PAM: Video games are a common topic of conversation in unschooling circles because, when it comes to questioning conventional advice, this topic is a hot bed of widely varying perspectives. For me, when I find myself in that conundrum, I look to my reality. What does it look like for me, for my kids, for my family?
And with this episode, I’m widening that a bit to ask, what does it look like for other unschooling families? I’ve brought together snippets of podcast conversations with both unschooling parents and with grown unschoolers.
Right now, take a moment, maybe a deep breath or two, to just release any pre-conceived notions or judgments and relax into your curiosity; into beginner’s mind, where you can contemplate the question, ‘What if?’
And first, let’s dive into the topic from the parents’ perspective.
In episode 179, Joan Concilio does a great job unpacking the kinds of questions we ask ourselves when we choose to journey beyond conventional wisdom. Here’s what she shared when I asked her about her experience with video games.
JOAN: So, I guess I would say and I’m trying to think of the best way to kind of get into this. Our family has always been into gaming. Now, it wasn’t always video gaming. I was a classic Nintendo person growing up, I love that. I have capped out at 2D though. I remember going and playing some video game in the arcade where you have to walk diagonally over a bridge in 3D to go into the building to kill zombies. I died every time because I fell off the bridge. I didn’t get to the zombies because again no physical sense to me. So, I was like, ‘OK that’s not for me.’ Still love classic Mario on my phone, it’s great but so we were a gaming family for a long time. We did Wii sports together. I definitely was early adopter for cell phones so I was using them at work a lot. You know we just were into things like that. I was doing computer things. I was working primarily online at one point I had a full-time work for a while. So that stuff was always just around us as part of what we did. We play board games too.
So, for us to sort of look at those things and say, “What are the things around this that are arbitrary?” And that was kind of a step as we started to kind of unpack things because we definitely were all into them. And I think we even realized pretty early on that these were totally learning tools. We were learning things. I was learning things. Well, I think early on we still had some really arbitrary restrictions like, “Well, you can’t play a game for more than an hour on the Wii.” Then it was, “Well, you can’t play any games that have shooting in them.” And what we ended up with there was we really started to unpack these ideas and we’re like, “What is it that we’re trying to get out of it? What was our goal there?” And our goal was, “Well we want you to be doing things that we feel are productive.” It’s like, “Well. Wait a minute.” So, it’s OK for me to sit around and play Candy Crush on my phone for a half hour in the morning instead of getting out of bed. But what I want you to be doing something productive 24/7.
And also, who am I to judge what’s productive or not? So, you start to ask yourself this question.
And it was weird things that kind of came up out of videogames naturally, stuff that just evolved for us that made us sort of not just feel OK with it, not just feeling like arbitrary restrictions were wrong or that we were just pretty OK with most games. It wasn’t just stuff like that.
It was when we started to realize that these were not just a thing that we allowed but there was an actual tangible benefit in our family.
I will say the biggest thing that tripped us on that in terms of like a light bulb going on. Ashar really got into the Assassin’s Creed series which is, you’re an assassin and you travel through time and you get to save people and kill people and you explore these places. And there were things that would come up like you explain this thing and this kid in the game basically turns to the other kid they’re like looking at a display in a museum and it’s like a helmet with horns and the one kids says, “Oh it’s a Viking helmet.” And then the other kid turns to the game and says Vikings didn’t wear helmets like that, that’s such myth. And we went and looked that up and it totally was like a two-day thing of us finding out. But most Vikings didn’t wear helmets with horns on them. I grew up thinking that. That’s what you see. Those are Vikings. We spent so much time going from that to what did Vikings wear? Who were the Vikings? Where did they come from? What’s that culture like? You start go down these rabbit trails and it’s not the game by itself right?
The game by itself was just this the entry point into that.
There are games that are designed to be educational but I always said math with robots is still math. You have a kid who really hates math and then you gussied up with some robots. You know it’s not going to do it for them. But there are cool games that are legitimately by themselves educational. There’s the dragon box app which is actually algebra. There is an algebra version and geometry version but it absolutely plays like a game and it’s it doesn’t beat you over the head with now look you’ve done distributive property in an algebra.
So, things like that are good and they help but they’re part of a context. What did you see here? What is that? What can we explore? One of the newer Assassin’s Creed has this mode that you don’t even go through and kill people or anything. It’s an exploratory thing. You can walk inside actual replicas of the Sphinx and the great pyramids in Egypt and it tells you all this stuff like this is where the tomb was and this river.
