No, I didn’t learn through some Piano Hero-esque peripheral. I started lessons in the early ’90s, long before the rhythm game genre even existed. Instead, I owned a Sega Genesis, a device with infinitely more appeal than the upright piano collecting dust in our living room. My parents could have been miffed at my preference for Sonic the Hedgehog over practicing scales and arpeggios. Instead, they exploited it.
With a working knowledge of electrical circuits, my dad installed a simple key-activated switch between the console and the basement television. It was a simple transaction: If I practiced for 30 minutes, my mom would hand me the key, to be returned to her at the end of the day. I still loathed playing piano, but I suddenly found myself running directly from the bus stop to the living room every day, eager to suffer a half hour’s worth of Beethoven for an afternoon with Kid Chameleon.
It’s obvious in retrospect: for an 8-year-old boy, there’s no better carrot on a stick than locking up his favorite videogames and withholding the key. But videogames can also improve our lives in more direct ways. They can hone our attention, distract us from unpleasant realities, improve our fine motor skills and occasionally even teach us something about our world that we can use – a delicious recipe for crème brûlée, perhaps.
This week’s issue explores a few promising uses for videogames beyond killing time on a Sunday afternoon. It might not always be “self-improvement” in the traditional sense, but if it makes life a little more livable, who are we to argue?