It’s 10PM on a Saturday night. Griffin was invited to play in a 3 on 3 tournament and we just had a very profound discussion on our drive home. His team made it to the championship but lost 8 to 10. He feels tired and hungry after running sprints for most of the day. Griffin couldn’t see any of the success in what he and his team had accomplished. All he is feeling now is the sting of losing something that he wanted more than anything else at the moment. This is what I love about games. They allow us to look at our lives and think differently about us, our ambitions and the people around us.
First, let’s talk some psychology. I study cognitive psychology. This involves not just thinking, but how thinking affects the emotions. The philosopher Epictetus pointed out that it isn’t necessarily the events that affect us, it is how we relate to them. Griffin and I went through the plays, the players, the scores, and every aspect of the tournament that we could remember. Things began to change. In fact, he and his team mates had won a large majority of the battles today. Griffin was tough to score on. He hit some key free throws. The team outscored every team but one. Griffin and his team mates dominated the boards. They fought back in the championship game and put themselves in an opportunity to win. By empirically validating his beliefs, e.g., “I suck”, we were able to find out that he was inaccurate. Being inaccurate was causing the pain, not just the defeat. I won’t recount the entire episode, but I will say that if you try this with your kids, use what is called a “Socratic dialogue”. In other words, ask questions and listen. Lead your child to challenge his or her own beliefs and assumptions. If I were to say, “well you won 7 games and lost two, it would have little effect. Instead, I would ask, “how many points were scored on you”, or “who beat you on the boards?” He would reply, “nobody.” So, we vivify the experience and deepen it. We relive it, in a way. He will discover that he was mostly winning in any given moment. Or, at least he wasn’t losing continuously like he felt he had.
These conversations are important tools that allow us to accessing our child’s emotions and learn about how they see the world. When Griffin uses his imagination to relive the experience, some of the emotions and images return. He gains entry into the event when I ask him a specific question. He has to concentrate, and place himself in the moment. This deepens the experience and prepares him for learning. We had some other more personal discussions on that car ride and I cannot share them. When we arrived at our driveway, I felt a sense of peace and acceptance. The pain had begun to melt away.That is only a small window into what kids learn playing games, especially with the help of a more capable adult or peer just being with them and exploring with them.
I couldn’t help but to think about video gaming during the tournament. I have often thought about how many times basketball players sprint down the floor. What would it be like to sprint that long if there was no game to offer purpose and meaning to the task? What would it be like to do this alone, without four other guys involved? I can tell you with certainty, it wouldn’t be very much of an experience and we would probably have to force ourselves to do it with any fidelity. Yet, we will join a game of hoops with no reluctance. Our culture is wise to it. We have had embedding instruction in our songs and games for many, many generations. We pass these games on to our offspring and they pass them on and the culture benefits through the years. There is real folk wisdom in our culture. We know that games and songs have survival value and we know that they are effective at passing on learning.
I remember on special babysitter we had solely because she taught us that game. It is simple. I and my sisters stood down the hall. Barbara would hold a pillow up to her face and say, “Red Light”. Well, we stop on red. Suddenly she would drop the pillow and shout, “Green Light!” We would then run toward her until, “Red Light” was announced and we would stop again. The first one to reach Barb wins. What do children learn here? Well, attention, for one thing. Attention involves inhibiting impulsive responses. Children with ADHD have special difficulty with behavioral regulation. It develops slowly and measures below his peers. A game like Red Light Green Light helps all children inhibit the excited urge to run when anything is said. “Red Light/Red Light” will find some impulsive children lunging forward. The child gets to practice holding back and improves. The game makes the child happy, and people perform best when they are happy. The emotions are critical to learning and doing good work, especially creative work.
So, games keep us alert by captivating our attention. Games reduce anxiety, usually, and this is a good quality of mind for learning. Games give a sense of purpose and meaning for doing sometimes mundane boring tasks like running back and forth on a basketball court. They motivate us to try hard. Games can teach resiliency. You have to lose sometimes in a game. Yet, you play the game again. You know you will win again. Kids really need to know that part.
Video games can do all of these things, if they are designed for it. They give the real-time feedback of an official or completed pass, they create immersion, they captivate the emotions, they lead to intensity of thought. They are social experiences. We used to have friends over to play video games. Now we can find friends online to play with. That means that friends share the experience and learning from one another. When academic tasks, like literacy instruction, becomes integrated in a video game, all of those factors are alive and at work.
Griffin is on his second hamburger and is laying on the floor. I’m writing this post wondering if he is feeling like the real winner that I know that he is.