Friday, January 30, 2009

Board Games and the Values They Teach Children

Steven Johnson argues that modern video games are far superior for teaching children than classic board games, such as Candyland, Battleship, or Sorry:

What’s irritating about the games is that they are exercises in sheer randomness. It’s not that they fail to sharpen any useful skills; it’s that they make it literally impossible for a player to acquire any skills at all.


I hadn’t thought about this until I actually played the game again last week, but there is absolutely nothing about the initial exploratory sequence of Battleship that requires anything resembling a genuine decision. It is a roulette wheel. A random number generator could easily stay competitive for the first half. But even when some red pegs appear on the board, the decision tree is still a joke: “Now select a co-ordinate that’s next to the red peg.” That’s pretty much it. Yes, at the very end, you might adjust your picks based on your knowledge of which ships you’ve sunk. But for the most part, it’s about as mentally challenging as playing Bingo.

For older children, Johnson's logic certainly rings true. But for young children, say five of six years old, these games teach how to follow a step-by-step procedure, even if there is no strategic decision involved in it: flick the spinner, count the steps, move the piece, and follow the resulting instructions. That may be automatic for adults, but can be a serious mental exercise for young children.

At any rate, these games based upon random chance teach children that their lives will be dominated by forces utterly beyond their control. I can't think of a more useful concept to learn early on in life.

HT: Neatorama


Anonymous said...

Of course, the idea that the point of a game is to learn something or teach something could be a fundamental error.

John said...

Good point, John.

Jeff the Baptist said...

Battleship isn't game of pseudo random sampling. I tended to win a lot more than I lost as a kid because I didn't pick random numbers, but developed an optimized pseudo-random shooting pattern.

But yeah, a lot of kids games are about making a few decisions surrounding mostly pseudo-random inputs. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Tom Jackson said...

Learning may not be the reason for the games, or the intent of the game-makers, but it will certainly be an effect of the games.

And I agree that "Random s*** happens. Deal with it." is a very important lesson for every child to learn.

Larry B said...

Why play something like battleship? Start with developing search strategies. Random guessing is not optimal. For example, it should be pretty easy to see that shooting every 3 squares will 100% hit every ship except the two peg boat, and that has a reasonable probability of landing in a 3 square pattern. Going every 4 squares is a faster strategy and has a very high likelihood of hitting every ship as well. Simply appraising the problem, developing strategies, testing them, and learning from failure or success is a good life lesson.

Additionally, learning to read your opponent and trying to guess his placement strategy, and placing your own ships in a hard-to-guess pattern.

Simply being bored by a game as an adult does not remove the underlying elements that a game may teach. And yes, learning that there are forces beyond your control is a good lesson for anybody.

the reverend mommy said...

Shoot, we started with "Candyland." I thought EVERYONE had to have the, ahem, PLEASURE of Candyland.

To be frank, it was torture.

Now a days, they prefer Runescape. Board games? what are those? Might as well go back to monks with quill pens, too. And clocks with hands.

DannyG said...

I didn't play many board games as a kid, then it was Monopoly. We did play a lot of card games, especially cribbage. That required a lot more that rolling dice and I think that the skills I learned playing cribbage helped me later with math concepts such as sets, progressions, etc.

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