The Kid On The Couch

The Kid On The Couch

When I was a kid, other kids did still play outside. We weren't so far engrossed in technology and information that we stared at screens all day.

You know I'll admit, when the original Nintendo Entertainment System came out, I was one of the early pioneers of this staring at a screen all day strategy.

I view my decision now, the same way I view technical decisions, as a series of trade offs.

Believe me, I get the whole argument that it's sad that a child would rather play a game than go outside.

I have two year old twin boys and while they are still very excited about going outside, now and then you can see that they would rather play Endless Alphabet on my iPhone.

Now having said that, let's look at the reality.

My reality was that I just wasn't that interested in being outside. I hated sports. I only played those because I felt like I was supposed to but they actually bored me.

I was always more cerebral even as a kid. If given the choice of going outside and playing football with my friends or playing Phantasy Star III on my Sega Genesis, of course I would go outside. I didn't want to be a dork.

But the truth is I would have much rather played the game. I know, sad but true right?

The video game was more interesting to me. I'm sure there's plenty of strategy and thinking in football, but it's not really the type of thinking that I like.

The video game is appealing because it tells you a story and its appealing to think about the characters. There's also a fair amount of problem solving that you have to deal with. To me this was much more stimulating.

And there's a competitive aspect too. You're practicing so that you can get better and then beat your friends in multiplayer.

Even in single player RPG's you're trying to level up your characters and get the best gear in the game.

I don't think I would have the problem solving abilities I have today if it weren't for video games.

You may be skeptical of this statement, but I truly believe it.

Think of an RPG, where you have limited money and skill points and you have to figure out where to allocate them most efficiently. There are so many possibilities to consider that it makes balancing a checkbook look like a task for a 3 year old.

Some games require methodically mapping out levels and finding out where different parts of a map are and then using items you find to compelete the level. This teaches you how to approach solving a problem thoroughly.

Other games have puzzles that require you to think logically or find hidden things or solve riddles. You quickly learn that if you're failing, trying the same thing over and over is futile. So you try different things and do things that are outside the box.

And multiplayer games, especially ones that are online, really do teach you to be super competitive. If you actually use the skills you learn to compete in real life, you will go farther than the average person.

When I was first learning a game, I liked to find the hardest opponents possible. I'm not a glutton for punishment, it's not that I enjoy the pain of losing over and over. I just knew that if I played someone much better than me and tried to understand why they were much better than me, then I would improve dramatically.

I would lose over and over and over. Mentally, it was like lifting 300 lbs over my head 100 times, only to have the bar crash down on me each time. But then when I went back to playing normal opponents, it was like lifting a 15 lb dumbell. It was effortless.

In games like Starcraft, you're building an entire base, managing an economy, an army and managing multiple battles against your opponents, all in real-time. And the skills of the best players in that game are staggering. If that doesn't teach how to be a little better at life then I don't know what will.

And even aside from multiplayer, some games are just hard! Even in single player. These can really teach kids how to take on a challenge.

If you think I'm full of it, then go play Mike Tyson's Punch Out for NES and see how long it takes you to beat it even one time.

Video games honed my ability to think critically and analytically, long before math class.

Some people wonder why we are taught math at all. Most people don't have use for anything other than simple arithmetic.

It's true, even as a programmer I don't do much math beyond the basics. And while some programmers do use a lot of advanced math, most don't.

So why are computer science programs around the country so heavy on advanced math?

It's just exercising your problem solving abilities. You start to see how to solve problems by pattern recognition or re-arranging terms and simplifying.

While the math doesn't have practical application for most, the critical thinking sure does for programmers.

Programming is not simple. In fact it gets very complex very quickly. All programmers are tasked with designing programs. If they can't see the problem from more than one angle, they are doomed before they start.

A rigorous curriculum in math will really hone your ability to think outside the box.

And so will video games. I think they are very beneficial for children. They stimulate you and they get you thinking.

And video games have other benefits for kids. When you play a video game, you are really learning to operate a computer. You are learning how to interact with a user interface. And each game has a different one. Do you interact with any user interfaces on your computer in your job?

Plus, kids are building up intuition on what makes a good or bad interface by playing games of various quality. This could have applications in design, user experience, product management, quality assurance or even programming.

I'm not saying kids shouldn't go outside and play, I think they should for as long as they are interested in doing so.

And I also think that kids should be allowed to play video games. Not an unlimited pass, just not restricted if they do want to play them.

In fact, I think there's an argument to be made that you could replace all the math and physics in computer science programs, with video games.

A professor of math or computer science would laugh at the idea because of course it's absurd right? Of course, they don't get paid if the students are playing games instead of taking their courses right? So they are a little biased.

I wouldn't recommend letting students play FarmVille per se, or any other game that's so easy a baked potato could play it well.

But games that challenge them on multiple levels. Games with economies that can be gamed. Hard games. Games that have data that can be scraped and programmed against.

I used to play an MMORPG called Star Wars Galaxies. The minerals that could be mined shifted around on the various planets every couple weeks. There was a forum where players reported different deposits that they had found and where.

I actually scraped this data and wrote a program to provide me a daily report of where the best stuff to mine was.

I wrote a program that could deal poker hands to a table full of players and determine who the winner of that hand was. From this I could run simulations with various numbers of players at the table and determine which hands were money makers at various stages of a tournament.

What do you think I learned more from, the two things I mentioned above or learning how to calculate derivatives?

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