Kids and computer games

Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga
Little Mister's current favourite

I still hear a lot of people whinging about how children play too many computer games, and how they’re bad for them. I have a lot of experience of video entertainment (this doesn’t mean I’m any good – I’ve just played them a lot), and some limited experience in the child-rearing side of things but here are some things I’ve noticed.

Our littlest is around 3½. Despite his age, he’s still not a talker and has some communication issues which are mainly due to problems with his hearing. We got an Xbox at Christmas and he, of course, wanted to play all the time. But he was rubbish. Worse than me rubbish. Which is very rubbish indeed. He’s very active – too active, frankly. Runs circles round us and will chase the dog or cat for hours, bounce on the trampoline, run around outside until he falls over and comes home screaming… you know, a proper kid. As such I’ve no issues with him spending some time glued to the telly if it keeps him quiet and out of our hair for a bit.

There aren’t that many toddler-friendly games for the Xbox, but what we have so far are: De Blob 2, Megamind (scratched to hell and unplayable), Toy Story 3, Lego Indiana Jones and Lego Star Wars. Over time, he watched us playing and we often let him have a spare controller in co-op mode. This usually involved him twiddling the two joysticks randomly and giggling when a Lego character dropped off a cliff in an explosion of coins, releasing a Wilhelm scream. Or Wilhelm Wookie roar. Or whatever.

Hey, he was happy.

Over the last few weeks, though, he’s taken to it big style. He can’t read yet, which means we often have to explain things to him, but if the game has good use of imagery then this can help. Toy Story 3, for example, has “help” bubbles that show you a ghosted image of a character performing an action while the keys you need to press are displayed next to them. The Lego games are similar, although both games suffer from the player often having to be in just the right position for those buttons to work.

What’s amazed me, and prompted me to post this, is how quickly he’s come on since we sat him down with a controller and let him loose by himself. I just sat with him this morning as the played through the train stage at the start of TS3. Aside from one section which I did for him, he completed the whole thing himself. Picking aliens up and throwing them off the train, throwing bouncy balls at moving targets, smashing boxes open, jumping and double-jumping gaps and obstacles. Wow.

Lego Star Wars has captured his imagination more than the Indy game and its simple problems in the early levels are just right for him. After some demonstration from myself, he’s able to work out some of them with no assistance. Swapping to use the correct characters to perform a task is an example. If he sees a C3PO head, he knows he needs the right kind of droid. Sparkly things? Jedi force. Bounty Hunters only? Wander off, find a helmet machine, get a helmet, go back and get through the door.

And so on.

He can now control the characters and camera independently using the two joysticks. His timing for jumps is good. Not brilliant, especially double-jumps where he often can’t hit the jump key quickly enough in succession, but still pretty damn good.

Now, he’s a good kid with his other toys. He loves tool kits and his Toy Story figures – and his sister’s Lego much to her annoyance. But I don’t think we have much else that has improved his logic skills or hand-eye coordination as these computer games.

I actually think his communication has improved slightly as well, as he tries to explain where and how he’s stuck, or tells us what he’s managed to achieve.

Over and above that, he’s learned how to check whose profile is active when he comes to the console and change it to his own. It’s simple image recognition (as I said, he can’t read but he can identify the icons and avatars), but it also shows he’s aware of what “belongs” to him and to others.

So to those who say that kids shouldn’t be let anywhere near computer games? Think again. There’s a time, a place, and a use for them.


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