What Video Games Taught Me (and My Family)

A lot of parents these days blame video games for all the violence and bullying that occurs in schools. The media tries to play the “GTA” angle on every school shooting or hate crime that kids and adolescents commit, blaming their lack of respect for life and their inability to differentiate between real life and fiction. Parents attempting to ensure that their children are positively influenced by the industry research every rating system and review, combing the internet for any indication that a particular game must be avoided. However, statistics show that most children can tell fact from fiction and to our delight, that they can tell when a video game’s theme is against the values and morals that they have been taught. Give a three year old a controller and watch him or her drive along the streets of San Andreas. You’ll be surprised that they will play it without running over civilians or killing the prostitutes. Most just drive around! We can all agree that the problem is not the content but the context.

Back when there were no online forums for parents to discuss games and video game ratings came through Nintendo Power or computer magazines, my parents trusted Atari, Nintendo, Sega and the gaming developers with my entertainment. They saw the value of learning to push buttons and make Q-Bert turn a clear pyramid into a white one. They understood that by reading through the prompts of The Legend of Zelda I was learning a second language (Spanish was my mother tongue growing up) and at the same time improving my reading and interpretation skills. Most importantly, they timed my interaction with the consoles, observed what I was learning, what skills I was improving and made me do my own research when renting out games at our local Blockbuster Video. It was a family enterprise, playing video games, to the point where I remember putting a presentation together in white cardboard to pitch the business case to get my own Super Mario Bros 3 cartridge. (It worked!)

These where the lessons we learned together:

