Journalist and author says digital play is good for kids

toppo bookDo you worry about your kids and video games? They’re playing too much? They’re playing games that aren’t good for them?

Greg Toppo, author of the April book The Game Believes In You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter, says he saw a “real divide” among parents during his researching and writing.

“There were some parents who were, for lack of a better term, living in the ‘80s. They had this understanding of video games as these shadowy pieces of media in an arcade, right alongside pinball – even though it’s right in their living room and even though it looks and smells incredibly different from anything they played as teenagers.

I also saw a lot of parents who get it, who not only understand but also are also taking that next step and playing games with their kids. That’s essential. You can’t stand in the doorway clucking your tongue.”

There are many benefits to video games, says Toppo, whose book explores how games are revolutionizing learning.

Games make players think like scientists, encouraging “systems thinking,” and problem solving. He also points out that games allow us to fail again and again, to make new mistakes, but urging us to keep trying. And what may look like mindless escapism is actually helping cultivate the ability to concentrate.

But what about those shooter games?

Toppo doesn’t dismiss violence or violent acts, but maintains that games are neither good nor bad – they simply reinforce existing values. “I think we have a much higher standard for video games,” he says, noting that we regularly watch football and hockey – two very aggressive activities. But do we tell our children not to watch?

Toppo also explores video games in the classroom, noting that teachers need to embrace the digital world and the best games are ones that allow teacher to adapt them to the lesson at hand. “A 99 cent app can be used and passed around – an easy and inexpensive tool.”

When asked what is the hottest game now in the educational world right now, he said, “There are a million of them.” But one he says is particularly popular is iCivics, a series of games inspired by Sandra Day O’Connor to teach students about democracy. “They’re really good games. You could get off the phone with me and sit and play them for hours. They’re dynamite.”

Toppo’s biggest takeaway from the book?

“I guess I would say, as parents we need to step back and take a breath and think about the ways kids are using media. They are a lot smarter and sophisticated about it than we are. They just need help describing what they’re doing. In a sense, one of the things I wanted to be able to do with this book is translate what’s happening with kids to their parents.”

Toppo says he has done some book readings and nothing makes him happier than when a young person approaches him. “My heart melts – they’ll say, ‘I’m a huge gamer and my mom doesn’t understand.’ What I’m really hoping is that gamers will buy the book and underline the parts they think their parents need to read.”

After reading the book, I came up with 5 Tips for Parents. Toppo agreed with all but one.

1. Play the games your kids are playing.
2. Talk to your kids about the games. Ask what they are getting out of it.
3. Note what kind of gamer you are. Do you take failure in stride? Keep trying? Do you trash talk? Do you ask for help? Your kids take cues from you.
4. Check the rating on the game. It’s there for a reason.
5. Monitor how much time is spent on any kind of screen, video game or otherwise.

Toppo says No. 5 is wrong.

“That’s not the right way to look at it. Even parents who are very sophisticated about this stuff toss around words like ‘screen time’ and they think they’re saying something. I would say ‘screen time’ was a great idea 10 years ago. It’s an antiquated concept.  What matters is what’s on the screen.”

He points to the iPad. “It has real potential to bring parents and little kids close to have really important interactions. To set a timer on that seems silly.”

(For some ideas of what to play, check out the mobile apps in our just-announced Fall 2015 Parents’ Choice Small Screen Awards)