By Ron Stanley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 22, 2008
My oldest nephew was under strict orders to finish his homework the day before Christmas last year. His two younger siblings -- and their fun but slightly irresponsible uncle -- were under equally strict orders not to distract him.
He had settled down in the living room, effectively making the television and video game console off-limits for the rest of us. To keep his 6-year-old brother, and perhaps myself, from distracting him, I suggested to the younger one that we play up in his room.
He could not find his Nintendo DS, so we were left with his collection of miniature cars, stuffed animals and action figures. What struck me was how much my nephew's play -- when he had no access to a video game -- took on the format and rules of a computer game.
One of the first toys he picked up was a four-inch-high, hard-plastic figure of Venom, Spider-Man's evil doppelganger, with an unusually large head. In reality, maybe it was Baby Venom, or a Venom candy dispenser with an enormous skull to hold the gumballs. In my nephew's imagination, it was the boss of Level 1.
The boss of Level 2 was a six-inch-long version of Anakin Skywalker's landspeeder. In my nephew's hands, it acquired the voice of a heavy-metal singer at the end of a long tour and a tendency to swat smaller vehicles and fling them against the wall like pancakes off the end of a spatula.
Levels and bosses are not only staples of video games, they're almost exclusive to them. They're not found in most board games, card games or sports. They date from the arcade game Street Fighter II, where, after defeating a number of smaller opponents, you had to face one powerful, difficult adversary -- the boss -- to complete each level. Ensuing levels featured greater numbers of opponents and larger, more difficult bosses. Not every video game features levels and bosses, but most combat-oriented ones do.
Our "men" were Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars, divided between us by the age-old practice of you-pick-one, I-pick-one. Some things, at least, had not changed since my boyhood days of playing kickball. But one of the rules -- one frequently seen in first-person shooter video games -- was that we could take only one car at a time from our respective bases.
When my 10-year-old niece joined us, the play took on a new dynamic, one that was also informed by video game conventions. My nephew's soccer trophy became a rolling, flying upgrade center where we could purchase more powerful weapons and equipment for our vehicles and characters. The upgrade center is another common component of computer games, where soldiers can buy more damaging guns, starship pilots can purchase bigger ships, and fantasy warriors can trick themselves out with more effective armor, swords and potions.
The resultant negotiation with my niece and nephew over prices and quantities of ammo reminded me of the "Monty Python" sketch "The Cheese Shop," in which John Cleese attempts to buy various cheeses, and Michael Palin gives different excuses as to why the shop is out of that particular kind. At one point my nephew stated that a particular vehicle would cost my niece "a google million dollars." That's a lot of money, but fortunately my niece was able to hand over the correct amount of invisible cash.
It would be tempting to see something insidious in this, a video game serpent in the Eden of unrestricted child's play. But I don't see that, and part of the reason is that the two days I spent playing with my niece and nephews at my sister's house included many other activities that had nothing to do with video games, some of which would have been familiar to children a generation or even dozens of generations ago.
My niece's weapons purchases at the soccer-trophy upgrade center gradually evolved into an offer to buy my nephew's stuffed animals, most of which were "grumpy" and therefore unavailable for sale that day. There was much arguing over whether this was fair, and tears were narrowly averted, mainly by creating a mountain of animals on the bed and diving on top of them -- like a pile of leaves, only softer.
My nephew's play with his cars and plastic light saber remind me a lot of my own play at his age -- lots of crashes, explosions, skewerings and melodramatic death. The kids love "killing" Uncle Ronnie because I frequently give a performance worthy of the worst-ever production of "Hamlet."
Later on, my niece and younger nephew demanded pony rides, a form of play as old as the domestication of the horse. When Uncle Ronnie became tired, he was sent to his "stable" underneath the card table in the living room. I had used the same table as tent, castle and fort when I was 10. Furniture doesn't get thrown out in my family.
There was no evidence that television and video games had stifled the kids' creativity. Nor was there any evidence that technology had made them smarter than earlier generations. They simply had a different frame of reference, one that included video games and computers as well as ponies, pet stores and sword fights.
Children play with the tools at hand, and they're great at thinking metaphorically -- at imagining that a landspeeder is a sentient robot or that a stick is a gun or that salt-and-pepper shakers are a bride and groom or that a card table is a horse's stable.
They're also geniuses at figuring out simple mechanics. My 6-year-old nephew had to explain to me that miniature low-rider cars don't roll very well on carpet and will flip over more than if racing on hardwood floors. Novice that I was, I was choosing cars that looked the coolest.
And they are geniuses at intuiting rules and systems, and at re-creating these rules and systems in their own play. Children who play lots of card games will invent their own card games. Children who play lots of board games will invent their own board games. And children who play lots of video games will invent their own video-game-like games when they don't have access to the game controllers.
Some people who don't have children might be horrified by the amount of time my niece and nephews spend playing video games. They might raise their eyebrows at the number of product and movie tie-ins mentioned in this article. Let me reassure you that I haven't been paid by any member of the toy industry for this work.
I gave my niece a book by Ursula K. Le Guin for Christmas last year. I bought my younger nephew a set of paints, brushes and wooden initials to paint. They loved their presents.
For my older nephew, the one struggling to finish his homework, I bought a video game.