So, you get to see these things and again the benefit to that. So, that’s cool on its own but where we really got benefit from that was not just we’re going to park Ash in front of the TV for eight hours and be like, “Here, go at it, we don’t care.” It was engaging with him and saying look I see you’re really interested in this, tell me about what you’re doing here. He would be like, “I’m exploring this house because I need to find this person. But the house is full of artifacts from different archeological expeditions and this is what’s here and what does that say about that suit of armor? He’d go read it and we’d talk about it and so it was really a chance for us to have something that he really enjoyed.
There’s a chance for us to connect and to just put some topics in his path. This is a really cool thing to dive into more. But that only happens with that connection.
If you are just kind of ignoring your kids and your just hands off and you’re saying no to whatever. That’s not the same thing. And we eventually realized that many of the things that are considered school subjects we were seeing them being covered through video games down to Wii sports as Phys Ed. Ashar was doing more activity through Wii sports than any of the family had done for months.
PAM: I loved hearing how Joan unpacked her concerns around gaming and discovered how rich they’ve been for learning! Her experience leads us to wonder, ‘What if video games can be a window to the world?’
Keep that in mind as we listen to this story from Sylvia Woodman from episode 109.
SYLVIA: My son Harry loves video games. If we had to describe what we were doing with curriculum, his curriculum is video games. For many months he was very absorbed in the world of Fallout 4, which is one of these post-nuclear apocalypse terrains. And there are missions, but there’s also a sandbox kind of feature where you can kind of do your own thing. But the story line is sort of like, “What if World War II had gone the other way? What if we were the ones that had gotten the nuclear bomb and things had fallen apart?” And people are scavenging, and there’s radiation. But also, what if time had sort of stopped then?
So, one of—and this is like a kind of very minor detail of the game—is that there is a radio station and you can turn the station and there’s different music. And most of the music is from the 30’s and the 40’s. And my son became really enamored with big band music. And his favorite song on the playlist was ‘Anything Goes.’ So naturally, I said to him, “Oh! Do you know that that’s actually a musical?” And then we were driving around town, and it turns out that one of the local high schools—that was their spring play. So, then I said, “Oh! Do you want to go see Anything Goes?” And then it turns out that one of his friends from karate is playing in the pit band. Oh! Okay. So, we got tickets, and we went.
And I thought, “Okay, well, we’ll go. I don’t know if they’ll like it. Maybe we’ll leave at intermission.” Because Anything Goes is like the finale to the first act. So, I thought, “Well, we’ll go. We’ll see Anything Goes. We’ll say hi to his friend in the pit. And then we’ll go home.” But they were totally involved in the story. They wanted to stay for the second act. And they loved it. And they had such a good time. And so that was sort of an unexpected turn from playing video games. Not everybody would make the connection that, “Oh, if my kid plays video games, we might get to go see musical theater.”
PAM: I love hearing stories about how video games have led to so many other things! And the music connection is one that most of us don’t think of, certainly at first.
In episode 134, Virginia Warren shares her epiphany around the breadth of the video game experience when I asked her to share her perspective on video games.
VIRGINIA: Well, my husband and I both have loved video games since we were children. We are a little early on that, but we both not only grew up loving video games and playing video games as much as we could, we both became computer professionals. So, I don’t work outside of the home anymore, but my husband goes to work all day and works on computers and comes home and plays on computers and everyone in my family likes games.
My older daughter, gaming is definitely her main interest. My younger daughter loves games, but it’s not her primary interest and when she chooses a game it is more about who she gets to play with than what game it is. It is more of a social experience for her. And she spends a lot of time doing digital art also, and analog art.
And here is a specific story. Lydia, my older daughter, is very into Pokémon and the amount that she knows about the Pokémon universe, the Pokémon themselves, the lands, the history of the company, Gamefreak, and the creator of the original Pokémon game and how he used to catch bugs in Japan when he was five—I like to say that her knowledge of Pokémon is not encyclopedic, rather it is Pokedextrous.
Pokémon hit in 1996 when I was, let’s see I was four years out of high school, when I was 22. I did not get into Pokémon when it first came around. If I had been a kid when Pokémon came around, I feel pretty sure it would have been my favorite thing in the world, but it was not something I was into, it was not something that I knew anything about, it was the type of game I really liked anymore and there was still a part of me inside that, at the same time I was going, “Wow, I cannot believe how much she knows about this topic, how deep her interest is, how firmly lodged in her mind all of these facts are,” but I still had this snotty part of me that was like, ‘I wish that she would be interested in something “real.”’
