The Case for Pong

Space-Invaders. Centipede. Tron. Galaga. Pac-Man. Mario. I remember, in 198X, after much anticipation (aka delayed gratification), the joy of finding an Atari gaming system under the Christmas tree. I had waited months to play the “realistic” games of destroying aliens and eating power pacs. I thought these games were so much better than Pong, which essentially used a line and a dot on the screen. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about right now, these were the first videogames.

Anyway, after an hour or so of sitting in front of the TV, if by some miracle the joystick didn’t break, I got bored or just needed to fidget (remember, I’m pretty sure I had ADHD before the diagnosis was available). I’d climb a tree, read a book, invent a game, or look for the elusive four-leaf clover. My neighborhood friends and I had pick-up basketball or kickball games, we tore apart Stretch Armstrong to see what made him stretch, we had superball competitions (who could bounce the highest, longest, most in succession, etc.) If someone in the neighborhood got a new refrigerator, we’d make a fort or a castle from the giant box. We laughed, got into arguments with each other (one time I smashed a tomato on my best friend’s head), we worked it out. Videogaming wasn’t that compelling. Living and creating was.

So what happened? Well in the 30+ years that videogames have become a part of our culture, the nature of the games has changed. Mortal Korbat, Halo, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Medal of Honor. These are NOT games for children. They are designed for adults, who presumably have fully-developed prefrontal cortexes, whose brains have developed to avoid desensitization to violent acts. Why do parents buy these games for children? I recently had one parent confess that she hated these games, and she feared that she was beginning to see signs of aggression towards her (although “she didn’t think he was the type to shoot people in real life”—does anybody think their kids will do this????) yet she bought these games to “keep the peace” in the household. Sad irony.

Many years ago, I remember sitting in a seminar at Johns Hopkins, listening to researchers present analysis from data they collected from gamers. The evidence back then was inconclusive, at best, but keep in mind we also didn’t yet have the technology to study the brain like we do today.

I just read a compilation of studies dating back to 1984, and most of those studies have shown that playing violent videogames increases neural patterns consistent with aggressive cognition and behavior.

One meta-analysis of 35 different studies (“Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and ProSocial Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of Scientific Literature” 2001) concluded that “exposure is positively associated with heightened levels of aggression in young adults and children, in experimental and nonexperimental designs, and in males and females.”
35 studies.

In another meta-analysis (“Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Western and Eastern Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review” 2010), of 130,000 participants, the researchers concluded that “videogame violence exposure was positively associated with aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect.”
130,000 participants.

I am sure that I will hear from people who have turned out “perfectly normal” and “successful”, but what good can come from violent videogames? Isn’t there a better way to spend your time?

Can’t we just go back to Pong? Or better, can’t we read a book or climb a tree?

You CAN Be Smart AND Have a Learning Disability…Yes, You Can.

The hardest part of my job is persuading parents or spouses that their family member can be really, really smart and still have a learning disability. Last Friday, I attended a parent-teacher meeting at the request of the school and the student whom I coach. As the meeting progressed past the opening remarks and niceties, we got down to the business of grades and academic output. This was a status check to see whether or not the school and the child were a good fit for each other.

The father’s concerns included a feeling that Brad (not his real name) did not seem motivated, didn’t have “a fire in his belly” to do more than what was required. He worried, justifiably, that Brad always seemed to wait for someone to tell him what to do, and he never went back to check his work for accuracy and completion. Brad’s mother took an opposite view and commented that Brad had made progress, had friends, enjoyed going to school (Kudos to the teacher!), and excelled in the arts program. Bottom line, though, that even with a multitude of support systems (informal accomodations, after-school coaching, in-school tutoring, and parental involvement), Brad was still only a point or two above a failing mark and possible dismissal from the school.

This little guy had been working really hard, and motivation wasn’t an issue. By the way, motivation is rarely the cause of academic failure, and I have yet to meet a person who wouldn’t do well if they could, but I will save this topic for another day. Anyway, this kid was using so much mental energy to just make the cut, so it was a fair question to ask whether or not Brad should continue at the school in coming years, when the workload and expectations would increase pretty dramatically. The answer from both the teacher and myself? Maybe.

