Video games vs books vs kick the can

I get a lot of emails from people who want me to link to their stuff. You’d be surprised how much of it I click on. Just to see. I am always scared I’ll miss something good. I often get emails from this place that specializes in making graphic representations of stuff. The company is great at knowing what people want to read about. They recently sent me one about video game addiction, which I care about because in our house we have unlimited video games.

The graphic is a predictable bunch of data, about how boys are going to hell—addicted to video games, low SAT scores, high levels of Adderal prescriptions, blah blah. But there was one slide that blew me away. This one, up top. It shows that as video game time skyrocketed, the amount of time kids read books has remained largely the same.

The idea that if you took away Minecraft kids would read more books is just wrong. Kids are reading plenty of books. They are just playing cool games during downtime instead of playing kick the can. There are phenomenal explanations from professor of literacy Brian Cambourne to show how natural learning is endemic to the process of playing video games. He argues that it’s so easy to engage in natural learning with video games that it behooves teachers to start using them throughout the school day.

Linguist and literacy maven James Paul Gee writes stuff that’s hard to read but easy to find inspiring, like, that children need a “multimodal principal for learning, which means knowledge is built up through various modalities like images, text, symbols and sound.” This is what the intelligentsia spew when they want to let their kids play video games all day.

But what about kick the can? I want to tell you about kick the can when I was growing up. It was torture. It was cliquey, and the older kids were constantly making out when they were supposed to be looking for an opportunity to kick. It was embarrassing to find them. Later, it was exciting to be them. But my point is that I’m pretty sure I would have felt safer and more engaged if I had been playing a video game. Not that there were any games that interested girls when I was a kid.

All this makes me happy because I get very nervous letting my kids have unlimited video game time. It’s nice to know that the links about the perils of video game addiction are actually soothing to my parental guilt.


23 replies
  1. Debt Free Teen
    Debt Free Teen says:

    This is very interesting. I didn’t play a lot of video games growing up. Myy mom made us do a one for one. One hour reading meant one hour of video games. It worked out pretty well but it was a lot of work for her to keep track of.

    At one point she gave us tokens for 1/2 hour of video games. That was good too but the best was the summer when she gave us unlimited “creative” time on the computer. I was 14 and I built my first website!

  2. Gwen Nicodemus
    Gwen Nicodemus says:

    My son is dyslexic.

    I let him play a lot of computer games. (There are limits. Sometimes seeing him playing makes me batty and I make him get up and do something else.)

    He gets more reading done playing games than he does reading with me. And he enjoys it more.

    His latest favorite is Kingdom of Loathing,, which is a text-based adventure game. KoL is all about reading, and he loves it.

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      My son went to a computer “daycamp”/class and learned about KOL.

      That class was an eleven year-old’s paradise: a dozen boys, all his age (all into the same kind of games) and an instructor between college semesters (so — young and hip). There was no curriculum, no grades, no homework. They talked about and learned the things that interested them.

      If all school could be that way, he would re-enroll.

  3. Bec Oakley
    Bec Oakley says:

    God I love it when you do posts that reassure me it’s okay that my kids spend all their time playing video games. Although I think that term is really underselling what they’re doing. It sounds so old-school now, like they’re sitting there putting quarters into a tabletop arcade version of Space Invaders.

    They’re inventing worlds and solving problems, reading about physics so they can make the game more fun, sketching out designs on graph paper, testing their models using the scientific method, coming up with business plans for the apps they want to create and sell. It’s so much more than a game.

    So why do I keep needing to be reassured that this type of learning is okay?

    • Danielle
      Danielle says:

      Mothers since time immemorial have needed reassurance – no matter what their kids were doing…. My mother needed assurance that all the time I spent wandering around the garden singing about love (at the age of 6) was not psychosis. My husband’s mother needed assurance that the hours on end every day that he spent staring at the male and female reproductive parts of plants was not obsessive behaviour. The reassurance stretches all the way back to Eve.

      Nobody else knows our kids like us and nobody else can tell us what is good for them. I am sick and tired of people telling me that video games are bad for kids when my son has learned to read, write and understand the nuances of human behaviour better through gaming than he ever learned from school. I also know when it is too much (that is the point where he starts peeing his pants because he is so absorbed in the game that he forgets about the world).

