Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Q & A with a Video Game Designer: Part 2

Last Wednesday we talked with Greg Wondra, a video game designer at Zindagi Games, about how to get into the video game industry. Today, Wondra talks about kids and video games.

What would you say to parents who are concerned about the amount of time their sons spend playing video games?

I’d say it’s an absolutely valid concern. It might be funny to hear me say this since I work in the gaming industry and played a lot myself growing up (and still play a lot), but I’d tell parents to carefully monitor how much their kids are playing as well as what games they are playing. Don’t let your kids overdo it and don’t let them play games that are too mature for their age level.

In my mind there is no doubt a link between electronic entertainment and our childhood obesity problem. No doubt. And I sometimes feel guilty that I’m contributing to this problem by trying to create addictive entertainment. It’s easy to just sit in front of your TV all day and play games, but it’s certainly not healthy. It’s not good for one’s physical development and it’s not good for one’s social development.

There’s certainly a place for video games in society both as a form of entertainment and a form of education. Used appropriately, video games can serve as a privilege, as a reward for your children. However, if supervision is neglected, I 100% believe video games can have negative effects on your kid’s health, social development, mood, and behavior.

What kind of parental supervision do you think is most helpful for kids who play video games?

I think playing games WITH your children is most definitely the best kind of parental supervision when it comes to games. If you’re playing games with your kids, you not only have a good grasp as to how long they are playing and what they are playing, but you are also spending quality playtime with your children. Video games are a great way to learn teamwork, cooperation and how to win and lose with grace. They can teach you the value of perseverance -- of trying again and again until you do something right.

And the good news is, you can do all these things with your child. Pick up a controller and play with them. You can teach them things and they can teach you things. Problem solving is a huge skill learned from video games. With both of you playing together, you can collectively work towards overcoming adversity and achieving a common goal.

Parents should always be conscious of what their children are playing. While there is certainly software available for all age groups, there’s a lot out there that is inappropriate for younger children. Follow the video game rating system located on each box to get a better idea of what’s suitable and what’s not. I can tell from having worked at a youth center years ago, there are a ton of kids out there playing games they shouldn’t be playing and their parents have absolutely no idea.

The video game industry is subjected to a lot of negative press. What are the positives parents should know about video games?

As strong an advocate I am for monitoring your kids’ gaming content and playtime, I also feel strongly about the positives of video games that are, unfortunately, overlooked.

Outside of the potential positives I’ve already mentioned (learning things like cooperation, perseverance, etc.), I think the content in certain video games can educate kids in a memorable manner that textbooks simply can’t match.

For example, there are a ton of video games based around the historic events of World War II. Playing a game and reliving some of those experiences (seeing the sights and hearing the sounds) will have a much more lasting impact on someone than simply reading about it in a text book. It puts you in the moment and you’ll remember those moments.

Games like “Civilization” or “Sim City” can teach people about social dynamics and city planning. In Sim City, you are essentially the mayor of a town that you create. Go ahead and raise taxes if you like and see what the consequences will be.

In fact, many video games offer this type of trial and error learning. By their very nature, video games ask that you experiment and try new things. They always offer you choices and you’ll immediately get to see the consequences of your actions based on the decisions you make.

For example, let’s say you’re playing Sim City and as mayor you decide to spend taxpayer money on a new football stadium instead of new police and fire stations. Several simulated years after you’ve made this decision, you’ll see that while building the football stadium may have temporarily increased your popularity, the quality of your city has degraded with an increase in crime and hazard prevention. Perhaps that wasn’t such a good decision! At least it wasn’t real and now you’ve learned from your mistake and people always learn more from their mistakes than their successes.

Video games are vastly superior to other forms of education when it comes to this type of “trial and error” learning. You’re in an environment where it’s OK to make the wrong decision since you can press “reset” and try something different if the choice you made the first time around didn’t go over so well. This is something you don’t get with traditional schooling where your choices are made for you and you’re only asked to execute (a book report, for example).

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