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Mary Cleary Kiely: Could video games be ... good? Staying open to change

Deciding what should change and what should stay the same is one of the trickiest -—but also the most frequent — kinds of judgments that we are called upon to make as parents. From the first time that we hold our kids in our arms, and in matters large and small, we constantly have to discern when it’s time to alter an existing order, when “new” really might be “improved.”

I was thinking about this a lot recently while my husband and I were on vacation with two of our three children, 17-year-old Christina and 11-year-old Michael.

To some extent my musings about alterations and transformations were triggered by the hot spots of historical change that we were visiting: Washington, D.C., Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown. I found myself wondering: Would I have had the courage to undertake a trans-atlantic voyage to a new world? Would I have opposed England and all that it stood for? Would I have recognized the inherent conflict between the ideals of the revolution and the realities of slavery?

The other reason I was thinking about change, however, was much more contemporary and closer to home. My husband and I had decided to allow Michael to purchase an online video game called Minecraft to help entertain him during the long car journeys to and from Virginia. And now I was wondering whether that had been a good idea.

Full confession: I’m a bit of a technological Luddite. Michael only got video games in the first place because one of the grandmothers gave our kids an Xbox for Christmas a few years ago. So over the last few years he has been allowed to play nongory video games in moderation. At this point our house rule is that screens can only be used between Friday after school and Sunday night, with three exceptions. Those are school vacations and snow days, or when a computer is necessary for homework, or when Michael babysits his 6-year-old twin buddies.

Minecraft is a creative game, where players visit different biomes and scavenge for materials to make tools, shelter, farms, etc. So far so good.

The only problem was that within two days my husband and I were referring to it as “Mind Crack.”

Michael was keenly interested in all the sites we were visiting on our trip, so getting him out and about wasn’t an issue. But the rest of the time, the between times? We mostly saw the back or the top of his head. I found myself wondering what it might take to get Michael as hooked on doing something useful in the real, rather than a virtual, world.

A woman by the name of Jane McGonigal thinks she has some answers. Michael was the one who told me about her, because he had watched a Ted talk video of her on YouTube at school (www.youtube.com/watch?v=dE1DuBesGYM).

When I started to watch the video clip I thought: Can this woman possibly be serious? She takes every bias that people might have about online gaming and turns it on its head. Three billion hours being spent weekly on online games? McGonigal says we need to get it up to 21 billion. Gaming is addictive? Yes, and that can be put to good use. And so on.

I was intrigued enough that I went on to read McGonigal’s book, called “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.”

McGonigal’s central idea is that online gaming is attractive to people because it provides things that are lacking in the real world lives of many. Among these, she says, are more satisfying work, better feedback and odds of success in our endeavors, stronger social connectivity, and a sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves.

So we should not try to restrict online gaming, she argues.

Neither should we settle for using games simply for escapist purposes. Instead, we should be trying to harness the enormous power of game technologies to help address real world issues and problems, large and small.

McGonigal, who was designated a “Young Global Leader” by the Davos World Economic Forum and one of the “Top Ten Innovators to Watch” by Business Week, has spent the last decade designing just these kinds of “alternate reality” games. One of her best known is SuperBetter. It’s an online game that has helped more than 200,000 people deal with very real health problems such as chronic pain, depression, traumatic brain injury, and anxiety. Other games encourage players to collaborate in wrestling with issues such as climate change, poverty and hunger.

It’s fascinating to think that tapping into our inner child, the one who loves to play, may turn out to be one of the most powerful ways to reach serious goals of all kinds. Could it really be more effective than that old standby, nagging oneself and others?

I decided to experiment in our family, albeit on a small scale. I picked a free online game that purports to make a perennial aggravation (i.e. housecleaning) more fun by turning it into a competition. The game is called Chore Wars (find it at chorewars.com) and it’s simple enough. You set up an account, create characters (“avatars”) for each one of your prospective cleaners, delineate the household tasks (“adventures”), and turn everyone loose.

Tune in again next month to find out how Dirty Daddy, Mucky Mommy, Crumby Christina and Messy Mike are doing.

Mary Cleary Kiely’s column appears on the first Tuesday of the month. She may be reached at parenttoparent@gazettenet.com.

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