I’m a little irritable about the commercialization of the winter holidays and thought I’d throw some kerosene on that Yule log.
When you visit friends and relatives are you stunned by the sight of children, absorbed in their video games, eyes fixed in a 1,000-yard stare, distracted by the flickering screen from their participation in the festivities: from the tree, from conversations with second cousins they won’t see again for a year, from aunts, uncles, and grandparents – and even from eating dinner?
Yeah, me too. I think we’re teaching them to prefer virtual reality to real reality.
Back in the Internet’s pre-commercial days, Cliff Stoll was a celebrity. He was the guy who, in 1986, caught an East German KGBsponsored hacker breaking into the U.S. military network. During the ’90s he wrote a great little book (Silicon Snake Oil) about the way computers were being injected, like artificial Twinkie filling or hepatitis, into the lives of children. Every year, he prophesied, computers would replace sand boxes and construction paper in the lives of kindergartners. Stoll was particularly worried about some unnoticed moral lessons kids assimilate from exposure to video games. Here is the gist of it.
Think about what children learn from video games versus what you learned playing kick the can.
Let’s start with video games.
In video games, the rules must be strictly obeyed and can never be appealed or changed. In the face of absolute rules the only way to get what you want, in the mind of a 6-year-old if not an Enron executive, is to go around them. In other words, you learn to cheat. Prolonged exposure to video games thus trains a child to believe that rules must be followed blindly, a character trait better suited to fascist regimes than America, and that cheating is an appropriate way to win. Cheating is not a habit we want to inculcate in kids. It’s economically harmful. Even Milton Friedman said that cheating subverts a free market.
Kick the can, by contrast, embodies all the best American values. You may not have noticed at the time, but kick the can taught you how to play with others and negotiate your own rules. (When I was a kid we played with a bunch from the next block who used a different set of rules. They insisted, for example, on leaning the can up against a tree instead of setting it out in the middle of a lawn. Disputes about can placement always dominated the opening rounds of our kickthe-can marathons. Sometimes we couldn’t reach an agreement on the rules and, therefore, never even got around to playing. Another valuable lesson about the real world.)
Moreover, negotiation was followed by a second, greater, lesson: you learned to keep your word. If you accidentally stepped out of bounds, say, you learned you had to abide by the rules you’d agreed to, or get thrown out of the game. You also learned that if you were honest, people would believe you and let you keep playing. You learned to be responsible. Prolonged exposure to kick the can teaches kids how to forge contracts and the importance of keeping their word. They learn that cheating screws up the fun of playing.
Video games: You learn to play alone.
Kick the can: You learn to play with others.
Video games: You learn to obey rules.
Kick the can: You learn to create rules and to take responsibility for following the rules you create.
Video games: You learn to cheat.
Kick the can: You learn to negotiate.
Video games: You can start over whenever you want.
Kick the can: You can’t start over whenever you want.
Video games: No need to consider others.
Kick the can: You learn that, in the real world, you have to get along with other people, whether they like you or not. You learn the majority sets the rules, even when they're wrong, and you learn how to cope with situations where you don’t get your own way.
So, this Thanksgiving weekend, as you roll out to join the swelling river of minivans flooding the Yule-soaked shopping mall parking lots, remember: video games teach blind obedience to authority and kick the can teaches democracy.
Resist the impulse to buy flashy new electronic reality-substitutes. Show your children and grandchildren you love them. This year give them an old coffee can, and the real world, instead. Then take ‘em outside and teach them how to play.