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 – Amazon.com)

Good Video Games and Good Learning (James Paul Gee – Amazon.com)

Video Games and Learning (Kurt Squire – Amazon.com)

Reality is Broken (Jane McGonigal – Amazon.com)

Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning (Marc Prensky – Amazon.com)

Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (Collins & Halverson – Amazon.com)

The Multiplayer Classroom (Lee Sheldon – Amazon.com)

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

How to Do Things with Videogames (Ian Bogost – Amazon.com)

Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Ian Bogost – Amazon.com)

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Tom Bissell – Amazon.com)

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 I Won’t Be Reading Go Set a Watchman

Sue Travis Villines in the 1940's.

Sue Travis Villines in the 1940’s.

No book has influenced me more, or meant more to me, than To Kill a Mockingbird. The person of Atticus Finch significantly shaped my character, my parenting, and my sense of what it means to be a progressive, Southern man. He is my favorite fictional hero, above even Moses, Noah, and Job (all of whom I like a lot, for various reasons). I don’t say that lightly. I cherish the stories of our faith, and my call to proclaim them, but To Kill a Mockingbird is also scripture for me.

The “for me” is significant. I have read more sophisticated books, more eloquent books, and even more profound books. To Kill a Mockingbird, however, is the only book I have ever encountered that completely captures the South and the Southerners I know and love. Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly, Anne Rivers Siddons’ Downtown, and anything by Lewis Grizzard or Celestine Sibley all have special places in my heart for the different ways in which they tell parts of the story of what it means to be a Southerner. To Kill A Mockingbird, though, is the ethnography of my tribe.

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. - 1920's

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr., seated on his front porch – 1920’s

If you want to know me, you have to know my family, and if you want to know them, read To Kill a Mockingbird. My Great-Grandma Lizzie Dale Sanders Travis never left the house between Memorial and Labor Day without white gloves on. She also never had fewer than twenty people around her supper table on any given night during the Depression, because she made sure that no one she met went hungry just because times were lean. If you want to know Miss Lizzie, get to know Miss Maudie Atkinson. My Grandpa, Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. earned a law degree while fighting in three wars over 26 years, and always scored expert with his rifle qualification. Having risen from Private to Lieutenant Colonel, Grandpa Al retired from the service and then traveled both the urban and the rural South working for five different Presidents. He wanted to make sure that those without means had access to Medicaid, because he remembered what it was like to grow up dirt poor in rural Tennessee. If you want to know Colonel Villines, get to know Atticus Finch. My Grandma, Sue Travis Villines could ride a horse, milk a cow, and shoot a marble (or a basketball) as well or better than any boy on the farm. She went on to be a corporate vice president in the sixties, and she stood up for her LGBT friends when the Southern Baptist Convention turned on them like a brood of vipers. Everyone was welcome at her table, and she created a home for everyone who needed one, even those whose own people had cast them out. If you want to know Grandma Sue, then get to know Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of my family.

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. - 1940's

Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. – 1940’s

It is also the story of my greatest fictional hero – Atticus Finch. When I was a teenager, my greatest hero – my Dad – once said to me, “Son, there are very few people in this world who – no matter what they say – you know they are always speaking the truth. Try to become that kind of man.” When I opened the covers of To Kill a Mockingbird, I met a man just like that. In a scene perfectly captured in the movie, the courtroom gallery stands as Atticus passes, and Reverend Sykes solemnly intones “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” It was in that moment that I finally had an iconic image of the character and integrity that I hoped would define my life. Earlier in the book, Atticus explains to his brother Jack, “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake.  But don’t make a production of it.  Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.” It was there that I finally found a literary model for how I had been raised, and how I planned to raise my own child. Years later, when I stood before the judgment of a rural Southern congregation and proclaimed the good news that the gospel included LGBT people, I pictured my grandfather and Atticus standing in the great cloud of witnesses whose wreath I sought to earn. When I found myself at 3 a.m. holding a sick child, answering his questions and telling him of our love, I knew that it was also my father’s arms, my grandmother’s arms, and even the arms of Atticus Finch that held him – because I had learned how to love my son from studying their love.

