Wimp

"You see, you have to jump on their heads, then they just sort of roll over and die."

Few things are as frustrating as sitting next to someone playing a video game badly. The game in question is New Super Mario Brothers for the Nintendo DS. He's spent the last five minutes attempting to get to the halfway mark of World 1-1.

"It's hard though," he observes, the corners of his eyes drawing thin and tight.

He closes the DS. Expertly, he pops out the cart. Looking me directly in the eye, he hands it to me. "You can play this daddy, I'll play Lego Star Wars."

This is Peter, my 5 year old son. Video game wimp.

I am surrounded by a parenting coven millions strong which expects me to laud every scribble on the preschool art pad, to deliver flowers to the most ridiculous dance performance, and cheer the most hamhanded attempt at a baseball throw. I understand this desire. As a child of the 70s, I was indoctrinated into a world of Episcopalian judgment, standardized tests and failures to make the varsity that left me wounded. The desire to react against this upbringing and coddle my children is deep and irresistible. And indeed, I get it. Praising effort, instead of just praising achievement, has had positive results in my own kids' academic development.

In fact, my daughter had so much difficulty with the standard lecture/homework/test pedagogy when learning to read, we became members of the Cult of the Pink Tower -- Montessori -- a system of education diametrically opposed to all the competitive structural systems most of us grew up with. The key premise of Montessori is to follow the child -- let them learn the way they learn, at their own pace, using a lot of hands-on work and long, intense work sessions instead of rapid-fire classes. There are no tests, there are no grades, there is no homework, and the first and fourth graders are all working together. And it's one of the best things that ever happened to our family. Both kids are thriving academically, and I know it's because we just lucked out -- it was right for them.

But it's also why my kids suck at video games, and this concerns me.

If you want to imagine what a Montessori video game looks like, you need look no further than Will Wright. All of his games, but Spore in particular, are designed explicitly as Montessori materials, places and systems where the student learns and experiences a system on their own, hopefully leading to mastery. And that's great and cool and wonderful and I'm really glad Wright has made these toys. My kids loved Spore Creature Creator. I loved it, briefly. It blended beautifully into this parenting cult that worships every effort and attempt.

But there is a voice in my head -- a constant, nagging voice -- that lives in rebellion to these principles. I see my kids thriving without homework and grades. They are growing emotionally and intellectually in all the ways I could ever want. But I worry they're soft.

There, I said it. I worry my kids are wimps.

The first reaction to this was to sign them both up for karate. Ironically, the modern dojo turns out to be a very Montessori place -- kids learn at their own pace, they progress when they're capable, they work hard in long sessions within a group of multiple ages and ranks. They took to it instantly, although their focus is very much on the experience of each class, not the difficulty or the challenge.

Which brings me back to Mario.

NSMB, to be fair, is not an easy game for a 5-year-old. I myself suck at platformers for the most part, although I grind my way through them time and time again. I find the vector analysis and timing often hard to master, and will throw myself against tricky levels dozens of times to get through them. In other words, I suck. But I'm fine with that. And I'm fine if my kids end up sucking too. We can be like some circus family of asstacular video game players. "Come see the world record attempt for most retries at World 3-4 in a single afternoon!"

But being bad isn't the same as being challenge-phobic. Right now, my kids' world is surrounded by experiences that are above all else avoidable. As a doting, guilt-ridden parent, I want to give them everything, and so I give them choices. And while hardly living in the lap of luxury, those choices naturally extend to the primary entertainment vectors in our household: books and games. I suspect the reason Peter has no interest in spending 10 minutes honing his goomba-jump is because he simply has no need to. He has a dozen other little Chiclets of plastic he can put into his hand-me-down DS which will require less effort. What possible incentive does he have to beat his head against a wall of challenge, when he could slip into the warm blanket of never-die Legoland?

