This past week I attended an event peopled mostly by engineers. Many of the engineers were trained as mechanical engineers but now work in companies on the forefront of engineering science– data and software-driven companies.
A topic that came up with several participants was the woeful state of education systems in the US, but not for the standard lament of their failure to properly teach the “STEMs”, but because of how efficient they are at killing creativity and the spirit to tinker, two things every engineer considers to be key to their mindset and personality.
Related to this lament were concerns about young people and screen time. There is a belief, backed by a lot of scientific study, that screen-based activities such as TV, video games and social media, breed passive minds because of their overstimulative effects. These engineers were concerned that many children will miss an opportunity to become creative and mechanically-oriented because their formative childhood years are increasingly dominated by interaction with media that treats them like a malleable consumer rather than a tool-wielding, problem-solving creator.
I share this overall concern, partly based in logic, partly based in my browsing of the scientific literature and partly based off my own personal experience. It has informed how we’ve approached the use of screens in front of our Little Lion– short story, we try hard not to use them at all in his presence, and frequently discuss how our habits and routines will need to change as it gets more and more difficult to use them only in his absence.
However, talking about this with the engineers got me thinking about three people I knew when I was younger who were video game players who all ended up with different life outcomes.
The first person I remember as a video game player growing up spent a lot of time playing games. Most of the times I visited him at his house we’d end up in front of the TV, usually with me watching him play something I didn’t have or that he was better at than me (an archaic form of the “Let’s Play” phenomenon). This went on for multiple video game generations, from the Nintendo SNES to the Nintendo 64. Over the course of our friendship we spent hours accumulating in days in front of the TV, playing games.
We also played outside a lot– handball against his garage door, riding bikes around the neighborhood, meeting up with other kids and hanging out. This friend was in Boy Scouts and was frequently found on camping trips on the weekends. He eventually made Eagle Scout. And he played team sports as a child, mostly soccer, until high school when he became an accomplished water polo player.
The second person I remember did not play many console games when we were younger. He was the first person who introduced me to PC gaming. I distinctly remember the weekend his family purchased an extremely economical “eMachines” brand PC with a Celeron-processor (read: slow) and a copy of the already almost decade-old Civilization II game. We stayed up until 2am, mindlessly punching keys trying to figure out how the game worked, for whatever reason we never thought to try reading the manual even though we were good enough readers to have done that. When we finally figured it out we were so excited we stayed up another 3 hours feverishly playing the game until we were so exhausted we passed out on the floor in the study where the PC was situated.
This person also introduced me to the card game “Magic”, and later in the era of the Xbox and complicated networking technology he was known for hosting Halo LAN-parties where he’d talk several other people into bringing their Xboxes and TV screens to his house where up to 4 supporting 4 players each could be networked together for a raucous neighborhood get together.
We, too, spent a lot of time riding our bikes around town together, he was also a Boy Scout and eventually an Eagle Scout, competed in soccer and other sports while younger and water polo in high school. Throughout his childhood he was extremely mechanical, building and racing offroad RC cars and RC gliders, camping and helping his parents rebuild and maintain an International Harvester Scout truck.
The final person I remember as a gamer growing up probably spent the least time overall playing games of the three, but it was definitely part of his life. I remember the time he brought his SNES over to my house and how jealous I felt seeing all the cool games he had that I did not. We also spent a lot of time riding around the neighborhood on our bikes, but a bit more aimlessly than the other two. With him we’d ride around until we found some mischief to get into, while for the first two bikes were a means of conveyance to other destinations and activities we were into.
He played soccer and basketball as a youngster, and in high school he did some cross country and track before giving up on team sports and, to some extent, giving up on his studies as well.
What happened to these three individuals who all played video games growing up?
The first one graduated high school with an excellent GPA after excelling in our school’s “magnet” math and science program. He was accepted at Stanford where I believe he studied engineering and may have continued playing water polo. He was hired by Accenture, the consulting firm, and I think has had a lucrative and enjoyable career.
The second one also graduated high school with an excellent GPA and also excelled in the school’s math and science program. He was accepted at MIT and studied mechanical engineering. I believe he went into a specialized mechanical field and has also had a productive and enjoyable career so far. Both of these guys are married and have families of their own now.
The third guy was a slightly sadder story. He seemed to burn out before high school ended. I don’t think he ever made it to college and last I had heard, he could be found around the beach on his skateboard with a very long beard and the nickname of “Jesus” because of his appearance. He may have even spent some time in jail for some pretty minor stuff I’d call “mischief” or “bad luck” rather than some kind of anti-social or menace to society kind of antics.
What I find interesting about all of this is that I never would’ve thought of the impact of video game exposure as children to their life outcomes until I had spoken to some of these engineers. Truly, what seemed to be more consistent in terms of impacting the drive and personality of each of these guys was their family lives. The first two guys grew up with siblings, their parents stayed married and they had what I’d call strong family cultures and values, even though they were slightly different from my own.
The third guy was a latchkey kid whose parents stayed together but it seemed like an awkward pairing and he’d regularly ridicule them behind their backs. It’s not clear what values their family had or that they even got through to their son about them.
Early video game exposure didn’t seem to stop the first two guys from having other interests and being mechanical and outdoorsy (Eagle Scouts) nor athletic (water polo, a terribly demanding sport). They seemed to be creative and had strong engineering minds (math and science outperformance) despite the stimulating effects of video games.
I don’t think I’d blame video games for “Jesus’s” life going down the tubes, either. As I mentioned, he played games but probably spent the least time with them. He was a decently intelligent individual and certainly didn’t struggle with math and science as subjects, he just didn’t seem to care much about them, school in general, or even apparently his life.
What I take away from all of this is that video games and screen time may not be “good” for a child’s development and may be distracting or counterproductive in terms of generating a passive vs. active mind and a consumptive vs. productive approach to stimulation. But looking at these anecdotes, it’s hard to draw the conclusion that video games or screen time necessarily would prevent a person from achievement in these areas.
More likely, natural ability mixed with a supportive family environment and complementary family values and lifestyle choices seem much stronger influences over future engineering talent and ability than how much time a child spends with screen-based gadgets.