There is something fetid and rotten in our culture that cannot abide virtuous icons like Atticus or my grandmother. We turn our heroes into anti-heroes. We deny their nobility and valor, claiming that we are making them more “complex” or more “real.” What we actually mean is that we have given up on the possibility of true virtue and integrity, excusing them from high standards so that we may exculpate our own lack of extraordinary moral character. Dethroning our heroes is a way to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our willingness to settle for the petty, shallow venality of choosing comfort and expedience over anachronistic concepts like idealism and honor. If heroes cannot be real, then “reality” is a place for mediocrity.

I do not want to succumb to that pessimism. Nor will I surrender my own need for real heroes because an increasingly crass and vulgar culture does not want to see their own reflection in the mirror that saints and stalwarts hold to our failed choices. To let go of those exemplars would be to tell a lie, because even if Atticus Finch never walked the Earth, I knew his touch in the hands of those who raised me. Atticus Finch is not just an archetype to me, he’s the literary incarnation of the strong, courageous, wise, honest, loving Southern men and women who have made me who I am, and who continue to challenge me to be more. I understand why amoral publishers, eager to make a quick buck off a fickle public’s need for salacious gossip, would want Atticus Finch to be less, but I want no part in it. I don’t need to know the adolescent, first-draft sketch of man who reinforces my worst fears about my own hypocrisy. I want to know the man who reminds us of what humanity can be when we are at our best. That is the “reality” whose “complexity” is worth exploring.

Sue Travis Villines and RC Burt - 1931

Sue Travis Villines and RC Burt – 1931

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On the Banning of Books

Nazi Book Burning

Source: http://totallyhistory.com/nazi-book-burnings/

I mock and vilify all sorts of attitudes and behaviors here. I dislike unregulated capitalism (and I’m not terribly fond of the regulated kind). I have a low tolerance for people who confuse superstitious ignorance for religious faith. I am intolerant of those who allow bigotry and intentional ignorance to perpetuate the marginalization of people who live on the margins because of their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

But the most deserving target of my pure, undiluted wrath are those pedantic and parochial morons who – because of the narrowness of their own pathetic, underfed, and feeble intellects – withhold books from those children who wish to read them.

And yes, I am looking at you, Randolph County, North Carolina.

I am also looking at you, “Parents Action League of Annoka-Hennepin

Shame on you all.

To quote José Martí:

Asesino alevoso, enemigo del pueblo, y digno del escarnio de todos los hombres es todo aquél que, con el pretexto de guiar a las generaciones futuras, les enseña un sistema aislado de doctrinas y les musita al oído, en lugar del mensaje dulce del amor, el evangelio bárbaro del odio.

Treacherous assassins, enemies of the people, and worthy of everyone’s ridicule are those who, under the pretext of guiding future generations, teach them an isolated system of doctrines and whisper in their ear (instead of the sweet message of love) the barbarous gospel of hate.

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Why I Loved Avatar

Avatar Movie Poster

“I thought the cinematography was breathtaking, but the story was weak and derivative.”  That seems to be the consensus critique of James Cameron’s Avatar.  I think this critique misses two key points about storytelling.  One:  movies are not novels.  Two:  great storytelling is not necessarily about having an original plot.

For the record, I’m a word guy.  I love novels, and will often read a couple in any given week.  I also love movies and television shows that replicate the sophisticated wordplay of good novels.  Atticus Finch’s closing argument, Lorelei Gilmore’s run-on pop culture references, Will Hunting’s dressing down of a pretentious grad student, Malcolm Reynolds’ pithy observations about life on the lam, Hynkels closing monologue in The Great Dictator – I can think of countless moments on large and small screens that have rivaled the awe I have experienced and the brilliant craftsmanship of a thought-provoking novelist.

