Agency

A friend of mine recently expressed some shock when I told him that I have no problem at all with my daughter playing video games, but I’d rather she not watch television. “Really”, he said?

Life Skills

Yeah, really. And the more TV hits me in the eyes the more convinced I am that I’m entirely in the right.

From a practical standpoint, video games have a lot of things going for them. They’re either in the house or they’re not, for one; you don’t worry too much about your kid stumbling over something with wildly objectionable content. And more importantly the content I find most objectionable about television is the advertising. Video games don’t by and large spend eight minutes of every half hour of use shivving advertising into your child’s eyes, which is unambiguously a win.

And they’re participatory! You can play games with your child, either by taking turns or cooperatively, and more and more of these games can be fun, rewarding experiences for all involved. When was the last time you were done watching television and thought, we did that? We beat the bad guys together, we finished that quest together, we win?

And if my daughter is ever going to drive a Lamborghini into a concrete wall at 250mph I’d rather it be in Gran Turismo, frankly.

More philosophically but also of tier-one importance to me is that video games (especially of the open-world variety) don’t just offer you a choice, but the act of playing them forces you to make choices. There’s no detached voyeurism here and you are not, either in which games you have or in actually playing them, absolved of your own agency in this process.

I’m sure that Mcluhanites or some other school of metamedia junkies have some better word for this, but medical and crime-scene dramas are just about the canonical example of what I’ve been referring to, for lack of a better term, as “agency porn”. Pretty, driven people with morals and ideals and goals on the screen, having these heavy emotional relationships the viewer can turn off with a button, doing ostensibly important work you’ll never do and periodically splattered with entrails that don’t belong to anyone you care about; pornography of a life of decision and consequences, instead of sex.

A Fistful Of Noodle

These things are consumed without the least input or interaction, uncritically. And I am 100% convinced that if you watch enough of these it skews your view of the world. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the startling rise of helicopter parenting, overprotectionism and the general pushback to letting kids have any kind of personal freedom has happened at the same time as these viscerally vivid crime dramas about child abductions and serial killers have moved towards being on TV 24/7.

I want no part of any of that. I mean, it’s hardly news that if you pick the right channels, you can watch CSI-alikes that makes A Clockwork Orange’s “ultraviolence” look like a pillowfight from noon to midnight on any given day, but just as an aside: Christmas day of 2009, A&E decided to run a 24-hour CSI marathon. 24 hours of murder-porn on Christmas day; way to go, A&E. I’m not saying it was better when I was a kid, because it wasn’t, but when I was a kid it also wasn’t possible to watch formulaic murder-porn nonstop through the Christmas holidays.

Sure, there are games like the Grand Theft Auto or Gears Of War series’ out there, but they’re big-kid games you don’t get free with basic cable. (In GTA3, you can just walk down to the hospital, take an ambulance and drive around picking people up and driving them back to the ER, if that’s what you really want to do. Which might be where all the chum they grind through in those medical dramas comes from, now that I think about it.) And I am not even a little opposed to the existence of games like the (awesome) God Of War series or (the awesome) Assassin’s Creed 2; I’m just saying that there a distinction to be made between pornography, art and harmless, healthy fun, as much in violence and its various portrayals as in sex, and an age to start finding out about all of it.

But it is critically important to me that Maya knows that what she sees on the screen is there by choice, and that she engages media in a way that allows and encourages choice. I think those choices are deeply hidden by regular television and I firmly believe that worse than the greed, the obscene violence and routine debasement, worse than the crappy writing and the idiotic commercials is the habit of passive acceptance cultivated by the viewer’s perfect inability to engage.

Science!

And I want to introduce her to this stuff on mom and dad’s schedule, deliberately, not by some accident of numbed channel surfing. And besides, when she thinks she’s ready (maybe, maybe not, maybe almost…) for something Dad doesn’t approve of? That’ll probably be a negotiation and a half, and an interesting day for sure. But she’ll have to go after it, it’s not just going to roll in here on its own.

Which will be kind of the point.

Have a comment? The original article is here.

6 Comments

  1. Posted March 2, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    You monster! Don’t you know how many germs are on the handle of an XBox controller? You’re not protecting that preshus baby enou—

    OK, can’t keep a straight face any more.

    Anyway: This is getting linked from my journal; I hope you don’t mind. There are a goodly number of very valuable thoughts here, and they are all very well-put.

  2. mhoye
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Thanks!

  3. Missy
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Hey now, don’t go dissing Final Fantasy! ;)

    I am pleased to see you linking to Lenore. My own kids are Free Range and always have been, long before the idea of it ever got a name. It just seems to me to be the right way to go if I want independent, productive members of society, instead of helpless, overgrown babies.

    Right there with you on the video games vs. television, for the reasons you aptly note. I am much more comfortable with the Monsters hanging out on LIVE with their friends, chatting and cooperatively blowing up zombies and planning strategies for such than I am with them mindlessly vegging in front of the tube. Not that mindlessly vegging is all bad – sometimes, it’s just something you need to do – but I don’t want that to be the majority of their media consumption. I like that they actively participate, via LIVE or Facebook, or Runescape or FLYFF, rather than just let things be dumped into their heads.

    It’s a good way to go. Maya will appreciate it when she’s older.

  4. Posted March 2, 2010 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    I feel like somebody should write the dissenting opinion about how videogames breed a false sense of accomplishment, and that they train people that if you work slightly hard at something, it’ll pay off and you’ll do something super-awesome with only a little bit of effort, and that these people are then unprepared for the hardcore, long-effort work needed to accomplish things in the real world. Or about how videogames trigger the little stimulus-response rat-pellet parts of your brain, such that you sit there for hour after hour plunking away at tasks that aren’t even, in any real sense, fun, so that you can get an imaginary and meaningless reward that lights up your brain as surely and destructively as any drug.

    In the meantime, I guess maybe synthesize this and this?

  5. mhoye
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Those are good arguments, to be sure. But I think that on balance, active participation still beats out passive consumption.

  6. Posted March 2, 2010 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    To Mike K: Jane McGonigal says reality is broken, and we need to take lessons from game design to make it better. E.g., storytelling games that teach cooperative skills and hopefulness. http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/02/jane-mcgonigal/