But let's be honest: Who am I to judge? I, who in my 40's have resorted more and more to iPhone distractions and simple console games, and strayed further and further from my keyboard-overlay, all-day PC-strategy gaming roots. Perhaps the apple is just falling close to the tree. The old, tired, play-it-on-easy tree.

Comments

Great article, rabbit. I'm a bit frustrated that I was working on something very similar to submit for the Writer's Call, but it's a great article all the same.

What I wonder is whether or not your son would take to Mario more readily if it offered some sort of easy do-over mechanic that allowed him to instantly re-attempt the challenge. I'm not sure how New Super Mario Bros. is setup, but if it's like the classic Mario and forces you to replay portions of the level in order to once again confront the challenge that you couldn't overcome before, that's not really self-paced learning but classic pedagogy with tests, grades, and setback. The black-and-white pass/fail nature of platformers doesn't lend itself well to the gradual learning that Montessori encourages but rather to more traditional educational methods.

Oddly enough, I know that it wasn't everyone's cup of tea, including mine, but the deathless, checkpoint-heavy Prince of Persia would probably be a platformer your children could get into more easily at some point. By allowing players to retry single challenges until they're able to over-come them, and by segmenting the open world into areas distinctly defined by the tools needed to progress through them, the game has a more Montessori-style learning curve. You can master each skill in relative isolation at your own pace with little punishment for failure.

I've now got my 4-year old son with me, and I'm running up against the same wall. My mom did the best she could, but I still had a pretty hard childhood. I was changing schools frequently, always the new guy, always getting picked on, usually running into teachers that just didn't like me... You get the idea.

And while it was hard, it made me a very strong person. And on one hand, I don't want my son to have that kind of a difficult life, on the other hand, I know it'll make him a much stronger person.

It extends to me gaming as well. When I was 7, I fought with Gunstar Heroes for 5 days, finally beating it before bedtime the day before I had to return it. I had other games I liked, I had other stuff I could have played... but by then I was stubborn enough that I _WAS_ going to beat that damn game.

But, because of all of that, I've got the ability to get past just about anything. And I do worry a little if all of the constant praise doesn't keep people from learning how to get back up, no matter what.

I don't mean for this to sound accusatory at all. I'm just genuinely curious. Do you ever worry your kids will read this someday and read you calling them wimps?

I come from an identical mindset with my own 5 year-old, made all the worse by the fact that I am intense, if often incompetent, competitor. Failure, for me, results in of two outcomes -- intense frustration & determination. Occasionally both. A 3rd slightly less common outcome is also possible -- obsession.

My son, and I don't understand this fully yet, is a different person than me, and because of that I am in a constant state of conflict between my intense desire to challenge him and insist that he develop what people used to call sticktoitiveness and my unending concern that I am screwing him up in clinical and permanent ways. I am also clearly aware that half the time I am indulging my own neuroses, so I rarely have a good understanding of where the balance lies.

But, the truth is, I detest the individualistic, captain of your own ship, hyper sensitive approach. I like challenge. I like tests. I like that kids sometimes fail, and then later come back and succeed. I like that some challenges you can throw yourself against for what seem like ever, and never succeed. After all, it's my job to be there afterward and offer encouragement or at least a distraction. I fear that without a good mix of success and failure in equal parts and a strong understanding that even if a challenge can't be overcome it still may be worth fighting, my kids won't be prepared for what faces them when I'm not around.

I know sometimes I push too early and too soon, and I've seen more than one occasion where I've lost perspective and had to beat a hasty retreat, but this parenting thing is a challenge unto itself.

My solution on the video game front, and I know you do this, is to play the game with him. Often when I'm participating in the same environment he's more motivated to succeed and keep up with Daddy. Maybe put the DS down and find a slightly more challenging 2 player game?

Great article! From your story I wonder if I can just traumatize my children early on. They may not grow academically or emotionally, but they won't be wimps!

Elysium wrote:
My solution on the video game front, and I know you do this, is to play the game with him. Often when I'm participating in the same environment he's more motivated to succeed and keep up with Daddy. Maybe put the DS down and find a slightly more challenging 2 player game?

