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Developing False Mastery: The Siren Song of Video Games

By Mark Talaga.


Mom is walking up the stairs again, exasperated, knowing what she’s going to find when she walks into her son’s room. Once again, he will be on his computer playing games instead of working on his Spanish assignment. This is the third time in an hour that she’s had to remind him to stop playing and start getting to work. She’s at her wits end on what to do about the gaming. She has tried setting timers and rules about playing on school nights, but it always ends in an argument. Her son is convinced that the boys he plays games with are his closest friends; playing together is the only way he can stay socially connected. She yells at him to get off his game, and he pleads with her for more time. This has to stop.

Vaguely, he hears footsteps climbing the stairs. His friends are laughing through his headset as they’ve finally reached the part of the game where they can tackle the final boss. They’ve been working on taking this thing down for weeks, and now they have their chance. Giddy with excitement, they charge into battle. This is the most fun he has had in a long, long time. The footsteps grow louder, and unconsciously his body tenses as he prepares for his mom to yell at him. Just a few more minutes more, and they might actually come away victorious. Mom is now demanding he turns off the game. He’s trying to split his focus and negotiate with her all while helping his friends. He makes a mistake in-game, and the battle is lost. Furious, he throws down his headset and screeches at mom’s interruption. This has to stop.


Many families reach out to me with a situation similar to this. The word “addiction” gets thrown around as it seems there is something so compulsory to the behavior that a disorder is the only explanation for why things aren’t getting any better. In rare cases, that is exactly what the family is up against, but more often than not, the gaming is more of a symptom than the actual problem.


Like all people, we are motivated by completion of tasks that we hold as meaningful. If you’ve ever participated in a 5k run, your initial instinct upon crossing the finish line is to throw your hands up in the air followed by thoughts of “I actually want to do that again.” When we finish something that we perceive as challenging, stimulating, purposeful, and having value, we are left with a sense of pride as well as a sense of wanting to continue the work. Our motivation, in short, is driven by completion of activities we perceive as having value. Gifted children go through life, at school and at home, feeling this sense of pride around their abilities to complete tasks that other children may find too difficult or challenging. There is an awareness among gifted individuals that they are capable of more.


At some point in a gifted child’s life, however, they are presented with a challenge that cannot be met with their natural ability. Typically, this challenge is in some way tied to their learning at school. Mastering the essential tasks of school is critical for solving the identity crisis of that age (“I am what I can do”), while the lack of mastery leads to feelings of inferiority (Erikson, 1963; 1968; 1980). This can be compounded by undiagnosed learning, emotional, developmental, or physiological issues. This cognitive dissonance creates discomfort for many gifted individuals. Why, suddenly, am I struggling? Without proper awareness and understanding of the struggle, the gifted individual and those involved as supportive agents in their life start to reason out the cause. Perhaps the material is too boring? Or the teacher is not correctly conveying the information in a way that’s helpful? Maybe the child is stressed by external social/emotional factors? Without proper and comprehensive assessment, it can be difficult to get to the root of the issue. Gifted kids might now be left in a challenge situation without accurate feedback as to what they need to do in order to succeed. One potential result may be dwindling motivation.


Enter videogames. “[Video games] require learning to be active with practice, feedback, and more practice to the point of mastery” (e.g., Gee, 2003). The reward system is understood, and any failures in the game can be diagnosed easily due to a thorough understanding of the rules. In essence, video games present a sliding scale of challenge that can be perfectly attuned to each individual. The linear format of games creates a straightforward pathway towards achievement. A gifted child can envision their goal, prioritize how to get there, sequence through the steps, and with a little bit of grit and determination, achieve exactly what they set out to do. With games, there is no execution gap between an individual’s vision and goal. The steps and rules are clear.


Not so much in life. There is no clearcut feedback about how you’re progressing on a paper you need to write for AP History. Yes, you can ask for help and edits from a teacher, parent, or peers. However, not all students take that opportunity, and when it comes right down to it, you’re still the one at the end of the day that must finish the assignment and place judgment on when it’s actually complete. To compound the situation, imagine dealing with an undiagnosed expressive language processing disorder that makes it almost impossible to organize the vast amount of information inside a gifted child’s brain. One can see how it becomes difficult to properly extrude all the information a gifted individual has in their head in an organized way that shows exactly how much they know about a topic.


Is it any wonder that kids, so driven by growth and achievement, find solace in gaming? The stress and challenge of life, without a clear framework on how to move forward, can put gifted children in a state of limbo. They know what they should be doing but don’t fully understand why they aren’t doing it. To relieve the stress, they may turn to the area of life that provides vast amounts of appropriate challenge and success--not to mention the social benefits of playing with others who share a similar interest.


Even if academically the child is performing well, there may be some other area of life that is presenting a struggle. Sometimes the issues surround social dynamics. Why can’t I connect with my peers? Why is making and keeping friends so difficult? Once again, without proper assessment and understanding, children are left without a pathway forward and retreat to a place where they can safely thrive. In some cases, gifted individuals perceive they are unable to connect with others, which can exacerbate the issue. Interpersonal shortcomings such as scarcity of relationships and social dysfunction have been linked to [excessive gaming] (Huang et al., 2007).


When parents and helping professionals start to become aware which part of the child’s development is being challenged and where their specific vulnerabilities lie, they create a more direct conduit to supporting the child. Concerned adults can begin to teach that the issues the gifted individual is experiencing are not fixed. Dweck (1999) demonstrated that students who believe abilities can be developed and are not fixed are more likely to attempt challenging tasks and persevere through difficulties than students who believe abilities are innate.


A shift happens. Gifted individuals begin to engage in their lives again, develop identities that fit their unique nature, and feel the motivation of completion. Through this process there becomes far less reliance on video games. The issue with electronics becomes more manageable, even if it might not disappear altogether.


It should also be said that parents are allowed to set boundaries and rules around the way electronics are utilized in their household. Our goal is not simply to understand a child’s struggle and let them deal with it how they see fit. Video games are a privilege, not a right. But when we seem to be encountering a hopeless situation in helping create specific limits around games, we are probably dealing with far more than we realize. If this is the case, it might be time to reach out for help.


This is why our mission at the Center for Identity Potential is to engage in a comprehensive process with the families who work with us. When we can understand the complexity of the issues underneath, we have a much better success rate of helping a child activate their potential. After all, when development is activated and done so with purpose and intention, there comes with it a feeling that anything is possible. It is then that life can start.


References

Erikson, E. H. (1963). Childhood and society, (2nd ed). NY: W. W. Norton.


Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. NY: W. W. Norton.


Erikson, E. H. (1980). Identity and the life cycle. NY: W. W. Norton.


Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


Huang, Z., Wang, M. O., Qian, M., Zhong, J., & Tao, R. (2007). Chinese Internet Addiction Inventory: Developing a measure of problematic Internet use for Chinese college students. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 10(6), 805-811. https://doi.org/10.1089/cpb.2007.9950

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Mark Talaga has been counseling gifted individuals for over 10 years and is the owner and director of the Center for Identity Potential. Mark's experience with gifted counseling began in 2012 under the mentorship of Andy Mahoney, a pioneer and expert in the field of counseling the gifted. Mark is a former video game professional who utilizes his knowledge of gaming and technology to create a strong relationship with many of the kids with whom he works. Through his own personal struggle with executive functioning, validating his giftedness, and finding purpose and meaning in this world, Mark has developed an expertise in the education and skills necessary to help gifted children activate their potential and live more authentic, fulfilling lives.

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