Screen Time Is Time Well-Spent

Girl Reading - Charles Edward Peruigini - 1870

Girl Reading – Charles Edward Peruigini – 1870 (Source: Tumblr)

I’ve placed a bibliography on the value of computer games at the end of this article. I will continue to update it past the date of publication.

Yet another fear-mongering article about the brain-damaging effects of computer games is making the rounds of the Internet. The absurdity of its claims reminds me of the Victorian hand-wringing about masturbation – but that at least got us Graham Crackers.

Computer games – like other fun, engaging activities (including sports, sex, and solving jigsaw puzzles) – ping the pleasure centers of the brain, often in ways we do not fully understand. Consequently, most people keep engaging in those activities. Some people find those little dopamine hits addictive, so they cannot self-regulate their exposure to them.  This can be particularly true for some young people, regardless of what they obsess about (be it baseball stats or Torment: Numenera). Regardless of the pleasurable activity, good parenting is teaching your children how to recognize healthy and unhealthy behaviors, regardless of their preferred source of a dopamine fix.

The single fact that a particular activity provides that fix does not make it any more inherently dangerous than other, otherwise-safe activities. Why should throwing a baseball or reading a book be privileged over playing a computer game? I would bet that nearly all of my friends have, on more than one occasion, stayed up hours later than they should have because they wanted to finish a book. Yet we do not talk about the “dangerously addictive” nature of books.

The argument could be made that the substance and quality of books is, on average, better than that of computer games. Since, as I will note below, the caliber of art, storytelling and interactive experiences available through the best of interactive media is exceptional, arguments based on the content of computer games carry little weight. Nonetheless, even if that were not the case and all of the games out there were mindless brain candy, the issue would still be the poor choices consumers of the media make, not the inherent dangers of the medium itself.

For this reason, in our household, we did not limit our son’s “screen time” any more than we censored his books; which is to say, we did not regulate either activity. I did play the games he played, and engaged him in long, thoughtful discussions about their contents. I also read the books he read, and engaged with him in the same kinds of discussions. Many of the things he learned from games would not have come as easily through a different medium. In fact, I cannot imagine a better method than “screen time” for him to have explored many of the things he learned about the larger, adult world when he was a child.

As parents, we did not regulate those “screens” because we saw them as no more dangerous than books. We ignored the panic around the medium because it seemed, and still seems, no more justified than the expert admonitions from previous eras against letting young women read novels. The danger with novels, as with good books and good games of all kinds, is that your child’s curiosity will lead them to dangerous or disagreeable or unfamiliar ideas. Knowing your child’s strengths and limitations, and participating with them in, rather than banning them from, whatever media form they find the most engaging, allows a parent to work with their child to equip them with the skills to navigate those perilous waters.

Whether the topic is the content of the media, or the “addictive” nature of the medium itself, good parenting means knowing what a child needs and working with them within those limitations to help that child achieve the goals that they have set. That may mean teaching them to learn to regulate the pleasure they take in certain pastimes. It may mean recognizing the value of those pastimes, even if they may hold no interest for the parent. It almost certainly means sharing in the child’s own engagement, helping them to place it into a larger context, and helping them make the most of the experience.

Now that we are on the other side of that parenting stage, not only do I think that “screens” are no more “dangerously addictive” than books, I would go so far as to say that – in their potential to stimulate the brain, educate, and convey information – “screens” (PC’s and slates in particular) are better than print books. The issue is not the medium, or the activity; the issue is what content is consumed through that medium, and the degree to which involved parents discuss, analyze, and share in that content with their children.

Using a “screen” a young person can read a book above their reading level, or in another language, thanks to hyperlinked dictionaries. Using a “screen” a young person can learn about economics, politics, history, and military strategy by painstakingly shepherding their society through hours of Civilization (see it in action here). Using a “screen” a child can build a working aqueduct in Minecraft. Using a “screen” a young person can directly engage complex themes of bigotry, religious demagoguery, and political isolationism in the Bioshock series. Using a “screen” a young person can interact with one of the best novels I have ever read or played, Planescape: Torment. Using a “screen” a young person can adventure with their friends through a vast world of rich storytelling in Elder Scrolls Online, or they can travel alone through similarly artful and complex storytelling in the world of Dragon Age.

I’m young enough that – as a child – I engaged in earlier incarnations of all of these activities on a Commodore 64 for thousands of hours, so this generation is certainly not the first to have this opportunity. Nor was I any more adversely affected by those pursuits than my friends who spent hundreds of hours designing D&D campaigns or working on their fastball. I would argue that, to the contrary, the games I played on my PC and online through BBS’s enriched my knowledge base as well as the rigor of my thinking.