      Right now we are at my mother’s house in Australia with limited internet, but she has cable TV. And I can tell you, watching inane and often psychotic cartoons on TV is a bazillion times more mindless than playing Minecraft.

      Can’t wait to get back to the video games.

      • Bec Oakley
        Bec Oakley says:

        This is a really good point. You know who doesn’t need reassurance though? The parents of kids who spend all their time outdoors.

        As a kid, for three years I spent every afternoon sitting inside a bush with a family of feral cats. My mother tells me every week that I should give my kids a healthy childhood like I had.

        These kinds of simple comparisons between ‘outdoors’ and ‘video games’ bugs me. Kids in gangs spent all their time outdoors, as do athletes. Resident Evil is a video game, as is Minecraft. A Clockwork Orange is a book that you read, as is Anne of Green Gables. These activities are neither inherently good nor bad, healthy nor unhealthy. So comparing the amount of time kids spend doing them really isn’t saying anything useful. Not to me, anyway.

        • Danielle
          Danielle says:

          LOL do you think we have the SAME mother?
          Anyway, I bet your mother occassionally needed reassurance that you sitting in a bush with a family of feral cats for three years was healthy behaviour :)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Bec, now that you mention it, I do think the term video games is old school.

      Video games = mindless, shoot-em-up. Playing = creative, collaborative. We need a word that means both.

      This reminds me of when I was in college and I learned the power of language. It was in a class about the poem Rape, by Adrienne Rich. (A poem which I came to love so much that I have to link to.) We learned that before there was the word rape as a term associated with sex there was no way for women to describe their experience. Language is empowering. But also, language makes for such interesting change.

      And I feel like we are ready for the change that would come from using a word that is not video games. In fact, I think I will change the name of the category on this blog… I just can’t think of what to change it to.


      • Bec Oakley
        Bec Oakley says:

        Yes, I really feel this too. I think it’s a large part of the reason we feel constantly obliged to justify the time they spend learning in this way – ‘video games’ instantly trivialises it.

        The time is definitely right for some new terminology. E-play?

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        I agree that the “video games” terminology is misleading in the context of homeschooling. You may want to consider “game-based learning” or “educational games” instead.
        I don’t really care for the ‘video’ descriptor for games as it precludes board and card games that may be as educational, engaging and social as those games played on a computer. I think it’s better to use terminology stressing learning and play rather than the technology that’s delivering it.

  4. karelys
    karelys says:

    (Anecdata) My brothers and I grew up in a time and place where video games weren’t available. They read very very VERY little!

    So what about data in that area? what makes kids read and not read? would those kids who read be taken away from books by video games or the kids who don’t read start reading if there were no video games?

  5. Greg
    Greg says:

    There’s a rogue http at the end of the phenomenal explanation link.

    I seriously doubt only 1 out of 10 college students play video games to avoid studying. Maybe the others don’t think games on their mobiles count.

  6. Darlene
    Darlene says:

    I just finished the chapter on video games in the book, BOYS ADRIFT by Dr. Sax.

    It was fairly frightening. The games discussed ranged from fantasy to the over the top kill the cop and prostitute ones.

    I think it is a must read if you are going to have videogames in the house.


  7. Lisa P
    Lisa P says:

    This doesn’t surprise me at all. The activity that has really taken a hit between generations is being outdoors, which I would argue is more important for one’s well-being than any sedentary indoor activity – even reading.

  8. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    After you mentioned the app “Stack the States” a while back I downloaded it for my 9-year-old son. I showed it to him, he played it a little bit, and found it boring because he didn’t know any of the answers. A couple months passed and for some reason he picked it up again, this time with so much enthusiasm that he earned all the states in just a few days. He couldn’t put it down. Well, then my 5-year-old, who could barely read, picked it up, and I was thinking, “oh no, now I will have to read her all the questions — how will I do that while I am driving?” I was also thinking she would tire of it because I thought it was too difficult for her. She could never earn any states because she couldn’t get 60% correct. However, little by little she really took off with it and has actually won several states all on her own. Yes, I helped her read the questions at first, and I help her with the answers, but little by little, she is independently reading the questions, learning the trivia, earning the states and winning the game! She loves it and is so proud of herself. She doesn’t play it all the time and chooses other activities a lot (mostly playing with a rope and talking to her stuffed animals). However, the greatest difficulty I have with her is movies/television. If I would let her, she would sit all day and watch. I don’t suppose there are any studies saying TV is ok? Regarding the question of the outdoors vs. video games, I unfortunately live in an area where the outdoors is difficult to access. Big cities often have a shortage of this, and hot sweltering cities even less. Due to our irrational fear of abduction, its just not an option any more to have kids “go play outside” as my parents always directed, so video games are what we are left with to fill the free time. Times are changing, as they always do, and all we can do jump on board. So I decided to send my son to video game programming camp ( and it was really amazing for him. I haven’t seen him so happy in a long time and he created something he could be proud of. These days video games open the world up so much more than I ever knew and with the right kind of guidance and supervision, they can lead a child to his/her true passion.