And I was having this crappy thought one day, and I don’t know why it was any different than it ever is, but I was finally able to perceive the fact that that interest, Pokémon IS real, it employs thousands of people, it creatively fulfills artists and musicians and computer programmers and writers who create it. It is a work of art, it creates jobs, tons of people make money, tons of people have fun. Even if there was nothing else good about it than all the pleasure that it has brought to people, it would still be wondrous, and it has done so much more and that is just one game.
PAM: I love that! Video games really are a window to so many things in the world.
Now let’s go way back to episode 8, the second Q&A round table, and a concern I’ve seen expressed pretty regularly over the years. Here’s the question we received from Jamie:
PAM: “I have been getting the message that if I continue letting my kids play video games as much as they like then they won’t have any imagination or they will lose their creativity. Where is the proof?”
I’ll start with this one because I do not, I was just curious, the question is where is the proof that they will be losing their creativity and imaginations. Well I do not agree that they will be and I certainly do not see any proof of that in my own children. If anything, it was just fodder for all their creativity and imaginations. I think if you flip it, though, maybe, the people that she is talking to think they too are seeing proof of it in their own children because their children may be using video games and TV and stuff more as an escape from all the expectations and things that they have to do with their days. So, they are using it to zone out so they may look like kind of their turning off or their losing their imaginations and everything when they are playing, from that perspective. But that is not the mind set that unschooling kids bring to those activities.
ANNA: I think that that is a really important point and I think that is kind of where people see, they think they are looking at the same thing but it is really so different. Because what we call (is really what you said) like I saw them engrossed in video games and television and then you would see how it would just, this rich play would develop from that. Outside, other places, in their writing, in things they would be doing, stories they would be telling and it was it really was just fodder. But again they were not needing to escape from a difficult day at school or from other things like that. Which, you know, I have been known to use t.v. for that. I love watching TV. And it is kind of a time of quite for me, you know I am just sitting, I do not have any responsibilities, I am engrossed in the story. So I felt like my kids used it very differently than even I did, but yes. I thought that was an interesting point.
ANNE: I have never been anything but in complete awe watching my children play video games. And if anyone took the time to nurture and encourage their child’s interest in video games and jump in and talk to them about it, look at the magazines with them about it, listen to their victory stories and their frustration stories, you know they would also walk away just feeling completely impressed with their brains. I bring that up all the time. Being a library director, I get parents dropping comments about stuff. There was child in yesterday with a hand-held and the mother said something about you know how he should put it away and everything. And I just always say, I am so impressed with a child’s brain that they can do what they are doing on these games. That is one way that I always looked at it.
The whole proof thing (like you were saying) I am not sure if she is just looking for proof that it was deteriorating (the creativity and imagination) or looking for proof that it was not. The thing, there is no proof in anything besides what we see and feel in our own children. That comes from a place of trust and getting, being involved in their amazing passion with them and being a part of joy with them. That is how we can see the full richness of it instead of just the outside surface view of it.
Jacob and Sam are 21 and 25 and it is still happening. I mean it has been happening their whole lives and every time they get together it is still their point of connection and they go off in this other world that was just amazing to me when their language and their conversations and everything. And most of all for me it is a beautiful thing to see that this is how they connect to each other even as young adults, it is beautiful.
ANNA: Yes and I have a friend, Pat, that her son is very into video games and Pokémon and things like that. One of the things I love about her is that when (because does this comes up a lot) with people asking you know oh just this focused interest and be it a game or Pokémon, you know she is so excited about it because she has spent that time and has engaged with her child doing that that she just suddenly becomes telling them what an amazing world it is and how complex it is and how it is impossible to remember all the things. But yet these kids know all the different Pokémon and all the different things and her enthusiasm really sets the stage I think. So I think that is a really helpful tool for parents to just realize, share that joy, that your kids have, be involved with it, be able to share it with other people and you will see this kind of huh, you know, from other parents. Gosh I never knew that about it or yeah I never really thought about that piece. So sometimes that is a helpful tool.
