"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.