If you give a kid a Nintendo…

“But he’ll just play video games all day! He’ll never DO anything!”

How many times have I heard that statement? The conversation usually begins innocently enough. “Joey is begging for a Nintendo, but I don’t know…” We talk awhile about what game systems are in my house. We dance around the subject of prices or system capabilities. We question the accuracy of the game ratings. Then the real question makes itself known. The frantic question. The big roadblock to unschooling question. “But won’t he just play all day?” My answer is always the same, a definite maybe. But not forever. And it’s never just about the playing.

So, what to really expect?

Well, if you give a kid a Nintendo, he is going to want to play it, maybe non-stop for awhile. There is a mission, an objective, a puzzle to solve and he’s hooked. But at some point he will realize that he has gone as far as he can go on his own, and so the search begins. The first stop will probably be the game manual. Since the manuals are written on an adult level, he is going to ask you for some help with unfamiliar words Once he has skimmed through the manual, and talked with some more knowledgeable friends, he will realize that he can do much better with some cheat codes. Time to go online. He will have to do a search and read through pages of results in order to find just the right site. Be prepared to answer questions about the internet, search engines, and maybe even Boolean logic during this process. You don’t remember anything about Boolean logic? Don’t worry, there won’t be a test. (hint: Should this ever really come up, it has to do with the mathematical logic used in internet searches.)

Once he gets to the game site, he will quickly find out that it also contains pages of facts about the game, a back story to the plot, a history of each of the characters, and places to get books and magazines with even more information. He momentarily forgets about the cheat codes. “Hey Mom…..!” You take him to the store to pick out the best magazine he can find. After annoying the store owner by thumbing through each one, he finally makes his decision. You head home, where he proceeds to read away the remaining hours of the afternoon. There are lots of great tips in there. Plus ads for new games! “Hey Mom…!” You explain to him the realities of a real, working family budget, so he starts figuring out how he is possibly going to save $59.99. You will, of course, point out the existence of sales tax and how it works. He will redo those numbers.

When he tires of playing around with his finances, he might remember there was something totally terrific he just had to tell you about his game. He will tell you for what seems like the fiftieth time that day about another character, another plot line, all the villains, how they differ from the heroes, what level he is on and how he got there. He will cover it all, in detail, and you will never again doubt his verbal skills. He might also recall a similar character in a story you read together last year. This will lead to a cool discussion comparing the different storytelling techniques found in various types of media.

If he’s a doodler, he may try to capture all of those great characters on paper. One day you will notice that he has filled an entire notebook with his attempts at drawing Pokemon, Mario, Dragonball Z, and Zelda. You will be amazed when you find that there is actually a book called How to Draw Nintendo Characters.

Suddenly, he remembers those cheat codes! Back he goes to the web site to start reading all over again. When he finds just the right codes, he'll have to write them down so he can bring them back to his game. When the codes don’t work, he’ll go back and realize he copied something backwards. “Geez, Mom…” He will comment to you on the importance of accuracy. When he’s back at the site, he’ll notice that there are also some cheat codes available for his computer game. He’ll want to try those out too. Oops, did he spell “infinite power” wrong? Spelling turns out to be very important in his real world of gaming.

At this point, he will realize he is still not sure what the cheat codes do or when to use them, so he will start experimenting. He will try all the variables until he figures out just the right combination to get the best results. Obviously he will now have to use the phone. His friends will need to be informed of this critical piece of information. Oh and maybe a quick email to his cousin in New York and his grandfather in Florida. This is big news after all. He is on his way to beating the game!

Of course, he is now so stoked that his thoughts will start racing back to that new game. A new challenge. A new puzzle to solve. A new world to conquer! He may start checking eBay to see if he can bid on some of those games for cheaper than the $59.99 list price. He will have to read around, though, to figure out how eBay actually works. Be prepared to explain auctions and bids and such to him. On and on he goes, comparison shopping around different stores, online sites and used game shops. Just how cheaply can he score that new game? And, oh no, it requires an expansion pack. More research, and more figuring on how to squirrel up just a little bit more money.

While all of this is going on, he may also be exchanging ideas with friends, gaming online with more experienced players, joining a local gaming club, developing an interest in Japanese anime, attempting to program his own game or creating an entirely new world while story boarding a game plot. I know, because I’ve seen all of these things happen in my house and the houses of countless other game enthusiasts.

So, what to expect when you give a kid a Nintendo? Expect imagination and interest and excitement and passion. Expect a virtual unit study, disguised in a video game box. But please don’t tell your child he’s been practicing reading, writing, spelling and math. Don’t let on that he has been exploring art, economics and cultural studies. Let’s keep this our little secret. He thinks he has just been playing.

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