PAM: And one other piece that I find really interesting is the idea of creativity too, because creativity is not coming up with random ideas out of nowhere. Creativity is taking in so many things from around you and then finding new connections, finding new ways to look at things. So when they are playing and when they are watching and when they are doing all these things they are bringing in new pieces that are going to be fodder that they can use for their creativity, not dampen it.
ANNE: And because it is coming into themselves, and who they are, it is going to come out as their expression of it. Much of Jacob’s art is inspired by video game art and everything. That is what he always loved first and foremost. So yes, I know no other thing that expands my kid’s imaginations and creativity more than video games.
PAM: So many parents I’ve spoken with have had the same experience: playing video games has been inspiring for their children, in so many ways. I’ve pondered this idea for a while, and I think that maybe we get thrown off because one of the first ways many of us approach learning is to copy things we like. We try to draw like the art we like, write like the stories we like, kids act out the scenes they see etc. So, at first it might look they aren’t being “imaginative.” But really, that’s about learning the foundational skills. That’s about having something concrete to compare our progress to along the way. To guide us. But soon we take off those metaphorical training wheels and games are an amazing playground of inspiration!
Now let’s go episode 68 and my conversation with Teri DeMarco. It’s a wonderful episode focused on technology in general, but I thought I’d pull out our discussion around another concern I see mentioned regularly: a child getting upset when they’re asked to stop playing a video game. So often we’re quick to blame the game, but is that what’s really going on?
TERI: So, I think it was because I was in sales for my career, but, I’m really good at putting myself in other people’s shoes. And I’ve always kind of done that.
I know when I’m in the flow, and I’m doing something—doing research or a task that I particularly enjoy—I bristle at interruptions. Sometimes I’m nice about it, sometimes I’m not nice about it. (laughs) But it doesn’t take much to realize that kids are having the same thing. And I think that it’s even worse if the limits are arbitrarily assigned. “Oh! You’ve had your hour!” Right? So, you know, number one, I never impose a rule on my children that I wouldn’t want imposed on myself. And that’s been a good guide marker for me.
But I also think that, you know, we’ve always had the rule here that when we’re transitioning into something else—like we do have to go to a dentist appointment or go do something—you know, my kids are always allowed to finish what they’re doing before we move. So, it requires me to be a little bit more ahead of the game, like give them a half an hour, 45 minutes notice, that we have something coming up. But we always have given them the respect to say, “Hey, finish what you’re doing.” So, they can finish the game, they can finish the project, they can finish the call, whatever it might be. And we’re pretty flexible with that. So, we tend not to see a lot of anger coming off when we do have to come off. But we also, our kids really manage their own time on computers. So at least I understand where that comes from.
But again, I think this comes back to deschooling, right? You know, really thinking about, instead of just assuming. Like, I think the only people who might say, “Hey, my kid’s addicted to this,” are people who already have issues with the use of technology in their house. And I think that, again, we chatted about it before, but if I have an agenda or if I have an energy about the use of technology, my kids feel it, and I don’t have to say a word, but they get it, right? So, I think we have to own our own energy.
But you know, the values in our society are about balance and moderation, and technology generally, when you see it used by kids, is not that, right? They tend to deep-dive and are very happy and joyful. So, I think that for those of us that were brought up with balance and moderation as kind of a family value, we get uncomfortable with excess. You know, excess in anything. Excess in food, excess in joy, you know, when kids are too happy? I think people get uncomfortable sometimes. And I think kids are just trying to figure out, they always want to come to the stasis of joy, or happiness. And they’ll get there, sometimes even they’ll force themselves there, because they always seem to want to get to that equilibrium. And if we just let them get there, they chill out. They relax a lot.
PAM: That’s a cool way to look at it. Yeah, that’s true. And when you think about it too, because technology—there was a couple of things—because technology is so new to us, even, as adults—we didn’t grow up with it—we can even take those messages around us of balance and fear of too much technology and slam ourselves with it too, right?
Part of this, at least part of it for me, was first coming to terms with it in my own use, and realizing no, I’m choosing this because I’m getting A, B, C, D out of it, and this is what I’m doing.
And the other piece is, when we talked about screen time in general, how that is composed of so many different things, is also realizing that okay, yeah, you could say “screen time” and you could say “hours” but I was communicating on my phone—so I was texting with my kids, because my kids are older—and maybe I was watching a DVD for some research, and looking up recipes on the computer. Like, we’re using it now for so many different things that that’s one of the challenges of putting it all under this misnomer of “screen time,” because then all of a sudden it looks powerful, rather than taking a moment to actually dive in and recognize all the multiple ways that we’re using different technology.
