Learning from Video Games to Increase Athletic Engagement

Note: Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Los Angeles Sports & Fitness.

In high school, we played so much basketball that we self-policed the student parking lot so we had courts to use during breaks, lunch and after school, which meant that late-arriving students parked out past a field rather than on the basketball courts next to classrooms. These days, courts often remain vacant during breaks, lunch and after school as this generation engages in different free-time activities.

The childhood obesity epidemic and children’s general physical inactivity are well-documented. Often, we scapegoat technology, and specifically video games and smart phones, for these problems. Adults wonder why a child prefers to play a football game on a video screen rather than playing football.

When I was young, if I did not not have practice, I chose between homework, a limited number of cable television channels, shooting baskets in my front yard by myself or with neighbors or swimming. I shot and played for hours. Of my options, shooting baskets and playing against my neighbors provided the most engaging experience.

Today, video games, social networking, smart phones, texting and more provide more engaging environments. Rather than curse these technological advances, we need to learn from them to figure out why children choose these activities rather than more physical pursuits.

In her paper “Datorspelande som bildning och kultur” (Computer Gaming as Education and Culture), Carin Falkner writes:

“We play in order to distance ourselves from everyday life. Games and playing are not serious and this is the reason we play.”

Sports inherently feature this same distance from everyday life and lack of seriousness,  but we increasingly ignore the playfulness of sports and emphasize the competitiveness. For safety reasons, few parents allow their children to walk to a park or play in the street. Children stay close to or inside their house. To replace spontaneous, neighborhood play, we have created more and more structured sporting opportunities, and we increasingly change our attitude toward youth sports.

Falkner writes about video games and play:

There is a serious content in games and the person playing must disregard the seriousness of the outside world and enter the seriousness of the game…Playing has no serious or externally determined objectives. Playing entails a time of freedom from decision-making, and the decisions which must be made when playing the game involve no risks outside the game

Falkner describes the attraction of games or play, and youth sports feature the same serious content without outside risks. However, as youth sports grow more organized, structured and competitive, they often involve the similar stress and seriousness of everyday live. In studies of children who quit sports, the top reasons reflect an over-seriousness or an inappropriate seriousness for the child’s age and maturity: performance pressure, not enough playing time, boring drills and negative coaching. Children play sports for the friendships, challenge, learning and fun, but organized leagues often ignore, limit or eliminate many of these things.

Video games provide the same engagement that adults received from playing sports without the negatives. When I was young, I never thought about performance pressure, playing time or boring drills because I had nothing better to do. Today, children have something better to do. For today’s children, choices are plentiful.

In an article titled “Engage me or Enrage me,” Mark Prensky compares a child’s life outside the school day (choices) with his school life. He writes:

In school, though, kids don’t have the “don’t buy” option. Rather than being empowered to choose what they want (“Two hundred channels! Products made just for you!”) and to see what interests them (“Log on! The entire world is at your fingertips!”) and to create their own personalized identity (“Download your own ring tone! Fill your iPod with precisely the music you want!”), as they are in the rest of their lives, in school, they must eat what they are served.

Structured, adult-initiated leagues tend to mirror school without its “Don’t buy” option rather than a child’s daily life which is filled with engaging products fighting for one’s interest. Rather than vilify video games, we need to examine our leagues and re-introduce more play for play’s sake.

Because most children have never organized their own games, as they start pee-wee leagues when they are four and have “play dates,” they do not know how to create pickup games. The reason that adults drive by open fields or courts with few if any children engaged in pickup games is because children lack the experience initiating these activities. Their only self-initiated activities are video games, which is part of their appeal.

With younger athletes, leagues should mimic these ideas of play and games rather than creating the over-competitive, pre-professional atmosphere that dominates many leagues and tournaments. Coaches can create an environment of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose, as explained by Dan Pink in Drive. If players feel like they have some control (the don’t buy option); feel as though they are learning new things and improving (like ascending levels in a video game); and feel like the practice or drill or team has meaning, they will be motivated to continue.

Video games are naturally autonomous because they are self-initiated; parents do not stand over their sons telling them who to shoot or which way to turn as with many parents and coaches in sports leagues. Children can choose when to start and stop. Most games have multiple lives to keep the game moving, and include multiple levels to challenge the gamer. What if coaches asked players to plan practice or drills? What if a coach created skill levels for the players to climb? What if children could decide when to end a drill or practice activity?

The purpose of video games is simple: fun. Gamers play for the challenge, the diversion and the social engagement, the same reasons that many adults played or play sports. To increase physical activity, we need to re-kindle this sense of fun and challenge in our practices. Are players learning new things? Are the skills too simplistic? Sometimes, just re-naming a drill adds to its enjoyment: naming a move after a famous player makes a boring drill into a challenge to be like an NBA star.

We need to remember that winning rarely determines the child’s enjoyment. Children are used to multiple lives; they know they have another game tomorrow or next week. Instead, for most pre-teens, they want to master something new more than they care about winning or losing. Would different skill challenges provide a mastery challenge to engage players?

Finally, children are constantly connected. Sports are a social activity. Many children play sports to be with or make friends. However, many coaches quickly quiet players or squash socializing. I coached with one woman who gave the team ten minutes to stretch at the beginning of practice, and she did not care about the stretching. She used the time as a buffer between life and practice for the players to catch up, gossip and connect before starting practice for real. Is that such a bad thing?

The prevailing sentiment is that today’s youth has a short attention span. However, most acknowledge that these children with short attention spans spend hours in front of a video game without moving, which certainly contradicts the short attention span.

Instead, one might argue that children have a selective attention span, and this is influenced by their techno-savvy and the available choices. To engage children in more physical activity, leagues, coaches and parents should embrace the same characteristics that attract children to video games.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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