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Meaningful Video Games: Teaching Kids Hard Work Through Fun

Growing up, playing video games was the go-to guilty pleasure, the inherent vice that came with the territory of childhood, like McDonald’s for the mind. Parents would let you have your fix, as long as you’ve been good and didn’t act like a strung-out junkie when your time was up. In a way, video games were the ultimate carrot on a stick, the most coveted reward for working hard – in school, at sports, in life in general.

So that’s how I used to think of video games, too – an unhealthy habit I could support through hard work, like a high-functioning addict.

But as you grow up, you start challenging the status quo and its often outdated notions. The notion I first started questioning was Mr. Mackey’s “Drugs are bad, m’kay” mantra, especially when it comes to arguably the most innocent of drugs, video games. Rather than fun, but empty, meaningless dopamine boosts, I saw them for what they truly are – an immersive art form that encompasses all others in a constant dance between purpose, challenge, and reward. And the reward isn’t just some artificial, chemically induced reward that the brain interprets as a real accomplishment. On the contrary, it can not only be a real accomplishment in the case of complicated puzzle games, in which you have to solve full-on conundrums through logic, but in the case of narrative-driven games, something even bigger – meaning, the next chapter of a story you simply have no choice but to see unfold.

Basically, well-thought-out, challenging video games with strong narratives and characters are like interactive books or TV series in which you have to earn each chapter or episode, each gorgeous cutscene and wisdom-studded dialogue, each curve of their turbulent story arcs, or in other words, such video games are a chance to work hard at work worth doing. And probably few kids would find many things more worthy of hard work than video games. Even better, once they learn the value and reward of hard work at something they find worthwhile, they can carry this mentality into other aspects of their lives.

Of course, you can just watch cut-scenes on YouTube, and often that would do the trick, but it;s kind of like someone summarizing a good book – you miss all the beauty between the lines.

I’ve had interactions with a lot of kids when visiting friends and family and I’ve always been very interested to see the video games they play and learn why they play them, what was it that managed to captivate their restless minds, where they struggle. But my magic helping hand would only come whenever I’m completely sure they’ve earned it. (In a way, I see myself as a side character in the game, an NPC they have to appease in order to move forward.)

I’d only help them when I’m sure they’ve really tried their hardest and all they need is just a little nudge to get over the bump. And at first, they’d try their hardest to convince me that there’s no point in trying anymore, like a junkie, trying to convince you to give them money.

They’d say things like “This game is broken,” to which I’d say “Well, it’s fine when I play it.” Then, when they reach their breaking point, all of them try to maintain some illusion of power and superiority by saying something along the lines of “This game sucks, anyway,” the purest form of sour grapes. Then I’d explain to them what my uncle explained to me when I was a kid – that to enjoy a game, you need to become good at it, and to become good at it, you need to try harder.

Even though most of those kids are still too young to play video games with complex, movie-esque storylines or complicated puzzles, children deal with their own fear of missing out (FOMO), and not seeing their avatars’ journeys through is like leaving a birthday party even before the candles have been blown out. Only worse, because they have no parent to be mad at for dragging them away from the fun, so quitting a video game they’ve been enjoying is basically admitting defeat on a very deep, innate level, which they desperately try to mask with misdirected anger.

Considering that PlayStation Worldwide Studios’ boss has said that the PS5 will cement PlayStation’s legacy and essence – narrative-driven games, I can only imagine the interactive works of art we have to look forward to. For many kids, those immersive stories and gorgeous backdrops might be a segue into literature, films, graphic novels, and even their very own real-life narratives that somehow recreate pieces of the wondrous worlds they’ve conquered in PS5. But only if they work hard enough to conquer them in the first place, and continue to do so once the game spills over into the real world.