Video-game positives for youth development

Parents, teachers and coaches blame video games for most of society’s ills. This is lazy. Rather than blame video games, we should learn from video-game makers: Obviously, they are doing something right!

In the November 2011 Wired, Chris Hardwick wrote “Self-Help for Nerds,” in which he writes:

“Videogames make you feel like you’re actually doing something. Your brain processes the tiered game achievements as real-life achievements. Every time you get to the next level, hot jets of reward chemical coat your bain in a lathery foam, and it seems like you’re actually accomplishing stuff” (p.159).

This, of course, is the aspect of games that parents, teachers and coaches blame: video-game makers are experts in psychology, and they have created a system that encourages continued participation. If our goal is to create the same type of adherence and dedication to sports teams, academics and/or physical activity, we need to learn from these psychological tricks.

In a typical sports league, does moving from one level to the next produce the same type of chemical reward? Unlikely, as sports leagues are based on age, and children are promoted when they are too old for their present age group. What if a league based promotion on the mastery of certain skills? Would players have more of an incentive to practice and play more? Martial arts use a belt system to create an external reward which fuels internal motivation. Ascending to the next belt classification means learning new skills and refining or perfecting already learned skills. The belt system creates a clear objective for the instructor and the learner. Does the typical youth league have a clear objective? Are the players’ objectives the same as the coach’s?

Hardwick continues:

“This is not all bad news. If you’ve been obsessed with a game, you have already proven to yourself that you have the ability to focus. You know how lion cubs play around and it’s all cute ‘n’ stuff? They’re not playing for the fuck of it. They’re training to eviscerate things professionally later in life. If you’re a gamer, this is what you have been doing. This is the skill set that will help you accomplish most everything you want in life and make you ‘better’ than your peers” (p.159).

Many criticize video games for creating a short attention span in children. However, as Hardwick points out, this is rubbish. Children can concentrate on a video game for hours without interruption. At its extreme, there have been deaths blamed on the person playing the game continually and ignoring basic bodily functions or developing blood clots from sitting in the same position for an extreme amount of time. How do we can reconcile these situations with a short attention span?

The focus with which children possess when playing video games should be the jump-off point in other activities. Again, however, the key is to tap into the psychology and find ways to engage the child in ways that many teachers and coaches fail to do. The Khan Academy uses some of the same psychology in its online teaching. Khan uses a “system of mastery” which is very similar to the levels that make video games addictive.

For coaches and leagues, how can we create the “system of mastery” or levels which engage and motivate players rather than maintaining the status quo, traditionalist teaching and age-based promotions that dominate and often de-motivate?

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

3 thoughts on “Video-game positives for youth development

  • Interesting concept. A local organization (Minnesota Developmental Basketball) publishes some guidelines for skills appropriate at each grade level which I have found helpful. I’ve thought about evaluating these skills in players at the beginning, mid point, and end of the season to provide feedback to them (and, really, feedback on how well I am coaching). But the idea of having martial arts like belts is very interesting. Maybe instead of a belt, the player could be given a different color practice jersey to signify their level. (I thought the 180 Shooter had different shirts based on how far a player has progressed within that program.)

    Adding this element to a typical basketball organization might confound some coaches and really test the focus of the program. I agree this would help with individual skill development. However, if the evaluations took time from normal practices (personally, my organization struggles finding enough court time) coaches might object.

    A couple things with the above post that I disagree with. It seems to imply the only reason people like video games is the sense of accomplishment from attaining different levels. I don’t think it is that cut and dry.

    Also, I would not say that time spent playing a video game is necessarily good training for concentration in other areas of life. When kids are playing video games they are bombarded with stimulation (graphics, music, vibration, etc) that helps keep their attention. Transferring that “skill” to reading a book or taking a test is not easy.

    Thank you Brian for another thought provoking concept!

  • Yes, the 180-Shooter program has 5 levels with corresponding t-shirts for those who move through the different levels.

    I don’t think the sense of accomplishment is the only reason that people play video games. The point is that video-game makers do an exceptional job of using basic motivational theories and psychology to create an environment that retains players. Initially, the video game must be entertaining, interesting, visually-stimulating, etc. However, the retention depends on engagement and adherence to basic psychology. In youth sports, for instance, the engagement and basic psychology of levels and achievement are not enough if the game itself is boring or too complex or uninteresting. For some, as an example, running cross country is boring, and it doesn’t matter if they get a new t-shirt every time that they drop 10 seconds from their time. Also, for some, they love running and need no further motivation. However, the majority of people fall between the two groups. They may try running at some point. They may not love it or hate it. With this group, the psychological ideas employed by game makers may be the difference between retention and quitting or between just doing the activity to get it over with and striving to be good at it.

    I think Hardwick’s point about obsession is about concentration; I think it’s about obsession. If you want to be great at something, it takes obsession. I spoke at some shooting clinics this weekend and explained the difference between being average and being great. To be a great shooter, you have to practice deliberately, and I believe that you have to track your shooting. You don’t see big gains in anything just by showing up. His point is that video gamers understand obsession, and have the ability to do something obsessively, so if they turn that determination to something more profitable or beneficial, they have the capacity to excel. I don’t think he’s drawing a parallel between concentrating on a video game and concentrating on a book. I think he’s drawing a parallel between obsessing on a video game and obsessing on running a company or creating a talk show or being a stand-up comedian, etc.

    I agree about the time constraints with youth programs. However, the flip-side is that if you aren’t measuring the program, how do you know if that time is being used effectively? Is it better to continue running mediocre practices and not “waste” some time with measurements or is it better to “waste” time measuring things to create better practices or training environments? Does it make it harder? Sure. However, what is the goal? If we want to teach our children how to excel, shouldn’t we lead the way with our efforts as coaches?

    Thanks for the thoughts David.

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