TERI: Well right, and I think, you know, I don’t see this maybe much in the unschooling space, but in the conventional world where parents are sitting on their computer and yet telling their kids they can only use an hour.
And I think that that’s disingenuous, right? We shouldn’t have double standards. That if I truly have an issue with my children using technology, then I should really be owning how much I’m using it. But I also think that greatness comes from passion, right? And I’ve met people through my husband —and because I think he works in his passion, and he has many friends who also are somewhat passionate about what they do—and they all tend to excel at the things that they’re passionate about.
I think greatness comes from passion. And passion in general, when you meet someone who has had great success or is very passionate, they rarely have balance. You know, you don’t see, like, Michael Jordan, you know, basketball player. I doubt he had a lot of balance in his life, right? Or a lot of moderation. From what Carol Dweck says in her book, he practiced basketball all the time.
And I see that with Ed. He codes a lot, he’s on the computer a lot, it’s just what he does. But he’s really good at what he does. And I think that when I’ve met people—musicians who are really good at what they do—they play their instrument a lot. So, if my children are going to be really good at technology or really good at researching and learning from technology, then they’re probably going to spend a bunch of time on it. And it’s important to respect it. Because in disrespecting it, you then end up sending the message that you disrespect the child. And I think that’s not worthwhile in any family, but certainly not in unschooling families.
PAM: Yeah, and over the years I’ve never found balance to be something that was really useful as a goal, because balance seemed to be a framework I was trying to put on top of myself or my kids.
TERI: Yeah, it tamps down joy, right?
PAM: Yeah, exactly. If we did, instead, follow our joy, oh my gosh! Everything was always so much better. We were so much more engaged, we were just having so much more fun, and trying to put balance on top of that just really screwed it all up. And that’s why I ended up calling my website Living Joyfully—not Living Balanced Lives.
PAM: It’s such a wonderful mindset shift when we realize that our children are people too and being interrupted can be frustrating. Especially when we’re in the flow and engaged in our passionate interest.
Now let’s shift and hear from some grown unschoolers about their experience with video games.
First, let’s visit with Xander MacSwan. Xander left school in the 5th grade when his parents—both education professors—decided the best thing they could do was pull their kids out of school and start unschooling. I asked how his passion for gaming developed.
XANDER: For me, there are two big things that made me go, “Wow!” when I discovered gaming. One part of it was influenced from family. My cousins on my mom’s side were really big video gamers. They are between five and ten years older than me and, in my eyes, they were the coolest people that could walk the earth!
When they would visit, we would play together on our computers, whether it was Warcraft 3 or sometimes my cousin would let me play Ratchet & Clank on his PS2. So, there was this social element that these amazing people were showing me this really beautiful and artistic world that I could dive into and it was initially this social experience of getting to play.
At first, I thought of it as a board game that was just so three-dimensional. There was so much complexity and depth that I was diving into and I was collaboratively engaging with these people that I really admired. So that was a huge component for me and that continued to be an emphasis on how I engaged with gaming throughout my life, with that social component.
The other piece of it I want to elaborate more on is a lot of that growth process, especially right around the age where I left school, I think maybe age ten through 15 or 16, is this intense period of trial and error of seeing what it looks like to go into this strange circumstance and how that reacts. To someone of that age in particular, video games are this incredible opportunity because they offer this expansive set of possibilities that you could explore.
A lot of these games—I don’t know how many listeners have played video games before so I will go a little bit basic—but a lot of games there’s an avatar in the game representing you and there is a powerful state of immersion where while you are playing the game, in your head, you’re not necessarily thinking that you are looking at a screen making dots fly across, you are that character.
Often, there can be a similar experience if you’re reading a really good book because you kind of become that character. There is a similar growth and for me when I was a kid, reading stories, a lot of it was, “Oh my gosh! What that would feel like to be this character in this book on this adventure!” The feeling of this growth and feeling of the archetype and seeing what happens.
Video games introduce this whole new element to that where not only are you experiencing this incredible story from a first-person perspective, you are also making the choices about where the story goes. You get to choose for yourself what the most creative thing you can think of to do and you get to see what the results of that are. I want to clarify that there is sometimes more to it.
