By mid-1997, over 3.6 million people, myself included, were sitting on the floor or couch, feet away from their television, as they played their Nintendo 64’s. If a game did not allow you and your friend or siblings play simultaneously, then you called ‘dibs’ and waited your turn. You watched someone else playing, but only with the hopes that it was short-lived. Super Mario 64, Wave Race 64, Mario Kart 64, FIFA Soccer 64, Star Fox 64– there’s a trend here… We got to play these games and experience these moments because they helped developed problem solving skills, the concepts of sharing, the ability to censor yourself as you pretend to support the other person not losing as quickly as possible, the simple engineering skills of fixing a cartridge when dog hairs and dust snuck up into them. Twenty years later though, these puzzles, skills, problems, and triumphs have been either outsourced or made more efficient.
In 2016, some of the most popular videos on YouTube are videos, like the Let’s Play videos of others playing through the new, hottest games. Need to know how to defeat a final boss or speed through a Metroid-style puzzle? No problem, just search it on your second-screen experience. Don’t want to even bother beating it yourself? Too much effort, focus, or time needed? That’s no problem either, when Twitch.tv can help you watch it live being accomplished by someone else. We live in a world where adults are trying to outsource and incentivize every aspect of their day-to-day in order to make the most of their lives. This, I get. The scientific and psychological benefits of productivity, efficiency, and all the like have been well researched and proven beneficial to adults. However, with our rapidly growing and intrusive evolution of digital technology– what is the fallout for the youngest generations?
More screen time often means less one-to-one interactions with technology, and more overall observational, spectator style entertainment consumption. Randy Kulman, Ph.D. from the mega-popular Toco Boca company postulates the following reasons, as the top reasons kids watching these type of videos: Skills Boost for beating games, Social Connection for sharing on social media, and Entertainment because the mutual relationship between the creator and consumer enjoying the same product. Are these legitimate enough reason to justify the time and quantity to which kids consume these passive videos?
The youngest generation is becoming a bundle of vicarious schadenfreude. No one can argue that they are not experiencing the world, but the question is how will the develop when the world they experience is intangible? Sure, maybe they watch videos of others digging holes, using power tools, or being soldiers, but where is the physical connection now when you put a shovel, saw, or 747 in their control? Should kids even be worried about efficiency? Is it not the point of childhood to feel like everything takes longer to earn and solve, summers last longer, and saving money for toys takes eternities? When did inefficiency become the abject to pedagogy. We fail to grow, we lose to win, we get things wrong, so we learn how to get them right. We interact with others to learn to share, to communicate, to be let down, to accept things, to consolidate emotions, to reconcile differences between others, and to be able to carry ourselves through into adulthood. Nobody has a YouTube video on How To Do Adulthood (trust me, I checked, and I wouldn’t recommend following the suggestions of any of the most popular videos online).
In a 2013 study published in the journal Cyber-psychology, Patricia Greenfield and her colleagues looked at friends engaged in video chatting, audio chatting and instant messaging. The researchers found that bonding behaviors decreased significantly in all three types of interactions. Greenfield’s research has shown that the constant usage of digital media by adolescents actually significantly decreases their abilities to interact and interpret social cues in one-to-one, physical interactions with others.
As much as all our moms and dads yelled at us for fighting over the Nintendo controllers back in 1997, now twenty years later there is something real and important to be said about that level of bonding and behavioral interaction. As we evolve with digital technology, it only becomes more important to keep these subtle interactions intact; otherwise, the future looks more like dis-associative conversations using only memes and bad sarcasm, less football and more foot problems, and more online dating apps as we all forget how to use time inefficiently for the best of reasons. So this Christmas, buy one controller and a one-player game and make two kids figure out how to play together. Whether it is your child, your nephew, niece, cousin, or your Kevin from down the street who knocks on your door to pet your dog because all the neighbor kids don’t want to play with him. Give kids a reason to figure things out for themselves.