Can Video Games Teach Your Child to Be a Better Person?
One day about four years ago, I came home from work and heard utter mayhem coming from my son’s room: Russian voices, screeching tires, gunshots. I bolted up the stairs and threw open his door.
I found him parked in front of his Xbox, playing Grand Theft Auto IV. I watched his avatar lead police on a high-speed chase through the absurdly empty streets of Liberty City. He crashed a car into a light pole, hopped out of his car, and began emptying a .45 Magnum at the cops.
This game was most definitely not on the family approved-to-play list. My first instinct was to grab the Xbox and throw it out the window. My wife persuaded me to conserve my moral outrage for those moments when he did something dangerous or stupid in the real world, not in a virtual one.
Still, for a little while I felt like the world’s worst parent. Then I sat down and watched him play, and I also watched the story on the Xbox unfold before him. I realized that GTA is a dystopian satire not all that different from movies like A Clockwork Orange, which thoroughly outraged parents when I was his age.
The idea that playing video games makes kids violent and antisocial is often accepted as a sobering fact of modern life. Whether it’s true is less clear — some studies say yes, others say nyet. In the real world, watching Clockwork did not make me into a droogie. And playing GTA did not turn my son into a murderous thug. He’s a great kid.
But let’s assume the fear has some truth, that violent media contributes to violent behavior. If so — if games teach kids to shoot first and to drive as if cars are weapons — can’t games also be used to impart positive life skills like empathy or compassion? Can video games boost a child’s emotional quotient (EQ)?
Some people think they can. One of them is Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, most famous for creating the most popular sports simulation game of all time, John Madden Football. Now he’s trying to prove it via a fantasy adventure game called IF… aimed at tweens.
You the dog, man
Just as Madden Football is based on actual NFL playbooks, IF… is based on decades of research in social emotional learning (SEL). The game takes place in a land called Greenberry populated by dogs, cats, and magical Pokemon-like characters known as Vim. Long ago, the dogs and cats were driven apart by conflict, and Greenberry fell into ruin.
Guided by the Yoda-like YouDog, players must learn how to tame the Vim, resolve the conflicts, and bring Greenberry back to harmony. Along the way they’re presented with questions and a choice of answers measuring their degree of empathy and other SEL attributes.
You’ve got three choices. Pick the wrong answer, and you’ll get a lesson in sensitivity from YouDog.