Games and Comics: Providing Counseling for Our Parentless Children

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Let an artificially intelligent piece of software counsel my child or student?

It’s a tough concept to accept.  We’ve heard horror stories since the 90’s about the effects of video games on our children (amazingly, comics date all the way back to the 1920’s).  You have those who feel gaming makes kids violent, reclusive, or even mentally ill (all have been debunked over the past few years).  And, while the list of those who would argue that video games do induce violence in our children is dwindling fast, the list of those who think video games are socially beneficial is growing at a much slower pace.

That’s not to say it should be an open Best Buy Buffet for children to choose any game they wish.  Media Awareness Network gets it spot-on when they say:

Throughout the elementary years, parents are the main gatekeepers for their children. As such, they need to be actively involved in their kids’ video game playing – selecting the games, managing how much time children spend playing, and talking to them about the values in the games they like.

But, what happens when the missing driving force (a parent) that leads our kids to video games (and comics) for refuge and consolation is the exact same force that was meant to be there to protect them from inappropriate exposure?  With a missing parent, how can we guarantee that a 10 year old who loves to play Animal Crossing, isn’t also dabbling in Hitman 2?  You can’t.

What we can hope for, however, is that the adults who are present in the child’s life know enough about the benefit of video games, and don’t out-right demonize them as time-wasters or autistic-machines.  In most societies, this falls on the shoulders of a teacher.  This isn’t a plea for video games in the classroom.  This isn’t a case for video games to deliver curriculum.  This is a case for being aware of what video games (and, in this instance, comics) can provide for our students once they leave our classroom, and what our responsibility is to help them make informed decisions.

Pokemon: Making Your Children’s Spirits Strong for 20 Years and On

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Year after year, Nintendo releases new Pokemon titles.  And, year after year, kids fans of great gaming gobble them up by the millions.  For the uninitiated, the game follows a boy (or girl) named Ash, who travels the world in search of adventure.  He returns home, frequently, to a household held together simply by his mother.  Ash’s father is nowhere to be found, mentioned, or even hinted at.

I didn’t play Pokemon when it first hit on the Gameboy/Advance.  It wasn’t until recently that I stopped snubbing my nose at the childish gameplay I had unjustly imposed on it, and saw what a great sense of adventure and exploration this game gives kids fans of great gaming.

I could go on about how it helps kids deal with adversarial figures (both adults and peers) in their life, or how teaches students logical thinking, planning, and preparation; or, even how the newest release (SoulSilver/HeartGold) encourages kids to get outside and run & jump with the new Pokewalker.  But, I won’t, because that’s tired ground.  Instead, I want to talk about a great series of Pokemon inspired comics from Mare Odomo and the potential Pokemon and this comic series has to help our kids seek help and assistance outside the typical adult role models in their lives.

Comics: Visual, Succinct, and Heart-hungry

Called Letters to an Absent Father, this (as of now) 11 edition comic strip follows our previously mentioned hero, Ash, as he writes letters of his adventure and achievements to a father who may never read them.

Some are heartwarming:

Copyright 2010 MOdomo

Some are heartening:

Copyright 2010 MOdomo

And, some are heart-wrenching:

Copyright 2010 MOdomo

I think of the millions of kids who have played Pokemon for years.  I think of those who started playing at age 6, grew up with Ash, and are now in their 20’s.  Did they ever give a thought to the “Absent Father?”  And, how many of those, who immersed themselves in this world for hours every day for years, had similar feelings and stories as Ash?

I certainly saw my fair share of students (boys and girls) whose parent (father or mother) was not a mainstay in their lives.  There would be stories of jail, deportation, or just disappearance.  I did not feel equipped to help them through those hardships.  I imagine few people do.  But, as a teacher, we offer our students that “safe place” each day to come and be with children and adults who are supportive.

At the end of the day; however, that disappears.  They leave school, and return to what they had momentarily escaped from, and are forced to find ways to cope on their own.

How many of my students played Pokemon?  It’d be easier to count how many didn’t.

My Personal Wish for a Time Machine

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I had a 5th grade boy, Charlie (name changed), whose father was not around.  I never got the full story, or even a partially true story, but it was clear that Charlie had his mother (who loved him unconditionally, and was evident every time we talked), and his Nintendo DS.

There were days of disobedience, yelling, and tears, all from a good kid going through rough times.  If Charlie had these comics back then — while he was struggling with what life dealt him — and could supplement his enjoyment of Pokemon with the knowledge that he wasn’t alone, that year would have been much different.

At its heart, Pokemon is a role playing game (RPG).  The original intent of RPG’s was to offer its player a chance to fall out of this world, and land into a magical, challenging, and rewarding alternate dimension.  Armed with the knowledge that his avatar (Ash) had the same family issues, Charlie could have received autonomous counseling from a game and a comic.; which, in this instance, were much more qualified than any other person in his life.

Now, Charlie played his fair share of inappropriate games.  I overheard talk of Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, and Call of Duty.  And, I made it a point to discuss those decisions with him the minute I had a free opportunity.  In talking with him, and trying to explain why he shouldn’t play them, and why my list of games (Ratchet and Clank, Boom Blox, Animal Crossing, Viva Pinata, etc.) were more appropriate, and even more fun, I finally gave up, and simply said, “Why do you play those games?”

His response: “Because my cousins do.”  His high school aged cousins.  Did Best Buy sell him those games?  No.  Did GameStop sell them to him?  No.  Did his mom even buy them for him?  Nope.  It was simply a product of him being surrounded by kids of a greater age.  But, guess what?  The same could be said for pornography.  Or drinking.  Or smoking.  Or worse.

Video games are not the catalyst here, they’re simply the newest symptom.  And, as long as we blind ourselves to that conclusion, we’ll keep following behind our kids, trying to catch-up and protect them.  And, we never will.  But, what we can achieve, almost instantly, is a rational, educated discussion on how to make good decisions.  In the end, not only will our kids surround themselves with right choices (and, honestly, a few bad ones, from which they’ll learn and adjust), but they’ll also start to independently pull-in resources that help them deal with life’s greater issues.  More importantly, the issues we, as adults, never hear about from our kids.

Could Ash have saved Charlie from years of depression and angst?  Probably not.  But, could Ash have saved Charlie from a 5th grade year of fights, arguments, suspensions, and social struggles?  Certainly some of it.  And, it would have been those positive years that would have saved him from the depression and angst growing and festering into something worse.

Charlie moved towards the end of his 5th grade year, and I haven’t been able to keep in touch with him.  I do think about him often, wondering how he’s doing over the years.  He was a really good kid, looking for a really good spark to start him on his way.  If I had the tools then that I have now, I can’t help but think he would have had more than just a spark, but a roaring fire.

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