Thinking outside the X Box…

Something arrived in my house yesterday. Something shiny. In a box.

An XBox, in fact.

The reason I have let this new, gleaming Pandora’s X Box into my home and opened it (actually, let’s not think too much about opening Pandora’s X box, if that’s OK with you…) is because I was invited along to an superbly organised event hosted by the fabulous ladies at Ladygeek TV, where a group of  ‘influential mums’ from the media, marketing and business, gathered to learn about and then have a go with the latest Xbox Kinect 360, and then let the creators know what we thought of it, in parenting and family terms:
how it might be used to ‘bring the family together’, or educate our children, or cause more arguments than you get at the average family meal time.
Oh, and there was wine. And cake. And more cake. ..

Now, I’m a fairly old-fashioned parent, as you know. I’m all ‘reading, drawing, adventuring, learning, pleases and thank yous, human interaction, respect for others…and When I Tell You To Go To Bed You Bloody Well Go To Bed, You Hear Me??’

And because I’d rather see my children read than play computer games, or make a rocket out of toilet rolls than watch TV, we are a very techno-free house. We HAVE a computer, but almost never use it for playing games. We HAVE a TV, but it’s usually off. We HAVE broadband wireless internet access, but it’s rarely used for anything other than my work. And Facebook. And Twitter. Yes… like I said, for my ‘work’.

 My son plays Olde Worlde Age of Mythology on a computer that’s slower than a pissed slug, but if I’m honest I let him play it because, in a ghastly Mother Educating Her Children By Stealth At Every Opportunity way, I think it teaches him as about Greek legends and strategy just as much as slaughtering small figures in loin cloths with the click of a mouse, so it gets the educational Thumbs Up and ‘is allowed’.

The last computer games I played were Packman and Defender in 1984, on a BBC Micro computer which had a tape player to upload the programme, and a broken space bar.

So modern gaming, with consoles and wavey-abouty control stick thingies and Wiis and poos, is uncharted territory for me and my low-tech family. (OK, not poos. After three babies, poos are very charted territory indeed.)

In 21st Century terms I am, in fact, a gaming virgin.
(Note: this is not the same as a game virgin. Just….so we’re clear on that.)

All of this techno-virginitude may help to explain why I spent the first half an hour at the Xbox event with my mouth open, occasionally pointing limply in the vague direction of the huge TV monitors where various Kinect games were being demonstrated, shaking my head and muttering “But….but….oh my g-….what the….how does that….it’s…..that’s not….I mean…..that’s just unbeLIEvable….”

 And really, it is almost unbelievable. Now rid of the ugly, lounge-cluttering, battery-requiring control stick whatsits, the new version does away with these entirely, and everything is done by sensing your body as you move about in front of the screen, while your on-screen ‘avatar’ copies these movements.

You point your arm….the character before you on the screen points her arm. You jump, she jumps. You take a shot at golf, she takes a shot at golf. You dance badly, she dances badly.

(It took me about thirty seconds to see if when you scratch your bum or feel your boobs, the character does too. I can happily confirm that it does. Joy!)

All in all it’s a bit like those things you saw on Mission Impossible ten years ago and thought, “Yeah, that’ll never happen!”
Well it just did.

Trying out Dance Central

But this extraordinary ability to make a ‘pretend’ you jump and dance and play with her boobs in the virtual world before you, to disappear into a magical, unreal place where the impossible feels freakishly possible and so realistic it feels….well, REAL, is, while undoubtedly impressive and exciting, curiously also what makes it so disturbing and slightly blood-chilling to me.

 I mean why, when we could just as well talk to each other in real life, should we start interacting with one another’s digitally created characters? Why, when we could use our hands and minds to build a space ship out of cardboard and sticky tape, should we stand in front of a screen building a spaceship out of little digital shapes, using arrow keys, menus and delete buttons?

(I’m not actually sure if Microsoft have designed the gripping Build A Spaceship Out Of Little Digital Shapes game yet, but watch out for it at Christmas 2013. It’s going to be huge. Probably.)

And the magical unrealness continues:
Your child’s favourite cuddly toy can be photographed and then made to come alive on the screen, given a character (silly, happy, bouncy, sleepy etc) and then made to run about in the imaginary landscape on the screen.
It all looks amazing, and it IS amazing.

Except that the REAL, soft, smelly, loveable cuddly toy is now slumped and ignored on the sofa. And an animated cuddly toy on the screen is hardly….erm…cuddly is it? (The clue is kind of in the world ‘cuddly’…)

You can play tennis with your family…while standing in your living room barely raising your pulse, leaving the REAL tennis courts, with people to meet and interact with, nets to adjust and balls flying into the neighbouring court and annoying everyone as they do so, standing empty.