Piggy-backing on this a bit, some variation of New Super Mario Bros. is being released later this year on the Wii with four-player co-op.

Sounds like your wimpy kid is in luck as long as he sticks with Nintendo.

If things keep going this way, he won't even need to be good at video games! They'll play themselves and he can watch and feel inadequate by comparison.

I think the Montessori approach is great, theoretically. I don't really see why schools need to have such a competitive bent, given the emotional toll on growing minds and fluctuating self-esteem. But then again, I don't see why so much of the world needs to be competitive, either: finding jobs, working jobs, etc. But it is. And, in a way, cutthroat testing and evaluation fosters resilience and thick skin, traits which are necessary to survive in the competitive systems into which kids are spit post-graduation. Eventually everyone gets evaluated, and it's best to be prepared from the get-go.

Like father, like son?

As a parent with an 18 month old, I formally request you all sort this out and find out what the RIGHT way to raise my child is with regards to instilling a correct balance of self-lead exploration and facing down adversity, particularly as it relates to gaming.

Really good read. Rather than form my own thoughts, allow me to pick out some choice quotes that I think express my opinion rather succinctly.

rabbit wrote:
But being bad isn't the same as being challenge-phobic

Elysium wrote:
I like challenge. I like tests. I like that kids sometimes fail, and then later come back and succeed.

clemmenstation wrote:
Eventually everyone gets evaluated, and it's best to be prepared from the get-go.

Ahh, path-of-least resistance posting.

In all honesty - First of all, Rabbit's kid is 5. The fact that he's able to do more than chew on the Wiimote is already cause for celebration. There is no need to get concerned about "wimpyness" yet.

That being said - if Rabbit's kids follow this trend and always follow the path of least resistance in games, they'll be missing out on some great experiences. While Rabbit may be more casual than The Gap right now, he still got to experience the joys of deep strategy gaming in his past. It would be a shame if his kids missed out on those kinds of experiences.

I feel kind of the same way about Montessori schooling - I think it's absolutely great to do it for elementary-age kids who are having difficulty adjusting to traditional learning, but at a certain point (middle school? Junior high?) you do have to adjust them to the competitiveness of the real world.

Meh, he's 5! I didn't play my first game until I was 7 or 8 (the original SMB), and I was pretty bad at it then, and still am! It's a tough game! I grew up to beat games like Ninja Gaiden Black though, so all is not yet lost.

Dysplastic wrote:
I feel kind of the same way about Montessori schooling - I think it's absolutely great to do it for elementary-age kids who are having difficulty adjusting to traditional learning, but at a certain point (middle school? Junior high?) you do have to adjust them to the competitiveness of the real world.

This is the DAILY challenge of being in the Cult of the Ping Tower. Thankfully, the school is run by two of my closest friends, and its a topic of constant discussion amongst parents, students, and teachers. My eldest who would be in third grade in a traditional school, is starting to learn about things like standardized tests almost as a subject to be studied in and of itself. I think that's a good thing. And she and her classmates devise their own testing strategies and games.

But boy, it really is hard to reconcile with my love of headshots.

Dysplastic wrote:
...I think it's absolutely great to do it for elementary-age kids who are having difficulty adjusting to traditional learning, but at a certain point (middle school? Junior high?) you do have to adjust them to the competitiveness of the real world.

I don't know where you are from, but where I come from, Middle School and Junior High are the same thing.

On a side note, I was in Montessori until 1st grade. Granted it's been 30 years since I last stepped into a Montessori school, but clearly it has ruined me.

Well, seems like your kids are both primed to thrive in the MMO world. And I don't mean that just as a dig against MMO's, but that they'll probably be way more effective at the social aspects of solving problems together, which is basically what Bachelor's programs in business teach.

So, while they may be "soft" individually, they'll be able to do more together than we ever did by ourselves.

