What Else Do You Need to Know?

The people who design video games don’t allow their children to play them. 

What else do you need to know? Thanks for reading. We’re done here. Move along. Come back next Tuesday. 

Pretty bright folks, game designers. Multi-million dollar salaries. Multi-billion dollar companies. Only the best are hired: sophisticated programmers, accomplished marketers, psychologist designers.

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Google says that “technology equips students ‘with skills of the future.’” (NYTimes link.) Nah. The skills of the future do not involve blasting pixelated zombies. Nor do the skills of the future involve watching a succession of fart videos. The skills of the future have a lot in common with the skills of the past—communicating with other actual humans.

The skills of the present also have a lot to do with studying. Reading is still a thing. Medical students of the present commune with textbooks as opposed to screens for ten and twelve hours a day seven days a week. Perhaps these future doctors already know how to watch fart videos.

Kids don’t need to learn how to use iPads. Kids already know how to use iPads. Kids need to learn how to use iPads less. The most important lesson for kids to learn about their screens is how to turn them off. Acquiring the knowledge of how to download the latest version of “Shoot, Shoot, Shoot, Blood, Blood, Blood, Kill, Kill, Kill” is as difficult as lighting your first cigarette. As the risk of referencing the overused Viet Nam metaphor, we know how to send the first solider overseas. Bringing the last of the 50,000 folks home is the tricky bit.  Turning on the screen for the first time is easy. Turning off the screen less so.

Proponents of screens in general and violent video games in particular fall into two categories: those who profit from screens  and those who rely on them. Speaking of cigarettes and other process addictions, I remember reading somewhere that cigarettes are causally connected to some negative health consequences. If I remember correctly, cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are frequently mentioned in the same sentence with tobacco. Do advocates of cigarettes themselves participate in the march toward emphysema? Dunno.

To be fair, cigarettes also have benefits. Nicotine in cigarettes calms you down. And then it kills you, of course, but you can’t have everything. Also, cigarette manufacturers may have a company softball team. Everybody likes softball, although selling cigarettes remains the primary function of the endeavor. Similarly, VVG may have advantages—improved fine motor coordination?—but when Timmy steals mommy’s credit card to buy a virtual sword, two people are particularly pleased: Timmy, because he can slaughter zombies more efficiently; and the corporation whose stock went up. There are a number of Timmys buying swords. Again, a short-term goal being overshadowed by long term negative consequences: Timmy growing up without ever having read any books and not having any social skills among others.

Not surprisingly, lower income folks get stuck holding all the nasty potatoes: Family income negatively correlates with nicotine addiction. Less money implies more cigarettes. Family income also negatively correlates with screen time. More money, less screen time. The New York Times reported on a study by Common Sense Media. Children from lower income families spend just over eight hours a day on screens; children from higher income families spend a little under six hours a day. To be clear, those hours are not spent writing code in C++, Java, and other computer languages that develop syllogistic logic, and programming skills. (cf. “fart videos” above.)

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The Times also quotes Pierre Laurent who worked at Microsoft and Intel. “People... understand that the real thing is [what’s] happening around big data, AI, and that is not something that you’re going to be particularly good at because you have a cellphone in fourth grade.”  (Click here for the Times article.)Stated more concisely, “users are losers.” The smart people are the ones who determine that Timmy turns off the game when the unicorn dies; the clever programmers and the highly-paid analytics department conclude that Timmy keeps playing, spending, and watching ads when he “discovers” a pot of gold. Why do you think that if your child has a phone, an iPad, an Xbox, and a computer that she is going to know how to write code or analyze big data? Do I understand crop rotation or yield per acre if I smoke a cigarette?

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But there are necessary computer skills. Kids need to know how to send email and look up stuff on the Internet. Doubtless. Then why do I never visit rehab programs for adolescents who refuse to stop using “Word”? “Word” is useful. “Word” is not addictive. “Word” was not designed by folks with psychology PhDs to keep kids using. Whereas Grand Theft Auto, Fortnight, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, and yes, even Mind Craft, were all programmed to keep kids playing. My 94-year-old neighbor learned how to send email in just under 90 minutes; your adolescent truly needs thousands and thousands of hours to “learn” how to play “Shoot, Shoot, Shoot, Blood, Blood, Blood, Kill, Kill, Kill”?

At the risk of being an I told you so, I totally told you so. I told you so here and I told you so here. I didn’t want to be right about this, but I was. I have been writing about the dangers of screens for kids since my first 14-year-old client said, “if you take away my devices, I will kill myself.” 

The people who design video games don’t allow their children to play them. What does that tell you?

Thank you for reading. See you next week.

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