After Christmases dominated by all manner of crafty and conventionally-girlie gifts — paint sets, a sewing machine, an American Girl Doll, etc. — this holiday we’re attempting a bit of an experiment.
The rough hypothesis: Getting my 9-year-old daughter a video game console could start shifting her largely unfavorable view of video games, and perhaps even soften her skepticism about robots and coding.
The goal isn’t to push her toward a career in software engineering, but we at least want her to keep a more open mind about technology and its applications. Because even if she follows through on her current plan of being an artist or actor, tech is going to play a prominent role in her world.
While she’s only in third grade, it seemed wise to act sooner than later on our pro-tech enterprise. A study from the University of Washington found that by age 6, American kids already thought that boys were better than girls at programming and robotics.
My sense was that my daughter likewise saw video games and different tech pursuits as “other” to her — too much about boys, maybe too sporty. Could we hit the reset for our daughter?
“Oh, I don’t play video games,” she recently said when visiting a friend’s house. “I don’t really like them.”
She arrived at this position after never having even held a game controller. So while a girl and boy her age played a cartoonish adventure game, she stayed across the room, talking with some moms.
After more cajoling and the obvious good time the other kids were having, she relented. Her willingness was facilitated by the fact that they were playing Lego Dimensions, a game that includes actual Legos of popular figures — Harry Potter, Batman, Gandalf and pastel-hued Unikitty from the Lego Movie among them — that when placed on a digital pad come to life on the screen as a player’s avatar.
She assumed the role of Wonder Woman, flying erratically through the fantasy world, taking accidental plunges into the water and wobbling into objects. But instead of embarrassment, my daughter laughed at her character’s bumbling movements and that became part of the fun.
To my further surprise, she chattered for half-an-hour after leaving our friend’s house about how much fun she had. “Did you see how Wonder Woman was bobbing like a chicken?” she asked, laughing again.
An idea started to dawn.
After writing so many GeekWire stories about efforts to recruit and retain girls and women in technology, I was chagrinned that my daughter had rebuffed a girl-centric math summer camp and an after-school robotics class. Maybe video games could at last be the gateway to a more positive attitude about tech.
I talked to the father of the friend whose game she’d played. His fourth-grade son was very bright, but struggled to make social connections. For him the games were another avenue to friendship, both having kids over to play the games and to help him participate in playground conversations about Minecraft.
I shared the story of my daughter’s experience with my mom. Grandma Marji, whose gaming knowledge begins and ends with Words with Friends with my aunt, sparked on the idea.
“Get it,” she said. “Get the game. I’ll pay for it.”
Grandma, who in her eighth decade continues to make a valiant effort to keep up on tech, also saw the games a great way to socialize with boys and girls alike.
What surprised me was the ambivalence expressed by some of the moms of boys. They were inclined to delay their sons’ exposure to the games, believing — likely correctly — that in time their boys would end up fascinated with the games, perhaps including first-person shooting games. They didn’t foresee any lack of affinity for technology that needed to be overcome.
Shortly before Christmas I met Scott Greene, father of two elementary school-age daughters, at a holiday party. Greene is a senior program manager for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Data Platform. I was talking through my video game theory with another friend, and he shared that his girls play with their Xbox.
“I let my daughters explore console-based video games in moderation as a way to open their perspectives on different types of entertainment, problem solving, creativity and having fun,” he emailed me after the party.
“I believe these experiences have proven to be educational, added to them being more well-rounded individuals and broken down social barriers with boys at their schools,” Greene said. “It’s also led to their interest in math and coding basic games.”
While not exactly an unbiased source, Greene seemed to take a level-headed approach to the devices, limiting his kids’ use to two short sessions a week. He also called out Xbox initiatives to encourage a more diverse gaming audience, including Gaming for Everyone and Women in Gaming.
And so on Christmas this year we’re taking a gamble. My daughter, who’s more at ease wielding a scorching glue-gun than a joystick, will be unwrapping her own PlayStation 4 and Lego Dimensions game. I don’t expect that she’ll soon be writing Python, but maybe a handful of Lego characters and some video gaming will help her bridge the tech divide.
UPDATE: My daughter was excited and surprised to get a PlayStation, but didn’t insist on setting it up instantly. In fact, she was initially pretty happy just playing quietly with the three Lego figures that came with the game.
But once my husband got the system setup and they jointly built some Lego contraptions that went with it, she was an excited gamer, playing alongside her dad (we opted for a second set of controllers, collaborative play being one of our objectives!). From the other room, I could hear her shouts of “Boom, boom!” and “Hey, how did you do that? Help me up.” She instructed her dad on which buttons to push and shouted gleefully at the characters. Oooh, maybe there’s an eSports scholarship in our future!