So, let’s say I’m in a game and it’s some kind of combat game. It’s not necessarily that I am playing with the possibility of fighting some guy on the street and seeing how that turns out for me and then applying that to fighting someone in real life. I think, more meaningfully, it’s seeing which parts of myself I want to dive into and explore, which parts of myself I want to grow, which aspects of that archetype of a hero and which parts of their story and pain I can really relate with and how that all feels.
I think that supports, especially, emotional growth. Understanding what it means to be a human being, to be living all of these stories through all of these eyes in rapid succession.
PAM: Especially replaying the same game. I know my son would talk about doing something different—different way of playthroughs and making different choices like taking on different personas, trying them on seeing what happens to them through the same kind of story but seeing how it plays out differently.
PAM: It’s a wonderful way to just explore. Like you were talking about exploring within the game and exploring all the different perspectives that you can play through the different player’s perspectives, your playthrough with a different mindset. It’s even like exploring that mindset for yourself. “I want to play this like, ‘if I thought I was going to be a superhero, what choices would I make here?’ ‘If I thought I wanted to become the villain, what choices would I make?’”
It’s just so in-depth!
XANDER: It’s so powerful and I really want to reiterate that, especially in a good game, one of the things that me and my brother liked doing, who also was into video games, was to go through a story as the hero and experience the conflict from that perspective and be trying to make these morally righteous choices and savoring it when it helped the world.
Then we would finish the game and go back through it from the villain’s perspective or play as the bad guy. In a good game, it’ll really be apparent that you’ll have the same sense of immersion as that villain, but you’ll be experiencing all of the pain the villain is in that leads to these harmful choices that the villain is making. It’s a really broad understanding of conflict as a whole.
PAM: I love that because a well-drawn, well-created villain believes he’s the hero of his story.
As you said, it’s very complex, there’s all these things going on and there’s such a way to realize that our perspective isn’t the only one. What a way to explore that even in our conversations and engagements with other people, that they have different perspectives. That brings it home so clearly, doesn’t it?
XANDER: Yeah, I think one of the really powerful things about video games is being able to take what is usually a linear storyline and pull it apart to this hyper complex sphere of conflicts and sub-stories and look at it from all different angles and get to just really experience that story as an example of what it means to be human.
PAM: Later in our conversation, I asked Xander about things he’s learned through gaming that continue to be relevant in his life now. What threads does he see now as he looks back?
XANDER: One of the big ones for me is something that we’ve already talked about and that’s conflict and perspective. Today, I work as a mediator and I work with conflict and emotional wellness and do restorative justice work.
I think a lot of that was the same consciousness as being able to look into this really delicate connection between two humans and see both perspectives and value the needs expressed by the actions of each person. It’s so similar to what I got to engage with as a kid, seeing stories play out from two different perspectives and getting to put myself in the shoes of both the villain and the hero.
So, that was a really huge one. Also, I think the love for adventure and independence. I noticed I was so happy in games where I got to carry almost nothing with me. I was so fascinated with the concept that this person could have enough food for a few days. If I break down what’s happening in reality as an adventure going forward, this person had a backpack with some stuff—a few possessions, a little bit of food, and they just go. If I ignore the parts about fighting goblins, that core component of this person looking for adventure, not needing anything but themselves and what they have and going and finding the biggest, meaningful, sense of purpose and contributing to the world that they can with whatever they can bring—was so cool.
I went on this long adventure as I was coming into adulthood and now I really love minimalism—it’s mostly a way of engaging with environmentalism. I love trying to see how much I can contribute to the world with as little as I have. So, it’s one of the subtle things that came for me and that love for exploration and adventure and looking for ways to help people.
In my life, I ended up going on a little bit of an unconventional route, which actually is conventional for unschoolers! I skipped college and I work in an unusual job and I spend slightly more time volunteering than I spend working professionally. A lot of that comes from the part of myself that I got to express through video games, of being really committed to helping people and having the most important thing be a sense of purpose and contribution.
PAM: Xander’s story and how he sees his passion for gaming growing up weaving into his life now is so interesting, isn’t it?
And along that vein, I wanted to share this insight from Max VerNooy in episode 159. Max grew up unschooling and is now a full-time karate instructor. We were talking about how we learn so much about ourselves through following our passions and he spoke about how much he learned through as a teen through his passion for gaming.
