This article is part of our ongoing Industry Insights series where parents who work in the video game industry share their personal stories. This entry comes to us from Mike Mika, who is also known as “Donkey Kong Dad” because he hacked the classic arcade game at his daughter’s request so she could play as the female character rather than Mario. Mike is currently the Chief Creative Officer at independent developer, Other Ocean Interactive.
As a volunteer on the tech subcommittee for the PTA at my son’s school, I have come face-to-face with the reality that there continues to be unreasonable fear of “screen time” and its effects on young children. By authorizing the purchase of tablets for kindergarten class, our subcommittee unleashed a firestorm of criticism. During the discussion, while the other members of the PTA debated about whether “screen time is appropriate for kids that young,” I tuned out because I was recollecting the impact of technology and gaming on my life.
Let me back up to 1981. Our school had just acquired two Apple II computers. Ms. Klarich, my third-grade teacher, signed up to have hers be one of the first classrooms to use it. I remember when they brought it in. It looked like something from the future. We all gathered around it, and she walked us through the basics, then we broke out into groups and took turns using it. After we were done and the computer had to go away, Ms. Klarich made a simple statement. “Computers are used for all kinds of things, not just math. People make art and music. They write books with them. Even all of those video games you play are made with them.”
That statement changed my life.
At that time, I had been struggling through math and having a hard time keeping up with my reading. I played a lot of video games and daydreamed about making my own games. I made numerous sequels to my favorite games—all in my head. That is, until my friend Charles brought in some magazines that contained small “programs” we could type in on the Apple. When “run,” they would become actual video games. We begged Ms. Klarich, and she said that we could stay in on recess if we wanted to, but we couldn’t make games during class time.
We’d just secured precious “screen time.”
The first few programs were simple affairs—mostly text games. But we soon discovered how to make graphics and started to understand what the commands actually meant in the programs. It wasn’t long before we started making our own games, with our own graphics, telling our own stories. We even learned how to create our own gravity and how to make balls bounce in a game—all of this in third grade. The more I pored over my programs, the faster I got at reading them. Recess was only 15 to 20 minutes, so I learned to program really quickly. We’d show our teacher, who in turn would encourage us to keep going. She even asked us to go to other classrooms and demonstrate the computer to them. We did, and we got more precious screen time.
Then a funny thing happened. My grades started to go up. At the time, I didn’t realize it. I was too busy obsessing about making games. But through making those games, my reading speed and comprehension went through the roof. Also, I understood some pretty complex math concepts. In fact, I was still struggling, not because of the difficulty of the math requirement, but because I always had a better way to solve the problem, and it was hard for me to articulate it unless I wrote it out in a program.
When the school year ended, so did my screen time, until I was wandering around a department store during the summer while my parents shopped. I happened onto a kiosk with a Commodore 64. The prompt on the screen was like a light to a moth. It simply read “Ready” with a blinking cursor. I tried some of the commands I had learned during the school year, and surprisingly they worked. I started to rush into it, bogarting the machine while I furiously typed in commands. I had gotten pretty used to making games quickly, and my parents took, at minimum, an hour to shop. By the time my father came to get me, I was playing a crude version of the popular game Moon Patrol. I explained to him how I had written it, showed him my code, and told him how I thought I could improve it.
A week later, we had a Commodore 64 at home, and I had all the screen time I could handle.I remember that summer really well. It was filled with BMX biking around the trails by my house, going to see movies, playing basketball, hiking around the woods, and making a Ninja game with my best friend.
Fast forward to the PTA meeting. Despite the research, despite the approvals of parents, despite all else, nothing could convince some of the people in the room. Screen time has become the boogeyman that every uninformed parent can latch on to. Only moments earlier, a parent was talking about how he and his son watch one or more sports games a night on TV. So is screen time really the problem? Or is it just screen time parents don’t understand?
The truth is, this generation of children will never experience the same childhood we had. They have been born into a world of tablets and screens. It doesn’t mean they will be shut-ins or introverts.
I’d like to think we are over those old-school notions. My wife and I do limit our children’s screen time. Like anything else they enjoy, screen time is something they’d indulge in all the time if they could. But we don’t prohibit it or misunderstand it. Like my third-grade teacher and my parents, we think the best thing you can do is understand it.