  9. James Maher
    James Maher says:

    I played an insane amount of video games growing up, on certain days a significant amount more than the 2009 bar on the chart. My parents, both psychiatrists, had the ‘crazy’ idea that it would be good for me (not to the level that I did play – but they weren’t very good at supervision).

    It harmed me somewhat growing up because of the lack of supervision. I’d skip homework, lose sleep and lack focus in my daily life, etc., but in the long term I think it was very good for me.

    Video games teach problem solving, hand eye coordination, design, and creativity to children. I think the most important thing that they teach though is the idea that there’s an end point and to get there you have to incrementally improve your abilities every day. In my belief, that’s the most important skill for succeeding in life, understanding that goals are reached through small consistent steps and that failure is a part of success.

    Video games taught me how to succeed in sports through constant practice, how to mentally keep myself cool under pressure, and how to deal with addiction (when I realized early in college that I had to stop playing). They taught me that improving and succeeding as an artist was done through improving incrementally everyday. They helped reframe the question in my mind from ‘how do I succeed?’ to ‘It is possible to succeed, I just need to find the path to it through trial and error.’ I get much less discouraged from failing I think because of this.

    I never used to read as a kid, but now reading is my favorite hobby. Not sure if those are related, but I think so.

  10. Judy
    Judy says:

    Nothing makes me happier than when my son says “heading out to play jailbreak!” Reminds me of my own “kick the can” nights, which were some of the most fun of my young life. Strategy, teamwork, driving toward a goal — pretty awesome life skills… (hiding in the dark with friends, nervously awaiting discovery was the real thrill though!).

  11. Tanya Hill
    Tanya Hill says:

    I am going to start my homeschooling for both of my kids in september. My daughter 13, who has a learning disability and my son 07, who has severe adhd and odd. I think its going to be harder than Im bargaining for but its for them! My daughter was in grade 7 this past year and when she brought home her work I was really mad! She had been doing the same work as my son in grade 1 ! The main reason for homeschooling for my son is to keep a closer eye on his meds and he tends to miss a lot of school. He is very smart and is doing ok with his work but when they ask about my kids social aspect of things I reply, ” Its not social to be picked on daily and be in a robotic setting.” They tested my daughter , found she had a grade 3 -4 level ..sooooo..why put her in grade 7?? well it was for the social aspect was their response. Im just getting really frustrated in not being able to have a say whats being done with my kids. Id rather them be at home and be taught the proper way and in a relaxed setting. I have to have the forms in by sept 20th and I have no idea how to fill out curriculum. My sons shouldnt be a problem its my daughters..she had grade 3-4 level and in grade 7, her social studies science was grade 7 and she was actually doing grade one math etc!! what to do ???

  12. Mom Venture
    Mom Venture says:

    Interesting, and you point out some things that I have thought of often when feeling guilty about how much my boys play video games. The thing is, is that even my 5 year old is learning to spell and read while playing minecraft or making games on Sploder. These are the games they play most of the time and they are mind provoking games that they are learning about building things and being creative, and with Minecraft, they interact with other kids their age when we are able to have Xbox live Gold. It’s really kind of cool. My only draw back is that I do have to make sure they get outside for awhile to play too and get their exercise, although, they wrestle around plenty indoors also when they aren’t playing games. What works well for me is to just let them play games after a certain time of day, like around 3 or 4pm and then when their dad gets home from work, they have to stop and play outside for awhile. There are many times that I let them play earlier in the day and for longer periods though when I have things I need to get done, like housework. lol

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. 5 Ways To Get Coverage From Bloggers says:

    […] content that is relevant to their audience. Recently Penelope Trunk wrote a post about kids playing video games versus reading books and shared an infographic type image within the post. The company who made the image had […]

Comments are closed.