Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Do video games turn today's youth into quitters?

I am 42 years old, so I'm entitled to the occasional fit of "good old days" ranting. To me, the 1980's were halcyon days. Sure, we had no cell phones, no Internet, and no disc-based gaming. Video games were, at best, cartoonish or badly-pixellated renderings of objects and people that you interacted with on a 2D plane. You tended to see a bit of interference in the background of your TV set from other channels as you played on channel 3. Still, the games were fun back then. Plus, you actually had to have some skill to play them.

You were constantly challenged by the games you played. All games were in essence a form of competition. You were out to beat your last high score, or even better, your friends' high scores. There were levels, but most games had no end to them; they just looped around, at least until Super Mario Bros. changed that paradigm. Even then, you had to beat the game using only a set number of lives and continues.

You tried and failed and tried again and again, or you realized that you had wasted $50, which in that time was a small fortune to a kid. So you sat Indian-style on the living room floor for hours struggling through Bionic Commando. The first few times you failed to make it through, but eventually you learned the proper techniques and tricks and your skills developed to the point that you actually finished the game, to be rewarded with an awesome end-scene:

The point is that video games back then were challenging. You often lost, but you had to keep trying until you got it right.

Nowadays, video games are risk-free ventures. I say this as someone who loves these games, but notices that the difficulty factor is very low. Skyrim is crazy awesome, but the worst thing that might happen to your character is that he'll lose some nice loot and have to start back at the last auto-save. Don't get me started about the Lego games... The only challenge is from the brick-earning sections after you've finished the main story line. They remind me of the Barney game on Genesis.

 We bought this game for my baby brother, who soon realized that no matter how hard you tried, Barney couldn't be killed. If you jumped off a cliff, Barney would float back up holding a balloon. No enemies existed to do him any damage. There was no danger in the game, and even my baby brother got bored with it within a day and went back to trying to pass the first level of Sonic the Hedgehog.

So now, as a middle school teacher, I deal with a bunch of kids who are utterly distraught if they make mistakes. They don't want to have to struggle or work for a win. The concept of trying and trying again is alien to them. If they can't grasp and idea or skill the first time they try it out, they want to give up. "I can't do it!" they cry after one attempt.

It's the video games, I swear!

These kids need to play Dark Souls. Now, there's a game that will put some hair on a young man's chest! That game makes you fight for every win. If you fail to beat the first-level boss, you start all the way back over at the very freakin' beginning. For the first several tries, you despise the game. Some choice vocabulary may even depart from between your lips if you're not careful. That all just makes the final victory even sweeter, provided you stick with the game long enough to enjoy it. It's a life lesson that most kids haven't learned.

So recently I decided to introduce my kids to the world of the Atari 2600. I made them play each game enough to gain a fair amount of skill. To up the ante, I had my two youngest compete against each other for high scores. They played Pac-Man, Galaxian and Frogger. Now they want to keep playing because they enjoyed getting better and better with each try. It was a pretty sweet idea for family night if I do say so myself.

I asked them what they learned and they said that you need to keep trying even when things were difficult. I told them that was called perseverance. Then we ate some ice cream. After that, they asked if they could keep playing Atari and I gladly obliged.

Kids these days need a lesson in perseverance. It's a quality they sadly lack. It's an essential quality of a self-sufficient adult. I know video games aren't exclusively to blame, and I'm not suggesting Bethesda make the next Elder Scrolls nigh-impossible to beat. However, may I suggest that we play some of the classic, challenging games with our kids? Dust off the old Atari, NES or even Sega. You'll be pleasantly surprised!

P.S. Just for kicks, here are the games we played:

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