On the first day of Christmas my Mommy gave to me, my very own Nintendo Wii

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This Christmas season I totally shocked my friends and family in a way that I probably haven’t managed to since I announced I was moving in with a man I had known for a few weeks (I married him in the end.) Seemingly, I reversed myself on a topic on which everyone, myself included until recently, thought I was resolute. My husband still hasn’t quite forgiven me for my change of course and was totally unmoved by my rationale. I bought my daughters a Wii for Christmas. For many years they have bemoaned the fact that, apparently, they are “the only children that don’t have a Wii or a DS.” Actually, I think that may actually be true, at least if our family, friends, extended family and acquaintances are anything to go by. My original feelings on the subject, which do still hold fast for the DS and many other video gaming systems, is that children spend far too much time on these things, to the detriment of imaginative play, outdoor play and reading. I hate nothing more than seeing children who can’t seem to go for an hour at a time without playing on a device, sitting at the dinner table disengaged from the conversations around them, not able to find any other way to amuse themselves whether they’re alone or with friends. My children expended quite a bit of debating energy trying to persuade me that the Wii is different; it involves physical participation, it’s a more social gaming system, and based on some research and informal polling on my Facebook page, I came to the conclusion that they did have a point. But ultimately, this wasn’t really what finally pushed me over the Amazon edge to the purchase of a Wii console and assorted games. What really caused me to rethink my previously intransigent position on gaming devices were the articles and books I’ve read recently, in the course of my innovation-related reading, about the educational virtues of gaming and most especially, the place of fun in learning.

As I discussed in a previous 3QD piece of mine, there is an increasing body of evidence, as laid out in The Eureka Hunt, which suggests that in order to engage both hemispheres of the brain in order to instantiate insightful solutions to problems, the left hemisphere needs to do the upfront intellectual heavy lifting and then, “once the brain is sufficiently focused on the problem, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight.” This is the reason that so many of us experience our “aha moments” of problem solving while taking a shower, meditating, and relaxing. Companies that install Foosball and pingpong tables aren’t coddling their employees, they’re acting in total corporate self-interest by institutionalizing this insight process. Intuitively, management often feels that if a problem needs to be solved, software needs to be debugged or an ingenious ad campaign needs to be pulled out of a hat, then employees need to work long hours, eat at their desks and never leave their computers or drawing board until the work is done. But in fact, this is almost certainly the worst possible way to resolve an issue and meet a deadline. After many years as a software developer I can say from firsthand experience that it is necessary to put in the upfront left-brained leg work, then walk away (usually literally), in order to come up with the final answer. I have rarely come up with my most creative, elegant, efficient software solutions while staring at a computer screen. Instead, my inspiration has struck while walking to my car, upon first waking in the morning, skiing down the slopes, relaxing or having fun.

At the website http://www.thefuntheory.com/ Volkswagen investigates the theory that “fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better.” The Fun Theory is a competition that encouraged people to take usually boring, but important tasks like exercise and recycling and make them fun. I think that the best example on the site is the video of subway stairs turned into piano keys. Over the course of the experiment, 66% more people than usual chose to take the stairs over the escalator. What the videos on this site clearly demonstrates is some quite obvious and intuitive really: the best way to encourage people to do something is to make it fun. And this must be exponentially truer for children and teenagers.

Of course, the above doesn’t necessarily make a case for allowing children to play video games, just for giving them enough downtime to make their cognitive connections and for trying to build fun into even the most mundane activities. But as it happens, playing something like the Wii is great fun and can be, at the very least, a way for children to disengage from left-brained activities for a period of time and allow their right-brained connections to be made. However, this alone wouldn’t have persuaded me to back down from a long-cherished viewpoint and shell out over $400. What really tipped me over the edge was a gradual realization that forms of digital “play” from video games to virtual worlds to Facebook, can provide more than just fun downtime for my children (and myself)

In this video, James Paul Gee, the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, Division of Curriculum and Instruction, at Arizona State University, discusses the invaluable role he believes digital recreation can have, not just in the home but in school as well. Gee says that video games teach collaborative problem solving skills. He claims that video games can be the perfect learning vehicle because, through constant feedback, they don't separate the learning curve from the assessment.

Video games can teach in a different, but not necessarily lesser way. They can draw children into subjects and let them learn experientially in a way that a textbook never can. By allowing children to live out the role of an Ancient Roman citizen in a game, for example, children can engage with a subject and might then be more inclined to pick up a book and continue their study of Roman history and culture. In addition, many games allow the modification of content and enable players to become content producers themselves encouraging various forms of creativity from design to software coding to creative writing. For the purposes of this blog, the key point that I took away from Professor Gee was that the use of digital tools in classroom works best when innovation and creativity are stressed in schools over test prep and rote memorization. Test prep for multiple-choice tests does not lend itself to the use of multimedia digital channels, whole-brain, inquiry-based, hands-on education does.

There are certainly other arguments that can be made in favor of gaming systems: there seems to be no doubt they can be extremely good for improving coordination and response time. But arguments such as these don’t clearly have any applicability to the topic of innovation even if they did add to my pro-Wii list, and so I won’t devote any more space to them here. However, it is worth mentioning that there is an increasing body of evidence that suggests that the measurable benefits of video games goes beyond the more obvious hand-eye coordination benefits, “A new study shows that playing video games can sharpen certain thinking skills, increasing cognitive speed in those who play action games and boosting cognitive accuracy in those who play puzzle-solving games.” If only my children had thought of making this argument!

And so we come to Christmas morning. In the age old gift-giving tradition, I tortured my daughters prior to Christmas morning so that their pleasure would be all the greater compared to their past suffering; every plea for a Wii was met with “we will never, do you hear me, NEVER get a Wii in this house.” And as much as I truly believe everything I have written above, and I really was initially persuaded to rethink my no-Wii position by the intellectual arguments I’ve read in favor of gaming, in the end, what really mattered were the looks of pure joy and complete amazement on the faces of my girls Christmas morning when they unwrapped their Wii console.

DSC_7558Something I need to make clear is that my children have very limited, and only parentally sanctioned Wii time. I still hate it when children have unlimited, unstructured access to any kind of media and I continue to believe that there are many other good ways that children can and should be spending their free time. But in the end, as a parent, being able to give my children something they wanted so badly was a wonderful feeling. My intellectual self-appeasement was an added bonus. My husband still isn’t convinced!

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