Last night my thirteen year old nephew Jack came to stay at my home as he does every Friday night. Almost every week he carries with him a freshly burned disc with a new downloaded game or Half Life 2 mod which he intends to install on my father's desktop. Last night it was a spaceflight simulation game named Kerbal Space Program. Per usual, my nephew rattled off a quick pitch of the game as I greeted him. As this is a weekly thing and I generally don't have a huge amount of interest in Half Life mods or free downloads, I sadly did not give Jack my full attention and only really absorbed the bear essentials of what he was speaking to me about. When he took a brief pause to breath, I wished him a fun time and went back to my own business.
Later in the evening I was passing by and Jack beckoned me to come over and take a look at how his game was going. He had just launched a small craft into space and was attempting to get the machine into orbit around the Moon. One thing that struck me from the very beginning was just how many dials were on the screen and how (at least at a glance) technical the whole operation was. Jack started a fresh ship and gave me a demonstration of a space launch. He explained to me how he used solid-fueled rockets to give his ship it's initial launch and how he would then eject them in favour of liquid fueled boosters. He told me all about how he needs to angle the ship a certain way on takeoff and then very gently readjust the trajectory as he moved from one type of atmosphere to the next. Then Jack gave me a detailed description of just how he intended to boost the craft away from the Earth and then have it gently fall into the the gravity while maintaining enough momentum to keep the ship from being pulled back in entirely. He joyfully provided anecdotes about how his previous attempts had been unsuccessful and how he had worked out an efficient and successful theory to ensure a successful spaceflight. All this from a kid who only a few years ago was writing letters to Santa Claus. It was unmistakably clear that Jack was taking a huge amount of value from this video game both in terms of education and above all else fun. I even learned a few things myself from his demo.
The point I'm making here is this: Video games, as a medium, get an awful lot of bad publicity, particularly in the western world. There are a huge amount of people out there who believe that games are bad for young people and, in some extreme cases, do lasting damage to children. Personally, I think we don't know the answers just yet (that is a discussion for another day). Jack's time with Kerbal Space Program reminded me that the right kind of video game can be hugely beneficial to a young person, in exactly the same way the right book or television show can be. Every now and again we, as consumers, creators and critics must remind ourselves that while the negative effects of certain video games may or may not be destructive in the wrong hands, it would be a simple waste for us to forget the huge amount of positives games continue to offer the old and young alike.