yourself. So, let’s say I’m a parent and I’m saying to you I really like this school, but I don’t want my kid to play computer games all the time because I don’t see the use of it. Could you tell me why you think it’s okay? What are the things you get out of doing it?
Kira: In Sudbury Valley’s case, it’s really social. It is about playing games and knowing other people who play games and being able to interact and talk to each other about those games and play in multi-player mode sometimes. It’s not like you’re being anti-social if you’re playing a game. If anything, there are so many people that play video games now that it’s more social.
Hanna: But you understand it doesn’t look social to somebody passing by—that’s why I’m asking.
Kira: It’s hard to describe. What you want to hear vs. what is happening that is not as visible is still happening. People are getting something out of playing games. For example: adventure. You can experiment and explore and play however you want so it’s just like this open place where you can play around. I guess that’s the definition of playing. You play around, see what’s what.
It’s definitely working your brain to play games. I think people get bored if they’re not learning stuff. If they’re playing a game and they’re not learning anything, they probably wouldn’t be playing the game because people get bored and then they’d be sad and then they go do something else that doesn’t bore them. And then they learn stuff and then they’re not bored anymore. People are working their brains, and people are being social. If you observe the people at Sudbury Valley, they’re in groups on computers. So they have friends. It’s not like they’re being anti-social.
Hanna: What about the kind of knowledge that people expect children in our culture to acquire over the school years?
Kira: I’ve gotten a lot of that from video games. I play more video games than I read books. There’s enough reading in video games that it’s worth learning to do. And when you have a reason to learn something, you end up learning it, because you want to. So, you’re like okay well I want to know what that sign says, but I can’t read it. So then I learn to read it, because I want to get to the goal just to read what that sign says.
Hanna: What about writing?
Kira: Well, in technology, there’s a lot of typing so you learn how to spell things. I mean, there’s words around us all the time anyway. I feel like we kind of just piece things together.
Hanna: Do you think you have a good vocabulary?
Hanna: And how did you acquire that?
Kira: People around me. Everybody’s speaking. So, you learn things and if you don’t know what it means you look it up, or ask someone.
I have friends who write stories, and I read them sometimes. They have pretty great ways of wording things, and you just kind of pick up on these little signs and store them in your brain for later. Then when you want to write something you think about it and you’re like how can I word this better? Being a JC Clerk has been good for that too, actually, writing reports.
Hanna: So computer games are social, adventurous, and involve problem-solving, brainwork. A lot of kids say they’re fun. Why is fun important?
Kira: Joy is the motivator of things. Fun and joy—that’s your motivation.
Hanna: And playing the games is what gives you that?
Kira: Yes. It’s more available to exploring than real life.
Hanna: What about reading books?
Kira: Movies and books are just sort of like reviewing a story, but with games, you’re the player and you’re making your own story as it goes along.
Hanna: But you like movies, right?
Kira: Yes. Because after I watch a movie, it inspires me to make my own stories.
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