I know what you are thinking. ‘Here comes another anti-videogame message.’ We’ve been hearing it for years. Videogames are damaging our children. They are the reason for all of the corruption. Children have lost their desire for creativity and imagination. Kids are more prone to excessive violence and they now all have ADHD. Videogames are the reason that America is in the sorry state it is in…blah yada blah.
Well if that is where you are thinking this post is going, you are WRONG! If you think that access to videogames is destroying a child’s creativity, I dare you to spend twenty minutes watching an eight or nine-year-old kid play Minecraft. It will BLOW. YOUR. MIND! Seriously, as the father of nine-year-old twins, the volcano-moated fortresses that my children build in that game are amazing! Honestly, they put my old Lego and Lincoln Log creations to shame…but I digress.
Videogames have come a long way from the old Mario and Marble Madness days of the original Nintendo. Games now demand a sense of realism. Game developers have progressed in their ability to immerse a gamer into a story. Don’t believe me? Go and play Last of Us, Mass Effect, Skyward Sword, Skyrim or any of the Uncharted games. Heck, go play Pokemon (although I ABSOLUTELY do not want to hear about what stupid Pokemon you capture, what their weaknesses are, and who they evolve into). The advances in gaming have been seriously amazing and there is no reason to believe that it will be tapering off any time soon.
So…what does this mean for us as writers, especially those of us that shoot for the midgrade audience? Have we lost our target audience forever? Are they drowned in a sea of visual stimulation and mindless button mashing? I say NO! In fact, I shout it from the rooftops!
Why you might ask? What possible reason can this thirty-something aged Clydesdale (that is a triathlon reference for those of you who might be wondering) have for such a response? To answer your unspoken question, I must take you all back with me to my youth and the glory days of the old Nintendo. Remember those fascinating times? Blowing into the cartridges until you were light-headed? Stuffing one game on top of another in the console with the hope that you could find that sweet spot and the screen would stop flashing and the game would fire up? Rage quitting a game by slamming your controller to the floor after reaching the end boss only to die for the last time and be forced to start over?
In those days there were no studies about the effects of prolonged videogame exposure (well, I’m sure there were, but due to a lack of social media, most parents were blissfully unaware of them). The adults in those days discovered one simple thing. Nintendos were built in babysitters! Videogames kept their destructive, attention-craved, overly energetic little boys from leaving Legos all over the floor, coloring on the walls, and beating the stuffing out of any sibling within reach…for hours at a time! It was a wonderful age for both parent and male child (I know there are many female gamers, but lets face it, those early Nintendo games were made for us guys). However, for all of those boy children that grew up on videogames…there were girl children. Girl children that watched as their brothers’ eyes became glued to TV screens and dismissed everything around them. In many cases, those poor siblings became the replacement babysitters and job-doers. They were the children that got things done while their brothers wasted hour after hour in front of the tube, controller in hand, every bit as plugged in as the inanimate console they played.
Well, guess what? Now those sisters are Moms! And you know what else? They don’t want their own kids to follow down the same path as those brothers of old…and they have a strategy. Oh yes, those wily mothers have plotted together and they have come up with ways to keep their children from becoming too entrenched in gaming. Now they even conspire through social media to keep videogames from rotting out the brains of their precious darlings. Pinterest boards and Facebook groups have ended the limitless gaming that the boys of my generation took for granted. Now kids have to work for those precious nuggets of game time. They do jobs, they play outside, they do art projects, they do homework…and they read!!!
Yes, mothers are a bigger advocate for reading than ever before. But…we must accept the fact that videogames have altered the minds of our readers. Kids now have experienced a realism through story telling that didn’t exist before. So, as authors competing for their limited time and attention, we must up our game as well. Now, I am a huge fan of fantasy, and I have often wondered what I could do to hold a child’s interest for prolonged periods of time. What can I do to keep a child reading, even when the sirens call of a videogame beckons?
For me, I have found that the solution lies in the minor details. Often, when a child is telling me what they have found appealing in my book, it turned out to be some minor thing that I considered unimportant at the time. They added a sense of realism for the reader that even videogames couldn’t provide. Simple things such as picking burrs out of socks after beating through the brush, the ache in the back after sitting for a prolonged period of time, or the pain and swelling of feet after a long hike.
The question is, how can we as authors provide those kinds of details to kids? The kind they can’t pick up in the game world. Sure, we can always fall back on research, but I propose a better solution. Experience!!! If we as authors challenge ourselves to try something new, we can use the knowledge and information we’ve gathered in our writing. It was always easy for me to write that my characters were tired after a trying ordeal, but after staggering across the finish-line of a half-marathon or a summersaulting over the finish mat of the Spudman triathlon, I truly knew what exhaustion meant. I now understand how muscles can turn to watery jello and how calves can burn as though you are actually standing in the midst of a fire. I now realize that fleeing from an enemy is more than simply pressing down on the b button for an unending sprint up and over the mountain to the safety of the plains on the other side.
After taking combat classes, I realize that close quarters combat is more than simply throwing a series of punches and blocks. It is all about position, speed, timing, breathing, conditioning, and everything else that can give you an advantage over an enemy. The experiences I gained there were something that made my combat scenes much more realistic and lent a sense of immediacy that had been lacking before.
Now, I am not proposing that we go out and experience everything that we plan to put our characters through. Is your character going to jail? DON’T GO AND GET ARRESTED! Sometimes we need to use our imaginations, and of course, we need to research. But sometimes, a dash of real life experience in an adventure might just be the secret ingredient in the mix to winning the fight for a child’s attention. Whether that battle might be to get our next book onto the bookshelf in the home, or simply to keep our current book in their hands five minutes after a mother calls out those sweet, magical words that nearly every kid longs to hear:
“You can play now!”