Thursday, January 30, 2003

Visionary ... or Satan's minion?

Nolan Bushnel, inventor of the video game, turns 60 next week. I guess now is as good a time as any to ask: did he simply create the epitome of crap, or did he change the world for the better?

If you ask my brother, video games are the pinnacle of worthlessness. Kids today (specifically, his nephew -- my son) should throw away the video games and spend all of their free time in the great outdoors. Kind of ironic, considering my brother was the kid in the family with the Colecovision in his room. And he swears that his kid will never play a video game.

Of course, this is the same man who once assured me that he would never have kids.

I think there is room for concern about video games. Certainly there are games that tend to be anti-social. And sometimes I wonder if truth is stranger than fiction and we're training a new generation of cyber warriors.

At the same time, the latest generation of video games can be quite compelling and challenging in an intellectual sense. Sure, your basic shoot-em-up may rely more on hand-eye coordination, but many of the top games feature challenging puzzles that must be solved. And the more complex games demand a sense of time and space. I've played multi-player games with my son and quickly found that he had a much quicker grasp of the wheres and whens of a given level -- even when both of us are equally new to the universe.

Talk about frustration -- try going one on one with an 11-year-old who "frags" you before you get a chance to get your bearings. Such things certainly engender conversations about "fair play" and "good sportsmanship." And those are lessons that can be applied across the board. After few sessions of "Medal of Honor" leads to an interest in World War II history ... and books. It's not just about killing Nazis anymore.

I do think that like anything, moderation is the key. If my son were the type of kid who did nothing but play video games, I think there would be cause for concern. As a parent who grew up in video arcades, I understand the lure of that "alternate universe." There's nothing wrong with stepping in and directing a kid toward another activity -- that's part of what being a parent is all about.

Video games can be a spur toward achieving other goals as well. My son recently said, "I want to be a game designer when I grow up. What do I have to learn to do that?" Good question. We're starting with a summer school "camp" where he'll learn about classic games such as chess and get a chance to design and produce his own board game. He's after me now to help him find some software to allow him to build his own computer-based games.

There's nothing inherently wrong with video games. Like any other diversion, they can be abused. But they can also be a gateway into positive change. And for that, I think we owe Nolan Bushnell a big thank you and a wish for a very happy birthday.


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