Words, however, are not the only way for a moviemaker to tell a story.  The clever minds at Monty Python built a creative empire by creating visuals whose humor actually undermined the words of the narrator.  In his “Man with no Name” trilogy, Sergio Leone allowed the landscape and the wrinkles at the corner of Clint Eastwood’s eyes to carry forward the story.  Michael Winterbottom’s controversial 9 Songs told the story of a relationship almost entirely through the two characters’ body language and sex life.

Music, landscape, movement, expression are all part of the filmmaker’s palette.  In Avatar, James Cameron has chosen to tell a story by creating a fully-immersive, coherent world.  For fans of science fiction, that alone is a huge gift.  Unlike books in the genre, science fiction movies only use as much pseudo-science as is necessary to tell their traditional stories in non-traditional settings.

The most successful science fiction movies make this clear.  George Lucas recreated World War II in space, even though dogfighting makes no sense in zero-gravity.  Gene Rodenberry wanted us to focus more on ethnic, class, and religious conflicts than on the fact that a “universal translator” is an impossibility.  The Wachowski brothers could not have asked their questions about identity and reality if they had allowed physicists to ask basic questions about the efficiency of using human beings as batteries.

In other words, if we look too closely at the world in which a typical science fiction movie is set, the story actually gets derailed.  In Avatar, the world is the story.  The ecology of Pandora is supposed to be completely real and breathtakingly alien.  Its humanoid and non-humanoid characters are familiar enough that we can predict their behavior, yet foreign enough that we can watch them in wonder.  Along with Jake Sully, we fall in love with Pandora – and along with him we feel it viscerally when greed and ignorance wound her.

The dialogue is secondary.  Even the specifics of the plot are secondary, most especially when they are obviously silly (unobtanium?  really?) or contrived (the only place you can get the rare ore is where the Na’vi live?  really?).  The story of Avatar is Pandora, and the way in which it swiftly and completely becomes our world too.

The plot that draws us into that world is hardly original, especially since it is a true story that residents of the Amazon would gladly tell us they are living out every day.  This is not the unpardonable sin some of Avatar’s detractors would have us believe it to be.  Some brilliant stories are completely derivative.  The story of star-crossed lovers preceded Romeo and Juliet by hundreds of years.  Surely Homer would recognize the plot of Oh Brother!.

Some stories are worth telling in new ways, so that new generations can hear them in their own language.  We can never be reminded too often that there are people and places with truths we might not understand.  We must constantly re-teach ourselves that power and selfishness can blind us to the destruction we wreak in our arrogance and greed

Quibble all you like about gravity inconsistencies and weak dialogue, James Cameron has crafted perhaps the most internally-consistent, immersive, extra-terrestrial world ever brought to life on the large screen.  In so doing, he has made the atrocities of ethnocentric consumerism real in a way that a cleverly contrived plot alone would not have.  For threats of mass destruction or genocide to be real to us, they must threaten our home.  This is why the apocalyptic scenes of Terminator are so much more terrifying than the destruction of Alderaan in A New Hope.

Avatar tells us how an alien land can become our home, and it does so by making Pandora our world, causing us to feel her wounds, and cheer at her defense.  James Cameron did not accomplish this with brilliant writing or an innovative story, he did it by making even the tiniest details of Pandora as real and vibrant as possible.  It works, spectacularly.

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Favorite Quotes

Guttenberg Bible - 1 JohnI’ve kept a text file of favorite quotes on my PC since 1993. I’ve added surprisingly few quotes to the list in the ensuing years, but here they are:

Asesino alevoso, enemigo del pueblo, y digno del escarnio de todos los hombres es todo aquél que, con el pretexto de guiar a las generaciones futuras, les enseña un sistema aislado de doctrinas y les musita al oído, en lugar del mensaje dulce del amor, el evangelio bárbaro del odio.

-José Martí
(1853-1895)

Treacherous assassins, enemies of the people, and worthy of everyone’s ridicule are those who, under the pretext of guiding future generations, teach them an isolated system of doctrines and whisper in their ear (instead of the sweet message of love) the barbarous gospel of hate.