Or they could just be wimps. Whichever.

rabbit wrote:
My eldest who would be in third grade in a traditional school, is starting to learn about things like standardized tests almost as a subject to be studied in and of itself. I think that's a good thing. And she and her classmates devise their own testing strategies and games.

See, this is interesting. A caveat to the competitive aspect of schooling is that kids learn how to 'game' the system; they learn what's likely to be tested and what isn't, and allocate time accordingly. There's a whole social-shadow aspect that informs and manipulates the results of standardized evaluation. The smartest kids not only learn the most content, but they learn to anticipate how value will be ascribed to knowledge. If Montessori kids go through a similar process, albeit from an externalized perspective, they may come up with some pretty useful / novel techniques that will serve them well later in life.

Maybe your kid just wasn't meant to be a plumber. Not everyone can do what Mario does.

I wonder if the trend of games becoming easier in general is seen as appealing for both adults with limited time constraints and Rabbit's kids: they don't want to spend their time being frustrated. Adults may rationalize this by citing limited free time where this probably doesn't apply to children. However, it still probably comes down to wanting to maximize enjoyment of free time in general regardless of how much free time there is.

My son is due in 1 month.

There is nothing that scares me more about becoming a parent than reading discussions like this. Your post, Elysium, mirrors my worries and fears.

There are a few things I do know:

I don't want my son to be as competitive as me. A good competitive nature is an asset to be sure and helped me excel at sports when my talent fell a little short. Pure tenacity can be beneficial in some situations but my competitive bone goes to ridiculous lengths. Case in point: my occasional rage quit from L4D when my team is down by 2,000 points by the third map. That's unhealthy. I have always envied people who can play games such as this and just kick back, laugh, and enjoy the experience whether they're up by a million points or behind by the same. I can do that when it's explicitly stated, "This match is just for fun, let's enjoy ourselves." however on average, I'm fiercely competitive and I don't like the person I become when I get that way. Especially when it's something as insignificant as a video game. So I'd like my son to be competitive to some degree but to also see the bigger picture and know when to compete and when to enjoy.

I don't want my son to be as much of a gamer as I am. I may be over exaggerating but when I look back on the past, I really feel like I wasted a good 3-4 years playing games at the expense of all else in my life. Relationships, advancements in career, etc. I pray (I'm rabidly anti-religious, so to whom or what I have no idea) that my son shuns video games or has the attitude of your son, rabbit, "Nah, I think I'll go play Lego Star Wars."; ie. a casual game that he finds more personally rewarding and fun than the 'always forward, always progressing, achievement based' mario brothers that he develops an obsession to complete, not because he might enjoy it but because he has to complete it or else feel less self-worth.

On the flip side I do see some benefit in gaming. For one, my hand-eye coordination is impeccable. Things that I find trivial I see non-gamers struggle with. My ability to sit patiently in one position for hours on end is getting rusty, but is still far more advanced than the average human. Also, I feel that gaming has nurtured my imagination and creativity. I am constantly coming up with business ideas and product ideas which are proven to be good by virtue of someone else making them a reality months or years later, however due to my indifference and lackadaisical attitude which is also a byproduct of years of gaming, I never take the initiative to do anything about my ideas. So I wish my son would somehow gain the positive attributes cultivated by gaming such as hand-eye coordination and creative intelligence without the bad stuff.

HedgeWizard wrote:
As a parent with an 18 month old, I formally request you all sort this out and find out what the RIGHT way to raise my child is with regards to instilling a correct balance of self-lead exploration and facing down adversity, particularly as it relates to life.

This.

If I ever have a kid, I'm gonna teach him what not to do by having him witness a Geers & Beers night. Preventative measures!

Also FSeven, I have a lot of similar reservations about gaming along the same lines. Could I have written a novel if I hadn't pounded 150 hours into Fallout 3, and so forth. Chances are I would've just wasted my time in some other way, but you can never know for sure.

