Virtual world can teach kids a lot

What does playing computer games do to us? A YouGov poll has stirred up familiar worries about the effects of new media on children’s communication skills, saying that one in six children under the age of seven in England has difficulty talking – a problem that will have many worried parents looking at games consoles and wondering how far their children’s onscreen delights are implicated in this decline.

Anyone who has played video games, or watched their children playing, will know that they are an exceptionally compelling medium. As Jean Gross, the government’s new communication champion for children, noted, overbusy parents can spend dangerously little time talking to their children. Far easier to plonk them down in front of a mesmerising screen.

A lack of parental time and engagement is self-evidently a bad thing, as is the excessive use of any one medium. Yet this vision of gaming as a passive, inert activity does little to help struggling parents. For perhaps the most remarkable thing about modern video games is the degree to which they offer not a sullen and silent unreality, but a realm that’s thick with difficulties, obligations, judgments and allegiances.

If we are to understand the 21st century and the generation who will inherit it, it’s crucial that we learn to describe the dynamics of this gaming life: a place that’s not so much about escaping the commitments and interactions that make friendships “real” as about a sophisticated set of satisfactions with their own increasingly urgent reality and challenges.

Take the idea of scarcity. In the real world, there isn’t enough of everything to go round and people suffer as a result. In the digital world, there is suffusion: anything can be duplicated almost endlessly at negligible cost. We are free to indulge ourselves to the utmost degree. Except, it turns out, people are rather attached to scarcity – and to difficulty, and to hard work, and to all those things that the narcissistic digital realm allegedly teaches us to avoid.

We are deeply and fundamentally attracted, in fact, to games: those places where efforts and excellence are rewarded, where the challenges and demands are severe, and where success often resembles nothing so much as a distilled version of the worldly virtues of dedicated learning and rigorously co-ordinated effort.

The very first virtual worlds were indeed utopias. Places like The Palace, which opened its doors in 1995, offered users a kind of enchanted chatroom where they could interact with each other within graphical locations (“palaces”) that they had themselves created.
Within the limitations of the technology, you could have and do anything you liked. It was a utopia, and it was boring. Not only did people prefer virtual worlds in which there were brutally strict limits on available resources, and where vast amounts of effort had to be expended to obtain these resources; they were actually prepared to pay money to spend time in these scarce worlds.

People liked other things, too: banding together to earn greater rewards; the escalating prospect of greater and greater challenges, involving levels of achievement at the top end only attainable by hundreds of hours of effort. Take the processes involved in playing Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console in its own online arena, Xbox Live – a digital destination that now boasts more than 20 million users.

Thanks to the way Xbox Live works, anyone playing on Microsoft’s network isn’t just trying to beat individual games; they’re also working, often very hard, to earn cumulative “achievement” points for meeting particular targets in each and every game on the system, in an effort to lift their individual score ever higher in the global rankings. It’s this pattern of effort and reward, validated by a networked community of players, that makes modern games such an awesome engine for engagement.

A virtual world is a tremendous leveller in terms of wealth, age, appearance, ethnicity and such like – a crucial fact for anyone who isn’t in the optimum social category of being, say, attractive and affluent and aged between 20 and 35. It’s also a place where “you” are composed entirely of your words and actions: something that breeds within and around many games an often extraordinarily complex network of conventions and debates that are integral to a community held together only by voluntary bonds.

Visit any website devoted to hosting player discussions of games like World of Warcraft, for instance, and you’ll find not hundreds but tens of thousands of comments flying between players who debate every aspect of the game, from weapon-hit percentages to mathematical analyses of the most efficient sequence in which to use a character’s abilities. It will range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and will be riddled with private codes, slang, trolls, flames, and everything else the internet so excels at delivering.

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