Until we have chips in our heads, screens are going to be how we share information and engage with interactive media. Parents would do well to quit obsessing about the perceived evils of the medium and instead learn to take full advantage of it.


For Further Reading

(This Penny Arcade comic is a handy glimpse of what happens when I bring up this topic at dinner parties. )

What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (James Paul Gee –

Good Video Games and Good Learning (James Paul Gee –

Video Games and Learning (Kurt Squire –

Reality is Broken (Jane McGonigal –

Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning (Marc Prensky –

Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (Collins & Halverson –

The Multiplayer Classroom (Lee Sheldon –

Video Games and Learning: Teaching Particaptory Culture and the Digital Age (Kurt Squire – Amazon)

How to Do Things with Videogames (Ian Bogost –

Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Ian Bogost –

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Tom Bissell –

Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (NEA)

To Read or Not To Read (NEA)

Orality and the Work of Walter Ong (Wikipedia)

Oral Tradition – Online Academic Journal

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Why You Want a Surface Pro

Surface Pro Image

Image Courtesy

I was an early adopter of the TabletPC platform.  I was using a slate made by Motion Computing over seven years ago when I taught undergraduate classes.  I used it for my lecture notes, my PowerPoint presentations, and for grading.  The digitizer pen meant I could grade and comment on student papers without ever printing them out – I was able to go completely paperless.  I proclaimed it the “future of computing” – but the rest of the market never caught on.

When the iPad came out, I was thrilled that slate computing might actually come into its own, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen on the iOS platform – the device has far too many limitations.  But Apple did their part, convincing people that they might want real computers they could hold in their hands – even if Apple wasn’t going to be the one to provide them.

Which takes us to Spring, 2013 – a wonderful time when multiple Windows 8 tablets and hybrids are on the market.  I chose the Surface Pro because of the build quality, form factor, gorgeous screen, and digitizer pen.  I would have liked a larger hard drive, more battery life, and a discrete GPU – but I wasn’t going to not get the device that did everything I needed because I was pouting over it not doing everything I wanted.

I’ve used it nearly constantly for three weeks (including one travel week), and had a series of epiphanies as I did so:

I Can Expand the Storage?

The first thing I did when I bought the Surface Pro was put a 64GB SD card in it ($55 at Amazon).  It’s ridiculous to me that this seemed like an amazing luxury, but several generations of iPads had conditioned me to expect to pay an obscene premium for extra storage – and then be stuck with what I had until I bought entirely new hardware.  But the Surface Pro is a real computer.  You need more storage?  Put in a larger SD card.

It’s a Real Operating System?

When I booted it up, I logged on using my Microsoft Windows 8 account (I already used Windows 8 on my home computer), and was pleased to see that a significant number of my settings and preferences were already stored by Microsoft in the cloud.  I then immediately went into Control Panel and tweaked the additional settings specific to the Surface Pro to make them run just the way I like.  After years of dealing with the locked-down architecture of iOS, it felt like coming home to my favorite furniture, after staying in a long series of generic hotels.

I was also able to organize my thousands of files in my familiar folder/directory hierarchy.  I installed Dropbox, pulled everything down (actually, I cheated – I moved them over using the USB 3.0 port (!!!!!) and an external drive, then let Dropbox verify the download), and Voila! – there was everything I had ever written, created, or archived since I was fifteen.  And it was all organized logically and readily accessible.  I could move it, rename it, or drag-and-drop it onto external media connected by – let me say it again – a real, honest-to-goodness, USB 3.0 port.

I could also listen to my music, without having to route it through iTunes.  I have thousands of DRM-free songs purchased legitimately through Amazon.  Moving them, and then listening to them, was as simple as dragging-and-dropping.  I then had my choice of media players (I still use WinAmp), since the Surface Pro runs the full version of Windows 8.

I Can Run Office and Adobe?

Consequently, WinAmp isn’t the only thing the Surface Pro will run.  I immediately installed Office 2013, Adobe CS6, and GIMP (it’s faster than PhotoShop for basic tasks, in my experience).  I use all these programs daily, and there’s nothing on iOS that comes close to their functionality.  They all run BEAUTIFULLY on the Surface, although I highly recommend using the digitizer pen (which is wicked fun, by-the-way) or an external mouse if you want to create images.

The first thing I tried was to bring up one of the standard Excel spreadsheets that I use constantly.  It makes over 50,000 computations and makes extensive use of conditional formatting.  It has never opened correctly (or even in a usable fashion) in any iOS product I have ever used.  Not only did it open more quickly on my Surface Pro than on my laptop, the spreadsheet looked gorgeous and worked perfectly More importantly, I wasn’t just viewing it.  I could edit it just like I could on any other PC.