I like you am not a real platforming guy. The only time I ever saw the final boss in SMB original is when my sister got there, but I her brother gave up much earlier than that. I never did have the patience to go that far, I am perhaps a platforming wimp. But I thrive in the challenge of other game types, throwing myself repeatedly at a RPG boss or FPS level until I can over come the obstacle. I don't even own a nintendo console right now and haven't played Mario since Sunshine on the Gamcube(didn't finish that either), so I don't know how I'd handle the original or the NSMB game.

My son (5 years, as well) beat LEGO Star Wars completely. He had every red power brick, which means that, eventually, he could be invulnerable and just play through the levels with no fear of challenge.

When I got him LEGO Indiana Jones where he could actually "die" again (which, in LEGO world, means waiting a second until you reappear), he was intensely frustrated. It took a week of encouragement before he tried a second time.

But my son's problem isn't that he's been over-coddled by a praise-for-effort system. Instead, he's so competitive that he immediately gives up if he doesn't master something on the first try.

A case in point was this soccer season. He was a forward for the first game, and he got to kick off. So he runs up to the ball, whacks it as hard as he can, and watches it fly past everyone straight to the goalie, who then kicks it to the side. My son runs off the field crying because he didn't get a goal on his first kick.

Every video game he's ever played has been the same way. He was strangely good at Burnout Paradise on the 360 (and it helped that, again, you can't "die" in that game since you just respawn immediately after crashing). But when I gave him Smart Boys' Gameroom for the DS, he hated it because the very first time he played it, he got one of the tiny memory games wrong.

His mantra: "That game cheats, Daddy!"

So now that we have a Wii (my early Father's Day present), I'm both happy and sad that he's taking to so many of the no risk games on there. He's much more willing to take chances in Wii Sports or Boom Blox, say, but he's also not really having to take any big chances that can make him a better player and not just feel better about playing.

rabbit wrote:
Dysplastic wrote:
I feel kind of the same way about Montessori schooling - I think it's absolutely great to do it for elementary-age kids who are having difficulty adjusting to traditional learning, but at a certain point (middle school? Junior high?) you do have to adjust them to the competitiveness of the real world.

This is the DAILY challenge of being in the Cult of the Ping Tower. Thankfully, the school is run by two of my closest friends, and its a topic of constant discussion amongst parents, students, and teachers. My eldest who would be in third grade in a traditional school, is starting to learn about things like standardized tests almost as a subject to be studied in and of itself. I think that's a good thing. And she and her classmates devise their own testing strategies and games.

But boy, it really is hard to reconcile with my love of headshots.

You weren't in the room, but I had a good conversation at RabbitCon talking about how to raise a child into table-top strategy games, which are not only difficult but adversarial. Certainly the complexity of a game is important, but what about getting the kid interested, coaching, throwing games, etc?

For my part, I'm afraid I'd treat activities I'd like to share with my kid the way I treated my first crushes: leaving them leaning against a wall and mournfully wishing they'd take an interest.

I believe a will to win and a will to succeed are two different things. I play games to win, but when I lose I still enjoy myself. I rarely win a board game or video game, but I still really enjoy myself. I do my damnedest to succeed everyday in other things (my job for example). I don't sometimes, but when I do it is great and immensely rewarding. however, when I don't succeed it can be devastating. My will to win is at a level where I will try my hardest, but when I come up short I can still say I had fun. My will to succeed is at a level where I try with everything I have to accomplish my goal.
I think a coddled child's willingness to succeed can be unhampered, even though their will to win is relatively low. Succeeding and winning qualities come both from nurture, but not the same source. A willingness to win can come from exposure to competitive elements of life (sports), whereas a willingness to succeed comes more from a lead-by-example type of teaching: my dad was a successful "X" so I want to be a successful "Y".

Sorry that was so vague. I hope it makes sense. My mind, thankfully, is somewhat elsewhere at the moment.

Just employ the good ol' Tywin Approach to Parenting (TM). Your descendants will turn definately strong!