  1. Time management
    I grew up in a family where 10 people shared one TV during the evening hours as we waited to dine together. What this entailed for us grand-kids was a Mission Impossible type of timeline where we had to hook up the console to the only coaxial receiver on the TV (this was 1986), play for the allotted time, make sure everyone got a hold of the controller and at least beat a level, and then pack everything back up and reconnect the antenna so grandma could watch her shows. Whenever the TV became available, we had to know what we were playing, how long it would take to get to the next save point, and make sure we enjoyed ourselves in the process. With a little democracy and a lot of planning, my cousins and I managed to be successful at this endeavor.
  2. Resilience and Discipline
    Every time Mario died, I had to prepare myself mentally and physically for another round through World 2-2. No cheats, no walkthroughs, and no help from older more experienced gamers; I had to test every strategy and use every pixelated surface to make the jump to the next ledge and beat the level. I had to stop to take breaks, soothe myself to avoid hurling the controller through the room or break it. I didn’t quit until my time playing was up or until I made it to the next level. Replay, redo, try it again, don’t quit, and restart, keep at it until you made it. It also taught my family when to tell us to take a break, when to encourage us and when to jump in on the fun! To be honest, it took me years to master and finish some of the easiest games in the Nintendo catalog, but I managed to do it, and that was worth the hustle.
  3. Cooperation
    As a family, the kids and the adults had to learn to work together to connect the consoles, play, make sure everyone had a turn, and that if someone got stuck the rest of the players would pitch in and help without ruining the effort by taking over and not let us learn. It may have been frustrating for the adults but we didn’t really notice, they let us figure it out on our own. If one of us kids was on a roll, the others would cede their space in line and let that person continue to play until their streak was over. We learned to share, to research and read together. We helped each other get through the levels and find what we needed to finish the game. If we read an article about a game, we’d save to buy the magazine and bring it to our next gathering. We lost together and we won together. We celebrated the victories and the losses. We became a gaming team.
  4. Patience
    From the first three lessons a common theme comes across: repeating a level until you beat it. Back then we had to wait until a magazine or more experienced player gave us a hint or clue to proceed with the game. We didn’t have the internet, so we had to call our friends or wait until the next day at school to ask for assistance. Patience became our strongest virtue, the art of keeping our cool and our proverbial pants on until we got our hand on the controller and passed the test. To this day, I am able to walk away from a problem or issue, think it over, wait for enlightenment, ask people for insight, and come back to finish it with aplomb and decorum. If it hadn’t been for that Sega Master System and Nintendo games, I would have never learned this very valuable lesson for myself, not to mention learning to wait for my turn to be able to execute what I thought was the winning strategy.
  5. 3D Spatial Visualization
    Every shape that had to be rotated in Tetris to finish the puzzle successfully and every 3D move I had to execute to beat an opponent on Street Fighter (in modern consoles) taught me how to manipulate shapes in my brain to get the desired result or configurations. Vectors, physics, strategies, and pixels became elements that molded how I could visualize an object in three dimensions and spin it to project different surfaces and views. I leaned how to master axis movement, and to distinguish between positive and negative coordinates (into and out of a plane in the screen for example). I knew how to control movement in a monitor with a joystick with eventually translated to using a mouse and later a spaceball for computer aided design. Never underestimate the power of a good platformer or three dimensional first or third person game; the skills translate to real life and to many professions such as graphic design, engineering and architecture.
  6. Analytical SkillsPuzzle Solving
    Tetris, Dr Mario and the dungeons of The Legend of Zelda use puzzle solving as their game strategy. Be it matching color bubbles or grouping objects to eliminate a line of code, knowing how to turn a crank or how to execute a strategy in seconds helps enhance the speed of your neural connections. This in turn helps you think faster and more effectively. Every puzzle you complete is stored in your brain and used as future reference for other puzzles. You learn, you improve and you enhance yourself as you play. The sense of pride and elation I felt when I finally figured out how to save Lala in The Adventures of Lolo is something I still carry with me, and I did this when I was 8 years old! Not all video games are about shooting and running.
  7. Task Prioritization
    Project managers are taught early on that you need to understand all the tasks and the relationships between them to create and execute a cohesive and executable plan. In the case of video games, you need to decide which route to take, what tasks to complete to level up or find items crucial to the game play, and even determine what achievements or trophies you want to complete as you play through the game. Back in 1988 task prioritization meant that my cousins and I had to know when we were allowed to play, for how much time, what game could be completed or moved along during that time, what steps we needed to follow to level up or successfully complete a level and then pack up the games and store them until our next encounter. We assigned game levels and search tasks in order of expertise. Together we learned to build a game plan and to follow through, even when we got stuck on a particular stage. To this day, my cousins and I are excellent project managers and we know how to evaluate tasks, manage resources, and to accurately predict how much time it would take to complete a project based on time studies and observation.
  8. Goal Setting
    The purpose of each game, be it a video version or a board game, is to win. In order to win you have to apply all the above lessons and follow through to achieve that goal. You needed to train yourself, to research the game, and to actually play to gain insight into the game play. This required a lot of time and effort, which without discipline, would be wasted if you weren’t prepared to play until winning or at least advancing the game to the next save point. For longer games like Final Fantasy or Uncharted, this effort takes over 50 hours of total game play. You have to list what you want to accomplish daily, how much time you have to play, and the steps to get it done. Without a plan, progress would never occur. Setting up the milestones and plans to beat the game, and meeting that goal gave me a great sense of accomplishment. It taught me to set a goal and follow through.
  9. Confidence
    By the time my cousins and I were 12 year old, we already knew how to research, analyze, move in 3D worlds, manage tasks and goals, be patient, cooperate by working as a team and had the resilience to meet challenges head on. We learned to solve any problems we would encounter. This gave us great confidence and high self esteem that enabled us to take on the world with optimism and hard work. We were appreciative of the sacrifices our parents had to endure to buy and maintain the consoles and games throughout the years, and in turn, we repaid them by learning to appreciate the investment they made in our education and upbringing. To us, the video game experience was about growing and becoming better people while enjoying the learning experience. There was no game we couldn’t beat with a little patience and cooperation, and no problem that could bring us down as a family. We were winners.

There are many more lessons video games have taught me throughout the years but these have stood the test of time and get reinforced every time I pick up a controller. The experience is different for every person that plays a game, but for me and my cousins, it was about building a happy and successful family – a tradition we continue until this day with my nephews and nieces. Whenever I am tired or weary, or need a good confidence boost, I turn to video games. The excitement of the chase, the sense of accomplishment and pride, all coupled with the knowledge that my brain is getting exercise make all those hours of game play worth it. Make sure your family is playing the types of games that help them learn to solve puzzles, apply math, assist 3D visualization and help develop leadership skills, and the new generation of gamers will be fine.


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