You can imagine, create and adventure the most extraordinary things…without setting foot in the imaginary, creative, adventurous, extraordinary world all around us.

The mind-blowing, addictive, fascinating, impressive and in many ways useful (and, yes, educational) aspects of this technology are without question, and the XBox Kinect certainly has its uses:

Family members who live thousands of miles apart can chat on-screen, and even join in the games together, so you can play Dance Central with your Australian cousin even though she’s on the other side of the world. And it’s 3am her time…

We spent a lovely hour together as a family last night, battling it out in the javelin, long jump and tennis – resulting in a smashed light and my husband pulling a muscle in his neck, thanks to a henceforth hidden competitive streak that became unleashed like a crazy animal in the final round – and we all loved it.

All of this is good, and fun. We LIKE FUN.

But the problems I have with this kind of gaming console, whether it be Xbox or Wii or whatever else there is, are three-fold:

Firstly, this kind of ‘being together’ feels awfully like NOT being together, to me.

My husband, children and I were all in the same room, playing the same game, together…but none of us made eye contact ONCE in the entire hour. We talked, played, competed, laughed ourselves silly and had a whale of a time throwing pretend javelins into a pretend crowd…..all the time only ever looking at the screen and talking to each other while pointing at the screen.

That, to me, feels very peculiar and not entirely ‘human’.

The second problem I have is the unavoidably menu-based aspect of computer games which leaves very little scope for genuine creativity. Instead, there are only choices: you can click yes, or no. You can choose from the menu that’s offered to you.
This is sold as encouraging kids to be creative, but to me it’s precisely the opposite.

It has been shown in various bits of research that I’ve written about before and shan’t bore you with again here, that this menu-based method of working can change the way children’s brain’s ‘work’, making them far, far less able to create their own, new ideas; to come up with something genuinely original; to make decisions by themeslves, without being offered a choice.

That is very worrying to me because in life you very often aren’t offered a menu. (Unless you are in restaurant, I guess.) You have to come up with an idea yourself, from your own mind.
You have to THINK!!

Also, the great geniuses and inventors of the world didn’t choose from what others offered them. They thought right outside the (X) box, and came up with something new, ground-breaking and completely original. We need children to have the mental freedom and confidence to do this, by playing with ideas, not menus, as much as possible.

Et voila! A rocket made of boxes, tissue and sticky tape.

Lastly, and this was the point I raised at the Xbox event, there is the issue of HONESTY.

Parents are very sensitive to a product being sold to them as something it’s not, and respond strongly, and usually negatively (ie by closing their wallets), when they think they’re being duped.

‘Fresh’ juices being stored in the fridge, that turn out to be chock full of additives, being one example.
And they respond equally strongly, but positively, to honesty.

The way it works is this: if you tell me your product has got some negative aspects, I want to know this and then be free to make my own decision as to whether I want to buy it for my children or not. I don’t MIND that it’s got good and bad sides. Most things do, and it’s up to me to decided where my limits of Bad lie. But if you try to conceal the bad from me, and wrap it up in marketing spin, I’m put off the product, and the company, for life.

The strongest ‘message’ of the whole Xbox Kinect event this week was togetherness; being connected; the potential for gaming consoles to bring people together, to play and interact with one-another.

And while it DOES undoubtedly do this in certain ways, it also does the opposite, and I felt that I wanted far more honestly about this, and for this to be recognised in some way. For there to be some message from the makers directly to the young, increasingly addicted users that it’s cool to do it for a while, but after an hour you really ought to switch the damned thing off and GO OUTSIDE, SEE SOME REAL PEOPLE AND HAVE SOME REAL EXPERIENCES, DUDES!!

This was a point raised by several other guests at the event, including Justine Roberts from Mumsnet, and it was clearly the aspect that concerned us the most. There is already a ‘time-out’ function, we were told, and this is greatly welcomed. But they can go further in encouraging kids to keep their gaming time limited.

Just as I was leaving, I stopped to watch a three-year-old girl playing one of the games. As I watched her ‘play’ with her on-screen ‘friends’, and select choices of what she would like do with these ‘friends’ from a pre-determined menu, one of the demonstrators explained to me that the wonderful thing about this game was how it teaches children empathy, how to get along with others, and life lessons including friendship, sharing and teamwork.

I was so stunned by this that I literally didn’t know what to say. Was she joking? Was she unaware of the gaping gap in logic of what she just said? Or was she just so professional, and so used to marketing-speak that had forgotten to think whether anything she said made sense?

