They Zap, Crackle and Pop, but Video Games Can Be Powerful Tools for Learning

UPDATED 05/31/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/31/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

Anyone who has ever experienced the din of a video game arcade or stared into the cool green eye of a computer screen has probably wondered what these fascinating, quarter-gulping toys and prodigious new machines are doing to us. Sherry Turkle began to wonder too, in 1976, when she became an assistant professor of sociology at MIT. Previously a strict "humanities type" who had just earned a joint Ph.D. in sociology and psychology from Harvard, Turkle became fascinated by the "computational types" suddenly surrounding her. She had written her doctoral thesis (now an MIT Press paperback, Psychoanalytic Politics: Freud's French Revolution) about the way the acceptance of Freud in the late 1960s had affected French culture. Supported by Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, she began work on The Intimate Machine, a book about "the computer as a carrier of culture." As part of her research, the Boston-based Turkle, 33, studied the impact of video games, particularly on children. She discussed the power and promise of the games with Eric Levin of PEOPLE.

How do you explain the tremendous appeal of video games?

The games coerce your total attention. When you play pinball, you can rest between balls. But with video games the pace and rhythm belong to the machine. And if you break concentration, you can be wiped out in an instant. In that sense, it's like driving a race car. The imperative of total concentration is part of the high. A second aspect is the identification that takes place between the player and the machine. You "become" the machine, or rather it becomes an extension of you. The experience is exhilarating, even ecstatic. Indeed, the integration of mind and body is part of what gives the games a sexually charged feeling.

What impact does this experience have on children?

A significant impact, for sure. Often it can be positive. On one level, the games are a powerful socialization into the computer culture. The kids are learning that computers are something you approach without intimidation, hands first, and take control of. Also, for many children, mastering the games is a way of learning what it feels like to learn.

What do you mean by "learning what it feels like to learn"?

Learning to play a game well means developing strategies for discovering the rules and secrets of the game. When you move to a new game, you bring this decoding skill with you. You've learned something about learning, about how to generalize about one set of experiences and apply that knowledge to another.

Does that mean the games can build confidence?

Yes. There's a point in development beginning, usually, between the ages of 7 and 9 when competency becomes a central issue for kids. Children want to develop and test their skills, mentally and physically. At that point, the games become an important medium for mastery.

Is that preoccupation unhealthy?

It depends on the child. If problems show up, they usually show up a bit later. As adolescence draws near, kids use some sort of microworld—a safe place where peer demands and the complicated issues of puberty can be held at bay a little bit. It might be a world of sports or cars or bicycles or chess—or video games. Most children retreat to these safe places and then they put a toe in the water; they venture out at their own speed. That is really the function of these places. The danger is when the world becomes too frightening and the child doesn't get friendships and the emotional and parental support he needs. Then he can get stuck in the video games, as in any other activity. If that happens, it should signal parents not that the games are bad, but that the child has needs that are not being met.

Do you think efforts in some communities to close arcades or forbid minors to play are misguided?

Yes, they're missing the point. The games are not like a chemical addiction. With heroin, there is no constructive developmental side. Of course, the games don't provide everything. They don't offer the child the sustained fantasy of role playing—like cowboys and Indians does. But children generally seek that out on their own.

Should parents worry about the violent aspects of some of the games?

I have a lot of respect for parents who want their children to play with nonviolent materials. But there is no evidence that children become more prone to violent behavior because of video games. Many of the games involve zapping weird little creatures that make strange noises and do things like turn into flying birds. Children experience this as science fiction, as imaginary and benign. I am very uncomfortable, though, with a game like Missile Command, which simulates nuclear war.

Where are video games headed?

They could go in the direction of greater and more realistic violence. But I hope they will take the opposite route and become more creative and open-ended. I've worked with children using computer systems that let them easily design their own video games. The greatest pleasure quickly becomes the designing of the game, hardly at all the playing of it.

Do boys and girls approach the computer the same way?

They tend to have their own styles. The girls are not as involved in dominating the machine. They're often more experimental, more likely to put a color on the screen, change it, let something emerge. But, like boys, they feel very comfortable with it.

Do you think computers are as full of potential as people are predicting?

Absolutely. In one of my essays I talk about the computer as a Rorschach test. What I mean is, people find different things in it and use different styles of mastering it. That's what's so exciting. You get kids playing with computers who never before thought they could handle anything scientific or mathematical. And the technically minded kids often have their first experience creating something other people find beautiful. Computers can help bridge these competing cultures. To feel afraid of computers in the next decade is to feel afraid of life.

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