Had to nerd it up. Had to

Part of this also has to do with what you expect out of videogames. Is it challenge/mastery, or simply play? While most games are a mixture of both, I think there is a difference to how you approach games and certain games are definitely better for certain playstyles. When I play games with my son or let him play on his own, we are more into the "game as toy" approach, not "game as challenge" - consider other toys my 4 year old son has, action figures, Lego, train set, cars, etc. There is no challenge to overcome with these toys, they are simply tools for imaginative play. I look at games as an extension of this, and he usually enjoys games most where he can just play - Burnout Paradise is great for example, because he can just drive around and have fun without having to race specific challenges. The Lego games, as have been mentioned, are also great for this - while they do have challenges, there is little penalty for failure and I can help him along with what challenges there are since I can play with him.

I'd like to think I'm in the happy middle ground between competitive and your son's "wimpy" behavior, but it's probably not true. I went to Montessori school for pre-kindergarten and a Quaker school for K - 12th. There are limited tests through grade school, but grades start at 6th. We are "prepared" for this experience in 5th grade. 8 - 12th grade we start to have free periods as well as choosing which classes we want to take. We only had standardized testing starting in 6th grade and it didn't count for anything. It probably goes from the Montessori school approach to a mostly normal approach by High School and I think that's probably a good balance for most people.

My father is also of the "There is one correct way to do things" / "Some things are right" way of thinking for pretty much everything, while I'm pretty much the opposite. I'd like to think there are many ways that things can work out, some "better" than others and that the real strength lies in flexibility, adaptability, and maintenance of a positive outlook. He needs to buy "The Best" of everything, while I buy what fits and if I need something different later, I'll get that and not feel bad about making a "wrong" decision.

I don't know if I do this in order to be different, or because of this schooling approach. It sounds like there should really be a middle ground, which is of course difficult to find.

Thanks for the article.

Sorry, Rabbit, but I think you're just going to have to reproduce again and get things started off right with some pre-K Megaman and Squad Leader.

"Now remember, Daddy will still love you if you let Sgt. Kelso die. Just not as much."

Seriously, though, does he find many games on his own that he wants to play, or is he usually selecting from a menu of parent-selected options? Because while making sure he's playing appropriate content is good, it might also deny him some of the self-motivation necessary to run up against walls. I didn't start turning into a serious gamer until I discovered some games on my own that were interesting enough for me to struggle with them. My parents gave me Nintendo, with Mario, Link, and Rad Racer, but it was the games I picked out for myself that pushed me to try harder.

Books worked the same way for me.

I'll be breeding pwners, but someone has to breed the pwned.

Each child is unique and each stage of development is unique. My daughter loves (analog) games, and she's extremely competitive. She always wants to win when we play Connect Four, checkers, or Life. She used to quit when she wasn't winning, but now she tries harder. Quitting was a phase. She's almost seven, but hates most kids movies b/c they're too scary. Cars, Nemo, Bolt, Up, all too scary and she can't watch, so she watches Maggie and the Ferocious Beast, or Jay Jay, even though they're aimed at three-year-olds. I expect it's a phase, and she'll grow to love the Pixar films and grow out of Jay Jay.

As for PC games, she plays Putt-Putt, Freddi Fish, Peggle, Crayon Physics, and Osmos among others. She loves them, even though I restrict her playing to an hour or two per week. Sometimes she gets frustrated, but I don't give her the answer. I guide her with the most minimal hint necessary to coax her into figuring it out for herself, despite her pleas of "Daddy, can you do it for me?"

My nephew was the same way. When he was 9 or 10 he would only play UT in God Mode so he never died. He just liked running around and shooting the UI, always winning. Now he is 15 and plays Halo competitively with his friends. He'd never play God Mode in any game these days.

*Legion* wrote:
I'll be breeding pwners, but someone has to breed the pwned.
What if the 'pwnee's won't play? What good does that do us?