A child learning empathy from a computer game?
Learning how to get on with others by playing with a digital child?
Getting life lessons… a fake life?
Would it not, I wondered, be better for her to go and play with some other snotty-nosed, toy-grabbing three-year-olds, and learn how to empathise when one of them nicks her best friend’s teddy bear, and how to cope when Little Bastard Johnny whacks you on the head with a car transporter and you can’t delete him, or switch him off??

THAT, is a life lesson.

Oh I don’t know. Maybe I’m just living in the Dark Ages and I need to get wiv da kidz, innit.

I was massively impressed but the Xbox Kinekt, and I know we’ll have hours and hours of fun with it. Together.
But crikey, it’s a strange old world our children are growing up in, and what a huge job we parents have to keep their feet on REAL ground, and to let them learn how the real world works.

So you can imagine how happy I was when I came downstairs this morning and found my son sitting inside the empty cardboard box that had brought the 21st Century gaming world into our lives, drawing on it with felt tips and making a space ship out of it.

Charlie in his X Box box.

That all feels SO much better to me…

4 thoughts on “Thinking outside the X Box…

  1. maltpress

    First up, a disclaimer: I’m not a parent, no-where near being remotely close. I’ve held maybe one or two babies and I think I once spoke to a person under 18 but it was a while ago.

    But I can remember being a child, and growing up with computers and early consoles, and I now have a PS3.

    I think you make some very good points – but I think you can rest assured, too. LIke I said, I grew up around computers, and lots of my childhood memories relate to playing games with friends, which invariably resulted in getting a bit bored with the game and going outside to do other stuff instead. Computers have, if anything, helped with creativity – I can remember making my first programmes on a ZX Spectrum and now I build websites, and I think code is a type of creativity on a par with writing (which I also do) or any other recognised artform. Computers also brought me together with like-minded people who became friends, and in slightly different ways still continue to.

    The thing is, many – most – games, whether console games or boardgames – have rules and narrative and “menus” which restrict the way you play, and of course that’s not as good for creativity as getting in boxes (something I still do at 32, I have to admit) but it’s a necessary evil. Console games – when the kids get a bit older – are increasinly introducing more “free” narrative and consequences based on the decisions you make – LA Noire, for example. Although that kind of game is very much for older teens. But a game like Little Big Planet for the Playstation is utterly beautiful, funny, creative game which – if I ever manage to impregnate some foolish woman with terrible taste in men – my children will be encouraged to play. I think life does have menus in many ways. Work life certainly does. Maybe I’m just cynical. But most media – books, films, music – let you fill in the blanks with imagination but do still present you with a (narrative) framework which is immutable. I think games can be very much like this, and are increasingly becoming more cinematic.

    I think you’re right about the sales patter, too. What’s wrong with “it’s a bit of fun for a couple of hours now and then”? Also they should warn you that your trousers might fall down playing Wii.

  2. lizfraser Post author

    Wow, what a fantastic comment, thank you, and I agree with SO much of it (apart from the terrible taste in men bit, obviously!)
    I used to play a lot of games on computers Way Back When too, and I loved it. And you’re quite right…kids DO self-regulate, and when we got bored we switched it off.
    I just find the new stuff so overwhelming, and the fact that it’s on a HUGE screen and it occupies the entire living room for many people is a little odd for me.
    Some of the games are incredible though – my daughter is playing Kinectimals at this moment, and she’s absolutely entraced. It’s so beautiful, and she’s just in heaven!
    So long as I can get here away from it before 6pm, I’ll be OK…Fat chance though 😉

  3. Sian To

    Great post Liz,
    I guess my house is the polar opposite of yours. A games console in every room and so many objects tugging away at the wifi that i regularly have to move around the house locating them just so that my Twitter stream flows freely (work related obviously).
    Even with this techno loaded house my girls would still rather be outside in the garden or on the trampoline. My 10 year old son…. another thing all together. His very being revolves around when he will next be allowed on his precious xbox and to be honest, it’s bordering on the point of obsession. But he’s a lot like me, so perhaps he is just an obsessive kind of kid and xbox is his thing?
    xbox kinects is amazing. the graphics are out of this world and we too have had some monumental family games of tennis and in moderation, I don’t think it hurts anyone.

    1. lizfraser Post author

      Hiya Sian. Crikey yes..polar opposites! But we’re 100% agreed that there are some incredible things about it, and it’s great, GREAT fun, and there’s absolutely no harrm in it AT ALL. I used to play computers games eg Packman for hours as a kid, but still went outside tons too. Balance etc…..
      Mine are on The XBox now, in fact, giggling and jumping and playing together. Actually, the odd thing is that since writing the blog I’ve got to like the Kinect much more. Maybe I needed a couple of days to get used to the Techno Shock and see how they use it. That often happens with new technology. I feel another blog post coming on!


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