Both parents looked at me in surprise, but that’s the truth. If Brad enters the next level and hasn’t “improved”, the school will ask him to leave. On the other hand, Brad may grow into his brain with interventions to help the process. My recommendation was to have Brad have a neuropsych evaluation to determine whether or not he has a processing delay (which he exhibits). As you know from my previous posts, I believe EVERYBODY should have a neuropsych at some point in his or her life, just to know how our own brains work! But, this, too is a topic for another day.

Unfortunately, if Brad does have some learning challenge, we need to have a diagnosis in place to secure the accomodations he will need as he advances in school. The mother in particular worried that a diagnosis would be a label that would scar him emotionally and psychologically. That has not been my experience. It seems that the parents have the issue with the label because they believe it’s somehow a judgement against their parenting skills. That is the parents’ issue, not the kid’s. Most kids who struggle in school already feel a stigma of falling behind academically, and most feel some sense of relief when there is a reason for the “problem.”

And do you know what the best thing about having a “problem” is? We can work together to solve them!

Did You Ask a Good Question Today?

Did you ask a good question today? Well, did you? In our daily interactions with ourselves, with others, or the world around us, we consciously and subconsciously form questions and sometimes answers. Questions range from “What do I want for breakfast?” to “Did I brush my teeth?” to “Why did they eliminate the tan M&Ms?” to “What can be done about violence and poverty in the world?” Some questions are rhetorical, some are open-ended, and most are “yes-no”.

The “yes-no” questions can be the most simple, yet the most frustrating questions, especially when you try to engage somebody (your son, daughter, spouse, friend) into a conversation, hoping that the other will “use his/her words”.

Last week, while waiting for a student after school, I overheard the same interaction between parent and child at least 15 times:
Parent: “Did you have a good day at school?”
Child: “Yes.”
Here’s a variation:
Parent: “What did you learn today?”
Child: “I don’t know.”
One more:
Parent: “How was school today?”
Child: “Fine.”

Ho-hum. Boring. Cliché. Banal. Let’s shake it up a bit, and strive to reach levels 5 or 6 in Bloom’s Taxonomy, shall we?

Kids frequently have to answer everybody else’s questions, whether from teachers (“What is the answer to #3?), doctors (“How ya feelin’ today?”), or from parents (“Did you clean your room?”) A response to these questions is a somewhat passive exercise for the brain. So rarely do we ever encourage thought-provoking, higher order thinking skills, also known as questioning.

I’ll use my own learning experience to illustrate what I mean. When I studied Italian, I got really, really good at answering my teacher’s questions. I used complete sentences with proper grammar and pronunciation in my responses. Four years later, I moved to Rome, Italy for graduate school. I got off the plane and couldn’t find my ride to my apartment. A slight panic took over when I realized that I didn’t know how to ask the questions to find my ride. And I certainly didn’t know how to extend with follow up questions. I struggled to generate even the most basic conversational question because I had never been expected to do so. Fortunately, as a child, I was the pipsqueak who always had to know “why” and “what if”. After a few weeks of making a fool of myself with ridiculous and often embarrassing mistakes, I developed the “mental muscle” for asking questions in another language.

By encouraging people to ask questions, we learn a lot about their mastery of the relevant information. Is the question basic or more complex? You get a lot of insight into another person’s mind by observing the types of questions he or she generates. Scientists, engineers, and creative educators constantly ask questions. Without questions, we stagnate.

Compare these two questions:
“How many legs do spiders have?” vs. “Why do spiders need 8 legs?”

Which is the higher order question? Which allows engaging discussions, creative thought, or multi-layered thought processes?

We can shape learning and self-advocacy skills by helping people develop more pointed, analytical questions. So the next time you pick up your child from school or the bus stop, be sure to find out what question he or she asked in school. Over time, you may find more delight, amusement, and satisfaction in the question than you would in the answer.