MAX: I’m going to sidetrack away from karate for a little bit. When I was a teenager, I played a lot of this online game called Final Fantasy 11. It was a huge part of my life, to the point that I played it almost like a part time job, and I got very involved in the end game, the highest level of content in the game. Eventually I grew to be a guild leader of the link shell in that game, which is basically the guild system instead of what World of Warcraft and other games have.
Leading that group and organizing these events and planning times for them and running and managing people—all those were skills that I didn’t really think about as I was going through it. And all the things I ended up doing in that game, as a leader, ended up transferring very nicely into my role as a karate instructor now. And those were skills that I didn’t think about at the time, but that really shaped and let me become who I wanted to be. I wanted to be a leader, I wanted to be in charge, and I wanted to run things, and that was a great way to see how that developed.
PAM: I love the thread Max drew from being a guild leader in an online gaming to being a karate instructor!
Now let’s hear from Alec Traaseth, episode 141, about where his passion for gaming has led him. I asked about his interests growing up.
ALEC: I was always focused on one thing at a time, and when we started unschooling that for me was basically gaming. So I grew up gaming a lot, And as soon as I had the freedom to, I did that a lot.
And a lot of people look at that and say, “I can’t believe your childhood was mostly gaming.” And aside from that, I also loved to play the drums, I loved music, but gaming really was the main big interest for me. And I think the main reason for that was that it provided a challenge for me. I sought out games that challenged me, that made me think. Basically, puzzles to solve, right?
And that kind of ties into my eventual interest in math, but I was turned off from math at a very young age because I was forced to learn it in this way, and it did not happen naturally. It was this artificial construct that was being shoved in my face: “It works this way because I tell you it works this way!” And I wasn’t looking at it as a puzzle. But video games at the time where they were puzzles, challenges, things for me to solve.
I was never one to get into sports. I was never one to challenge myself physically. Even when I’m drumming, that’s like the physical limitation. I don’t want to put in the physical work to play faster, because I like challenges in my head with the more technical aspects of it.
So, I loved being challenged mentally, being challenged by basically anything, so video games were the best way for me to do that. Reading books—that was too passive for me. Watching television, which I enjoyed, I didn’t do it much because it didn’t engage me. I wasn’t the one making the decisions. I wasn’t the one solving the problems. And so, that was a very formative thing for me, even though video games get a very, very bad rap in a lot of circles. I think that’s improving. I think people are seeing that it’s really just a book that has a higher level of interaction and challenge at times. But…
PAM: Yeah, I think that would be a great thing that you mentioned to speak to a little bit is, because that is what I remember seeing with my eldest son too. I remember having video game discussions with your mom many years ago.
ALEC: Yeah I remember, I played some video games with him once when we saw each other. I think Halo or something…
PAM: Oh yeah, that’s right too!
That’s the joy, right? There’s so much analytical thinking, like you talked about. Puzzles, and the mental challenge of figuring things out, whether it’s math, arithmetic on the fly, figuring out levels and hit points and all that kind of stuff! But the actual analytical thinking that takes place just to figure out the puzzle, even if it’s not a literal puzzle in the game, but the puzzle of how to get from one thing to the next, go from level to level, there’s really so much learning in there, isn’t there?
ALEC: Yep, and that’s something that is lost on a lot of critics of video games, I think. And when I say I grew up playing a lot of video games, people are like, “Oh, that’s what unschooling is, huh, you just play video games,” but it’s not JUST playing video games.
PAM: That’s something that we talk about so much, or that we suggest, is try playing yourself!
ALEC: Oh yeah yeah yeah! And my dad does that. He likes a game called Snewd, which is where you’re shooting little things up and making things match, almost like a Bejeweled type of thing. And like, I can’t play those, I can’t play games like that, because they are kind of just mindless relaxation. And he admits it, and it’s cool; it’s cool to have a mindless outlet like that. If I had been doing games like that all day when I was growing up, I would have been bored out of my mind.
PAM: You wouldn’t have chosen that—that’s the whole idea, right? Being free to choose what you’re doing. People think, ‘If the kids are just free to choose, they are just going to choose mindless activities. They won’t challenge themselves, they won’t choose things that take the mind to the edge of their processing capabilities, push them further.’ Even if it’s a physical interest that they have. Same deal. Why would they bother?
We think that’s human, but really that’s something that we learned growing up on our own and unschooling kids don’t learn that, right? Or they move past it…
ALEC: Right, exactly. That’s an attitude that develops based on being forced to do challenging activities that you don’t want to do. The difference is, are you challenging yourself with things that you enjoy versus challenging yourself with things that have been assigned to you.