I Can Run Anything?

Ultimately, that’s the amazing thing about the Surface Pro.  All tablets are excellent for media consumption – and when using the Metro-style, “Windows Store” apps the Surface Pro is every bit as slick as the iPad for this purpose.  But with a single tap, the Surface Pro gives you the option of having all of the functionality of a full computer at your disposal.  The small screen and touch/pen input can sometimes make using the older, legacy PC programs feel a little kludgy – but the fact that you can do it at all on a device the size of a legal pad is a miracle.  Attach a keyboard cover and connect a bluetooth mouse, and the experience becomes just like using any other touch-enabled, fast PC.  The difference is that when you’re done it becomes a slate again.

I put all of my old, familiar utilities and applications on the Surface Pro, and they all run brilliantly.  To give it a fair shake, though, I also purchased a few of the Metro equivalents and did my best to get proficient with the Metro UI.  It took a couple of days, but for many tasks I eventually concluded that the Metro interface is superior, although I still spend nearly all my time on the Desktop view.

“Anything” Includes Games?

I don’t expect a slate to be a gaming powerhouse – yet (but it better be in the next few years or I will be very disappointed), but the integrated Intel HD 4000 chip is actually surprisingly nimble, even on the 1920×1080 Surface Pro screen.  Civilization V (which is now touch-enabled) is unquestionably the killer app for making all of your gamer friends want to go out and buy a Surface Pro yesterday.  It’s one of the greatest games ever made, and playing it – the full version, not “Revolution” (a great game in its own right) – on a slate feels like stepping into an episode of Star Trek.  Minecraft also played brilliantly, albeit with the mouse and keyboard attached.

But, just to reiterate, that is the beauty of the Surface Pro.  Attach the mouse and keyboard, and it becomes a full computer.  Yes, it has a smaller hard drive and a weaker GPU than I would want in an ideal world, but those are small prices to pay considering all of the amazing utility it provides.

I Can Write On It?

No discussion of that utility is complete without mentioning the digitizer pen.  Combined with One Note, the digitizer pen means I can finally stop carrying a legal pad to meetings.  Digital paper is much better than the real thing – it’s automatically backed up, and you can change it to unlined or graph paper with a touch.  Plus, when I played around with it, Windows 8 has surprisingly good and intuitive handwriting recognition.  I would love to see Microsoft replace every textbook and sheet of paper in a high school somewhere with Surface Pros (and train the teachers and students in the full range of their capabilities), just so everyone can see how versatile and convenient the technology is.

In addition, not only can you “write” on the tablet with the digitizer pen, you can also comfortably compose on it with the type cover.  While travelling, I wrote over eight thousand words – using the familiar, comfortable Word interface – in three days.  I was not even a tiny bit slower than I would have been on my computer at home, and I think the touch interface may have meant that I worked perhaps a little bit more quickly.

When I was done working, I closed up the tablet and slid it into its tiny Skooba Tablet Messenger v.3 bag (which I review here – it’s the perfect to go with the Surface Pro), and carted the Surface Pro to my next meeting.  It took up less space and only slightly more weight than the legal pad I would normally have brought – and had nothing approaching the footprint of the laptop I would have needed to create 8,000 words.

In Conclusion

Throughout my trip I just kept staring at my Surface Pro, in awe that something so tiny could do so much.  Most of the reviews I had read prior to my purchase had complained about the things that the Surface Pro can’t do (run for 10 hours on the battery, play Crysis 3 at max settings, float in your hand like a feather, etc.); but I don’t buy technology for what it can’t do.  I buy technology for what it can – and the Surface Pro’s list of things it can do is astonishing.  It runs every Windows productivity app I could throw at it, along with a number of very good games, all in a solid, beautifully engineered, slate form-factor that can be used as a laptop as necessary.  Oh, and you can add any USB-enabled peripheral without any headaches whatsoever, and the HDMI port is in no way proprietary.  That’s enough of a technology miracle for me, at least until next year.

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Student Technology Use

John-Francis when he was 6, learning (in World of Warcraft)


On Wednesday Thom Barclay and I did a presentation at Galloway on how 21st Century Students Use Technology.

The PowerPoint Presentation and all the supporting materials are linked here:

Student Technology Use in the 21st Century

There’s a decent bibliography section on gaming and pedagogy at the end of the page.   Hopefully that will be the topic of a subsequent session.


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