Does 11-year-old Hal learn more from computer games with historical themes or from books? Hal’s father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, discusses.
Like many boys of his age Hal is a keen player of PS3 games. There are regular tussles in our house about what he is and isn’t allowed to play. Hal tries to cajole us into allowing him to play games that carry 15 or even 18 certificates (there’s a bizarre slippage here in which he claims that a game which is ‘only a 15’ is entirely appropriate for someone who is just 11). And Jo and I stoutly block his requests, citing the language and the bloodshed as well as the certificate to explain our utterly unreasonable decisions.
In the case of one game though, Assassin’s Creed, we were a bit more permissive than usual. This was on the strength of a recommendation from one of Hal’s godparents who said that as well as the usual slaughter and leaping around, you also pick up quite a bit about life in Renaissance Italy along the way. Hal started to play and watching it over his shoulder from time to time I could see what Hal’s godfather meant. There was Rome looking very plausibly as it might have looked in the 16th century with a mixture of Roman ruins, gothic buildings and the odd Renaissance Palace. Being a big Rome fan, and knowing the city quite well, I found this fascinating. But what I was less sure of was whether Hal was getting much history from the game. I asked him what he had learnt and he said it had taught him that crossbows were really accurate, guns at the time were really inaccurate and that early doctors wore pointy hats. Romaphiles might get a bit from Assassin’s Creed, I concluded, but 11-year-old boys weren’t going to pick up much that didn’t relate to fighting.
Something similar could be said of Hal’s favourite current book series – Rick Riordan’s ‘Percy Jackson’ titles. Hal is very into these books (he reads them with Jo most nights, Hal reading first and then Jo picking up the baton when he gets tired). The books, for those not familiar with them, feature a boy living in contemporary America, who discovers that he is the son of Poseidon and that the gods and creatures of Greek Mythology are alive and well in disguised forms in the contemporary world. Throughout the books classical mythological stories are recast in modern guise, making them powerful and gripping to Hal in a way which they almost certainly wouldn’t in their original forms.
So a great way, you might think, of learning about Greek mythology. But is it? The books do of course offer a lot about the mythological world, but I found myself wondering if Hal was actually learning much. Wasn’t it a bit like the Assassin’s Creed experience? If you already knew about mythology you had a context to relate the books to and an enhanced learning experience as a consequence. If you didn’t, you just had a series of paranormal characters slugging it out and making a good yarn in the process.
Talking this over with Jo, however, I was quickly pulled up for being snotty. Jo’s point, and I agree with it, was that though Hal may not have the context to refer the myths back to the originals, what they do do is give him a core knowledge of Greek mythology which he isn’t going to forget. And she is right. When I picked his brains about the books he does now know what kind of creature Medusa is, he knows what the Golden Fleece is, he knows about Zeus and Aries and Poseidon and Athena. And the next time he has to learn about Greek mythology at school he’ll have a foundation to go on which he didn’t have before. Hal’s principle enjoyment of these books is, I am sure, that they are gripping, tension filled yarns. But they smuggle in some learning in the process in a way which is far more potent than anything he is ever going to pick up from Assassin’s Creed.
Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian (0141321288) and other ‘Percy Jackson’ titles are published by Puffin at £6.99.