PAM: Those are worlds apart, aren’t they? And later in our conversation, Alec talked about when he made the connection between his love for puzzles in gaming growing up and his interest in math.
ALEC: I had a very influential and inspirational math instructor—he talks about, “Oh yeah, I was Alec’s first math instructor in his life!” because I told him that eventually, and we talked a little about that. It was a very, very formative experience for me. He was able to teach math not as this formulaic, procedural thing where you learn an algorithm and you follow your algorithm and get the answer, but rather, as a puzzle—as something where you need to figure out how it works in order to solve the problem. You don’t learn how to solve the problem. You learn how it works and then you can solve the problem.
PAM: Alec graduated from UVA with a bachelor’s in math and has been accepted into their doctoral program. He plans to ultimately teach math at the university level.
Are you guys seeing a pattern here?
Let’s go to episode 180 with Nick Bergson-Shilcock. Here’s his answer to my question, what were some of your bigger interests growing up and how did you pursue them at the time?
NICK: So for a long early period of my life, I really just enjoyed playing outside. I built a log cabin and played in the woods with my friends and I always really enjoyed building things. Then around the age of about 10, I discover that I could also build things on computers. Initially, I was really interested in video games.
And so, the first things that I wanted to do were learning how to program and build my own computer games. That started really just playing around with an old Apple IIe that I got at a garage sale for twenty dollars or something. I started to just explore that system on my own. And then, before too long, I realized that I actually enjoyed the programming even more than just the video games. And so, my interest shifted towards programming and also a lot of digital electronics. That was an interest that stuck with me throughout my whole pre-teen years and teen years all the way up through college and now continues with my work at the Recurse Center.
PAM: Nick founded and runs The Recurse Center in New York City, a self-directed, community-driven retreat space for both new and experienced programmers to take a sabbatical and vastly improve their programming skills. They had their first batch of participants in 2011 and last fall they moved to a new and larger space. You can check out some pictures of the new location on the transcript page.
And finally, let’s go to last week’s episode, number 181, with Jack and Sean O’Brien and hear how they answered the same question about their interests growing up unschooling.
SEAN: So, I think a lot of what I was able to do being unschooled, I just played a lot of video games for a really long time. I got really into that and I don’t think I was able to realize the value of that until more recently.
But I eventually got bored of just sitting around playing video games and that’s when I went to Massanutten Technical Centre. I took an animation class there. And so, looking back on that I think that’s really a way that I was able to pursue my interests into something beyond video games.
But even aside from that, I think I just played a lot of games and I think that was actually really, really beneficial because it was nice to get to do what I wanted. And I think I actually learned a lot. From that. I hope.
JACK: I’m going to jump in saying that will be most of my answer probably but I think that it was just an interest and it was fun obviously. But I really do think it was a way to challenge ourselves which was a big thing because when you’re unschoolers you don’t have the same daily homework and all the constant work necessarily.
It’s this really fun, natural way to challenge ourselves and use our brains and do different puzzles and different stuff all the time and in fun ways that actually interested us.
And then like Sean was saying, going to MT was then the continuation of that, was the next step of that natural interest.
I think for me, I started getting into a lot of games where I would work with others online and I would get in teams online and do a lot of communication. I learned so much. I was picking up so much about talking to people and figuring out how do I get my team to work together and stuff. And then that’s totally gone into what I want to do now. I majored in psychology and it’s got people and communication and all of that. It’s such a passion of mine now.
So, just the breadth of things you can do with video games.
SEAN: There is something for everyone.
JACK: Yeah, it feels like it will eat into just about every skill, every practical skill.
PAM: I love that! I think they nailed it.
I think video games really are a wonderful window to the world. A fun and engaging way for people, for children, to exploring their interests.
In just the handful of conversations I shared here, we’ve heard from parents who’ve seen it in action and we’ve heard from unschooled kids about how they’ve discovered interests in art and animation, psychology and communication, math, computer programming, leadership, and storytelling through their love of video games.
Even though they didn’t know at the time where their gaming might go, they were following what they were fascinated by and enjoying their days.
As unschooling parents, when we focus on supporting our children as they follow their interests and passions —including video games—they learn so much about themselves and the things they want to do in the world.
I hope you’ve found this compilation interesting, and I wish you a wonderful week!