I find myself saying “the real world” a lot when I’m trying to differentiate video games from the rest of life. It’s something I’m trying to train myself out of, because there’s no such thing as a fake world.
True, everyone knows what we’re talking about when we make the distinction between the real world and the virtual. It’s not like there isn’t a difference between playing outside and playing on the PS4. But the key is just that—it’s different! Not fake. And difference doesn’t mean better or worse, just…different.
Real Memories, Not Fake
I’m 25 years old. I remember tape players and floppy discs, but I never didn’t have a computer in my home. Many of my formative experiences happened online, and those experiences are just as real to me as the forest I grew up in; just as nostalgic, as important, and as meaningful. I remember collecting pumpkins in the online game World of Warcraft while petting the cat and relaxing on a rainy day. I remember gathering around the computer with my brother and sister to brainstorm solutions to Myst puzzles. I remember the blog my best friends and I set up when Simone—who now works at Pixelkin—moved away for two years. And I remember that blog with the same fondness I feel for the attic where we hung out when she still lived nearby. It’s a bit of a blow when these memories are written off as “fake,” or somehow less genuine. It tells me there’s a culture divide happening, and it’s a very generational one.
Kids growing up now are even more immersed in the digital world, with tablets, smartphones, and soon probably virtual reality and wearable technology. This may strike fear into the hearts of some, and understandably so. This is an entire world—multiple worlds, even—that we may not have access to, and even if we do, we may not engage with those worlds in the same way that kids do. Screentime is sort of a buzzword these days because it’s something every parent contends with, and nobody really knows what the fallout will be. At the very least we can agree that it’s pretty important to find a balance.
But I want to reiterate—screentime isn’t just an exercise in frittering away time (and eyesight, and posture). It’s just a different format for interacting with a very real world. The people we interact with on Twitter are real people. The magic we wield in an online fantasy game isn’t real magic, but the project management skill, teamwork ability, and fun we have certainly is. Visiting an artist’s website isn’t the same as visiting a gallery down the street, but the art is real art, and the inspiration and delight we can glean from the experience is very real. It’s easy from the outside to see motionless teenagers staring into the ether with their shoulders hunched over a smart phone screen. In reality (yes, reality), there can be entire universes of people and feelings and learning experiences occurring.
Real Physical Issues, Not Fake
So, on to the differences. Some are health related. Staring at computers all day isn’t great for your eyes. We tend to adopt terrible posture despite our best intentions. Repetitive motion injuries are not uncommon in people who do anything for long periods of time, and that includes gaming and typing and texting. And then there’s all the things we aren’t doing while we’re looking at screens: running around, absorbing sunlight, exercising our muscles. Then again, chances are if kids are on a computer, they aren’t getting into skateboard accidents or hit in the head with a ball. They aren’t struggling with allergies or mosquitoes or coyotes. I don’t want to insinuate that the world is a terrible place that should be feared, just that there’s a trade-off there that is often ignored.
Other differences include the types of things we can experience. The virtual world contains a wealth of information and opportunity that you’d be hard-pressed to access at a whim if you didn’t have screens. A teenager can go on YouTube and learn how to play guitar, build a rocket, do calculus, or practice safe sex at a tap of the finger. But that wealth an only be accessed through a couple of senses—so far, anyway, we can’t smell or taste or touch the internet. You can learn a lot about moss online, but it’s also pretty cool to squish it in your fingers and examine the bugs that live there.
Real Social Concerns, Not Fake
Socially, the internet is something of a miracle. I can ask my friends for advice or a listening ear or share a funny picture at any time of night. Living alone, that’s almost a necessity. But if I didn’t also see them in person frequently, I would most definitely get lonely. I would miss having a shoulder to cry on or the joy of sharing laughter. And for kids who are still learning social skills, it’s essential to practice them in all modes of life—online and off.
And then there are the more negative aspects of socializing. Some common issues that come up a lot with parents are stranger danger and cyberbullying. The central fear here is that anyone can do anything on the internet with near impunity. Our legal system hasn’t really caught up with the technology and the special problems caused by anonymity. Kids may be talking with predators unknowingly, or they may be being harassed by “anons” who have anything but their best interests at heart. It’s a vast world that we have little control over. Kids have access to a lot more people than they might in school or on the playground.
This is a big deal! I don’t want to minimize the potential risks. I would like to discuss how kids see these risks, and how the “real world” vs. “fake world” analogy makes the situation worse.
“Help, I’m being cyber-bullied” is a joke that teens make. A lot of kids don’t see cyberbullying as a legitimate thing. Not because people can’t be awful online, but because people can be awful anywhere. The difference between cyberbullying and bullying is simply where it’s happening, not what’s happening. Cyber bullies aren’t some magical mysterious entities—they’re just people. Don’t teach kids how to cope with cyber bullies. Teach them how to cope with people—often other kids—who are lashing out and harassing others.
Stranger danger is a whole other issue, of course. Predators use the internet just as the rest of us do, and online games are no exception (though numbers are vastly smaller than many people assume). The key here is to remind kids that any time anyone makes them feel uncomfortable, it’s not okay. It doesn’t matter if it’s a stranger in the park or a stranger in a game. In fact, the time it’s most important to speak up is when it’s a person they know well—teachers, family, and neighbors are not exempt from this rule. The best defense against predatory behavior is to give kids the tools to combat it effectively, whether it’s online or off.
It’s All Real
In summary? Kids take their online lives very seriously, as they should. Virtual worlds are a part of our lives, and teaching kids to healthily navigate those worlds is essential to their well-being. Don’t misunderstand me: taking part in the physical world is equally important. There’s a balance that might be difficult to find, and kids might need help discovering that balance. But the way to go about it is to acknowledge that while the physical world is incredible, virtual worlds are real and important and positive too. Asking a kid “why don’t you go play in the real world” holds little meaning when they already are playing in the real world. It’s simply that their (and our) reality encompasses more than ever before.