When Miles came into this world he had a ready-made fan club. The first-born child among a circle of friends, all of us geeks in our 30s beginning to think about what comes next, he has more honorary aunts and uncles than he’ll ever know what to do with. For his parents and the rest of us Miles is a classic source of hopes, fears and fascination: What does it mean to create a new human being? What will Miles’ journey be from tiny baby to adult? What will he learn, know and experience in life?
The first things we experienced, of course, were screaming and poop. Babies have a staggering capacity to produce both, and one of the benefits of being an honorary uncle is the right to hand him back whenever the alarms begin. I plan to be the one sneaking him sugar, booze and car keys later on, but for now my role is to watch diaper-changing and vomit-cleaning from the other side of the house.
Then Miles discovered technology, and a whole new phase of fascination began. Like nearly all modern children he’s taken to the family Xbox, PC, cellphones and TV at speed. His parents, blessed with a fair streak of techno-lust themselves, have mixed feelings about how to approach this: What do you do with a creature who wants to treat the world of gadgets as his very own non-stop carnival ride? What the hell kind of kids is our ferociously caffeinated generation going to produce? Here, indeed, is the real god game, both for Miles and those responsible for him. Like any god game there are choices to make and possibilities to explore. But behind it, at least for this honorary uncle, there’s also the other side: Do I want to play this game someday myself, or is spectator mode enough?
“There were a basic set of decisions early on about levels and types of stimulation,” says Miles’ mother. “We had a ‘no TV’ policy in place until he was 18 months old, which I think was absolutely the right thing to do. But with some of the other stuff it’s not that simple.
“Every time he sees Dad playing videogames he’s fascinated. At first he enjoyed just watching characters on the screen, and then he realized they could be controlled … we’d put him in a ‘safe’ section and let him move things around with the controller, just walking around, and that absorbed him. Even with such basic interaction you can see the sparks going off inside.
“In the same vein, he loves the keyboard and mouse on the computer. When he was younger and just wanted to bang any key, we found a website that reacts to any random input. He liked that for a bit, but I think he’s grown into the idea of one button equaling one action. I’d open up Word for him, set the font really high and he used to like to ‘type.’ Now that he’s older he’s developed a knack for changing settings and views by himself, so when I come back to the computer I have no idea what’s going on. Recently he figured out how to buy things through the Xbox and got Dad a game as a present, which led to some passwords being put in place and a bit more attention to where the controller gets left around. There’s also the emerging issue of infant ninja cellphone use …
“Miles likes these things because they obviously fascinate us too. He also likes the response aspect of it, that feeling of having something react to what he does. At the same time there’s an alien quality to the whole experience: It’s very interesting to watch our son engage with something that, until maybe 30 years ago, children never encountered.”
I can still remember my own first encounter, at a slightly older age than Miles’ but no less formative: a vast shape waiting patiently, something big and flat, something else big and lumpy, with coils and lights. Someone guided my stubby hand to a lump and helped me whack it. I got the idea and whacked it again. Then … the machine reacted! The big flat thing changed color! I whacked some more and it was clear – a connection existed between moving my arms and these wonderful explosions of light.
I’m pretty sure it was an IBM PC, and it changed me forever. Throughout my life computers and technology have left their mark on everything from the way I write to the way I learn. But in those early moments it was much simpler, much clearer: Here, far more than TV or music or even poop and vomit, was something with potential.
“There are moments that are funny but give you pause. Miles loves watching Dad play Braid. He laughs uproariously when the monsters are bonked off the screen. But then, after watching the ‘rewind time’ function in the game, he took to walking backwards for a brief while,” his mother says. “I do wonder if there’s an issue with content – beyond the usual suspects of violence, sex and bad language – in that his sense of reality versus art is probably not strongly developed at this point. Though I guess learning that something isn’t real is also part of learning.”
Along with the usual parenting activities like reading to Miles, talking to him and involving him in daily life, his mother now deliberately tries to get him out into the garden a few times a day for a complete non-tech break.
“There’s obviously a part of him that’s susceptible to, say, thinking that walking backwards is a legitimate way to go about his business. Now intellectually that’s intriguing to me. But what’s really going on?”
No one else knows what’s really going on, either. There are many opinions, of course, credible and not, that range from complete technological abstinence for anyone under 5 to giving children iPods in the womb. (In Miles’ case, his grandparents are split squarely down the middle on the issue, which sounds like a cue for honorary uncles to run for the hills around visit-time.) The market in giving convenient answers to concerned parents is as thriving as ever.
In terms of formal research, though, most of the major schools of thought on cognitive development and early childhood learning predate the internet age, and when researchers in the 1980s became interested in technology/learning connections it tended to be with older children in the context of formal education. There are still conflicting viewpoints on the structure of learning itself. Some believe there’s a relatively set progression of skills – a ladder up which young children climb at various speeds but in unvarying order – while others think the ladder is an illusion, a construction of monocultural child-raising practices and misplaced assumptions. Recent research shows results (children exposed to technology early on display some clear advancement in problem solving and ability to understand more than one perspective) but is still shaky on the detailed mechanics of cognitive development.
Two broad truths emerge. The first is that children experience the world in an incredibly complex, rewarding way. They respond to interaction, attention and practice, and technology can be used as a tool to help enable that or stifle it. The second is that a great deal more work is needed to really understand this process, though the massive changes brought about by technology would seem to support an approach that takes the “ladder” away in favor of a richer, more immersive view. Many famous studies of cognitive development have come from researchers observing their own children, but a good instruction manual for the god game is unlikely to appear soon, if ever.
I doubt it’s ever really been much different, and the best way to play that most terrifying and wonderful of god games seems unchanged: You take the opinions on board, measure them against what you see and know and try to be the best parent you can. Or, for the rest of us, be the proudest honorary aunts and uncles around, even if the little bugger does start walking backwards every now and then.
“If you asked me how I’d like technology to be revealed to Miles, it would be much less to do with content and more to do with concepts,” Miles’ father says. “Things like stripping down a PC so he could see the components, or showing him the basics of how a programming language works. There are arguments that you can attract kids to technology by letting them enjoy the end products first, but I think the end products are so numerous and enthralling that most kids will never get past that. Our generation – people in their 30s – lived through an amazing sliver of time just when technology was hitting the mainstream, and for a brief period tech was accessible but not quite so easy. I remember me and my brother having to feed in punch cards or get to grips with command lines. We had an old 25 kilogram laptop that we tried to get working – we cracked it open, tried the soldering iron, then ended up dropping it two meters, which worked! So few kids in Miles’ generation will have an opportunity for that kind of nuts-and-bolts perspective unless they formally study it, and I can’t help but think how much more valuable that knowledge is than cutesy characters on children’s ‘educational’ programs. It’s definitely something I’d like to try and convey to my son.”
For my money Miles is going to be fine, and his tech-mad parents are safe in their own addictions. Thank the stars that (for now) the god game is someone else’s problem, too: For all the joys Miles clearly brings I’m still in spectator mode, and I don’t know if that’s going to change. A dark little part of me thinks character creation without a load/save option sounds scary as all hell. Maybe I’ll make myself a little guy in World of Warcraft. At least then I won’t have to worry about handing him back when he’s got a +3 scream and poop spell building.
Colin Rowsell is nearly at a milestone. Talk to him on firstname.lastname@example.org.