-José Martí
(1853-1895)

You can’t step into the same river twice.
– Heraclitus

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead. His eyes are closed.
-Albert Einstein

Posterity, you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in heaven that ever I took half the pains to preserve it.
-John Adams

On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question — is it politic? Vanity asks the question — is it popular? Conscience asks the question — is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, not polite, not popular — but one must take it because it’s right.
– Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
given at the National Cathedral, Washington D.C.
March 31, 1968.

America was a great force in the world, with immense prestige, long before we became a great military power. That power has come to us and we cannot renounce it, but neither can we afford to forget that the real constructive force in the world comes not from bombs, but from imaginative ideas, warm sympathies, and a generous spirit. These are qualities that cannot be manufactured by specialists in public relations. They are the natural qualities of a people pursuing decency and human dignity in its own undertaking without arrogance or hostility or delusions of superiority toward others; a people whose ideals for others are firmly rooted in the realities of the society we have built for ourselves.

Robert F. Kennedy,
Indiana University,
Bloomington, Indiana,
April 24, 1968

It doesn’t require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.
– Samuel Adams

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
– Margaret Mead

“Let them call me a rebel and I welcome it, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of demons were I to make a whore of my soul.”
-Thomas Paine

“Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
-Albert Einstein (1875-1955)

“That action injured you and saved me. I will not forget it.”
– LCDR Data to CDR Riker – “The Measure of a Man”

My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I shall attack.
– Marshall Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929)

There are 10 kinds of people, the ones that get binary and the ones that don’t.

“Bitterness is like drinking a cup of poison and then waiting for the other person to die.”
– Nelson Mandela

“The best portion of a good man’s life – his little nameless acts of kindness and love.”
– William Wordsworth

“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us “universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
– Albert Einstein

All that is gold does not glitter,
not all those who wander are lost;
the old that is strong does not wither,
deep roots are not reached by the frost.
– J. R. R. Tolkien

Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
– G.K. Chesterton

“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.” – Lloyd Dobler
Say Anything

“Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and not concerned about the city government that damns the soul, the economic conditions that corrupt the soul, the slum conditions, the social evils that cripple the soul, is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.
-CS Lewis

“Our scientific powers have outrun our spiritual powers. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.”
-Carl Sagan

Yes…..you go down a dark hallway alone and I’ll wait here in a dark room alone.”
-Daniel Jackson
The Tomb

The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.
-Arthur Schopenhauer

A Bureaucrat is the most despicable of men, though he is needed as vultures are needed, but one hardly admires vultures whom Bureaucrats so strangely resemble. I have yet to meet a Bureaucrat who was not petty, dull, almost witless, crafty or stupid, an oppressor or a thief, a holder of little authority in which he delights, as a boy delights in possessing a vicious dog. Who can trust such creatures?
-Cicero

But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
-Thomas Jefferson,
Notes on Virginia

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
-George Bernard Shaw

What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.
-C.S. Lewis

If you can’t take a bloody nose, then maybe you ought to go back home and crawl under your bed. It’s not safe out here. It is wondrous…with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.
-Q (Star Trek, Q Who?)

“Men stumble over the truth from time to time, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”
-Winston Churchill

” ‘Master, what’s this I hear? Who can they be, These people so distraught with grief?’ … And he replied: ‘The dismal company of wretched spirits thus finds their reward due Whose lives knew neither praise nor infamy; … Who against God rebelled not, nor to Him Were faithful, but to self alone were true.’ “
-Dante, The Inferno

“By living, no—more—by dying and being damned to hell doth a man become a theologian, not by knowing, reading, or speculation.”
-Martin Luther

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
-Martin Luther King Jr.
Strength to Love, 1963

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
– Blaise Pascal

I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature.”
– Thomas Jefferson

They washed up the dishes and went to bed. In bed, they made love. Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new. When it was made, they lay in each others’s arms, holding love, asleep.
– Ursula K. LeGuinn
The Lathe of Heaven

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