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?
“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