Let them eat (virtual) cake

Screen time for kids is a contested topic among modern parents. The commonly accepted narrative is that excessive computer time is damaging — to children’s ability to focus, to the development of their social skills, not to mention the physical repercussions of prolonged sedentary behavior. Yet Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You and Clive Thompson, tech journalist and author of a cover story in the New York Times magazine on the Minecraft Generation, aren’t so sure. They recently sat down to talk about their kid’s—and their own—Minecraft habits, and shared a very different, surprisingly beneficial take on the impact of gaming on young minds.

“From the outside, parents just see their kids running around and they’re not sure what’s happening in this virtual space.” Johnson says. “[But when] you walk through what has to happen cognitively inside that space, [you see] how close it is to the kind of thinking that you need to do, for instance, as a programmer.”

The similarities to programming are more explicit than one might expect. Explaining how the game asks players to construct entire worlds, Thompson explains, “There’s this stuff inside the game that’s called redstone. It’s like wiring: you can use it to attach a button to the wiring in a door, you push the button and the door opens up. Kids use it to create cool systems and little machines inside the game. And it’s exactly the same circuitry as the stuff you’d see inside a computer. You can make what they call an ‘and gate.’ If this switch and that switch are triggered, then something happens. You can make an ‘or gate.’ If this switch or that switch is triggered, then something happens. And this is exactly the logical circuitry basis of an Intel chip. It’s also like the Boolean thinking that you do inside programming where you’re writing ‘If this happens or that happens they have to make this happen.’ And kids do these very complicated things. It’s amazing.”

The trial-and-error mentality extends beyond initial construction and into the heart of programming: debugging.

“[What] really struck me,” says Thompson, “is how much time kids spend debugging these things. They would make something and it wouldn’t work and they’d say, ‘All right. What’s going on?’ They’d call their friend over and they’d look at it. They’d go through the circuitry. They’d experiment and get it half-way working, and they beaver away at it, and after another hour it’s really working. This type of persistence is, first of all, the classic grit thing that everyone’s talking about with kids, and secondly, exactly what programming is. Programming is not making something and going, ‘Oh, that was awesome,’ and making something else. Programming is making something and you start running it and it doesn’t work — it never, ever works the first time. Every programmer knows this. Programming is not making things, it’s fixing the busted thing you made. So there are all sorts of great, intellectual and emotional layers to this that are astounding. And a lot of academic experts who’ve thought about this arrive at the same conclusion.”