I have always let Caleb spend as much time as he wanted on computer games--as long as it was in CREATING them instead of playing them.
Turns out, science says I was smart after all:
I have been using this deliberately as a homeschooling technique for Caleb. When people question using building computer games as educational, I point this out. When Caleb is making a computer game he is heavily involved in:
1. Technology use--Caleb is not scared of computers, and he is perfectly capable of learning how to use new technology (relatively fearlessly, too--surprising in a kid who cries, still, when something electronic doesn't work right and who panics and turns the machine off when messages show up on screen that he doesn't understand).
2. Character development--on a level far advanced of most college-level writers. He even grasps firmly how dialogue reveals character (which many adult writers--even published ones--don't understand).
3. Plot development--again on a level far advanced of most college-level writers because game creation accepts that plots have a problem-solution structure, a questing nature, primary plot and subplots, and that each character has his/her own plot, all of which must ultimately weave together to accomplish the primary plot. He also has to plot out the entire story to make the game work, but be flexible as new things come up. Caleb has a better grasp of plot and character than ANYONE who studies only literature.
4. Map use and creation
5. Artistic design using traditional and electronic tools. Games require you to "draw" or obtain drawings of your characters in various poses and from various angles. These are used on "sprite sheets" that the program accesses to animate the characters. Caleb, using drawing programs you find on your computer and online (like MS Paint and Gimp) draws and modifies sprites to get the effects he wants, frequently coming to me flushed and excited because he learned how to "make a transparent explosion" or "make the fire look more real" or "developed a new technique to make the characters look invisible" or whatever. Serious ART and design skills, as well as electronic design skills. I have watched Caleb edit pictures pixel-by-pixel to get them just right, and create new colors, and spend HOURS drawing realistic special effects.
5. Math. Games are worked out on grids, using the right numbers of pixels, and are tied firmly to math. I frequently have someone run in and say, "What's two times 17.5?" or "What is half of 320?" Caleb understands area, perimeter, multiplication, and basic programming logic in ways that most 8 year olds don't get (not because they can't but because who cares how big the table top is or how many tiles it takes Dad to re-do the bathroom)!
6. Music. Caleb understands that instrumental music tells a story and can influence people. He spends hours poring over music files searching for just the right feel for his "boss battle," and we frequently have discussions about "what kind of music is right for a cave scene....but what if it's a cave battle scene....or a haunted cave scene...". He hears the details in music. He is engaged in non-computer-music, too, as he hears in classical songs the same kinds of details and stories that he hears in computer songs. He and Tim are going to sit down tonight or tomorrow and start songwriting lessons. Why? Because he needs a theme song for one of his creations and couldn't find one in the public domain that he liked.
7. Intellectual property law. What? You say. Yes. Caleb has had reason to learn about copyright, fanfic, intellectual property....he frequently asks me things like, "Is there music in the public domain that has to do with firebirds?" or says things like, "I love this game, but I can't ever release it because it's based on someone else's characters."
8. Sound and audio recording and editing. Caleb asked me just today, "Is there such a thing as a font list but of sounds?" I know what he means. Not all explosions are the same. Caleb spends a lot of time finding and synching sound files to his games. He also edits sound and is learning more about that, and delights in recording dialogue and special effect sounds for his works.
9.Social Studies. Games have been a perfect chance for Caleb to explore the interactions in societies, the roles and breakdowns of governments, intrigue and deviousness on a grand scale, as well as the roles of heroes and supporting characters--and not just on a fantasy level. Not all games are fantasy, after all.
10. Problem solving. Creating games is not easy. Caleb has learned how to learn, and how to creatively solve problems, and how to "get back up on the horse" and also when to quit. He's learned how to find the things he's missing, and how to find the resources to teach him because I can't do it.
11. Computer programming. We're just getting into this because you don't need it to make games anymore.
And because game creation is essentially advanced storytelling, Caleb has also picked up writing comics and filmmaking and editing as side hobbies.
With all of that, I figure he's got most of the elementary school curriculum covered. Why would I stop him from doing that--so he can open a workbook and put an x on the river on the map in their picture?
As I FREQUENTLY tell concerned parents whose kids love to use electronic media: It's not the screen that's the problem. It's what's ON the screen that counts. What's the difference between writing an email to Grandma and writing a letter to Grandma? Electronic is not inherently evil.
Screen time is not bad simply because of the screen....it's what's on the screen that counts.
I think the reason we, as parents (even homeschooling parents) shy away from using computer games to teach is that we still believe somewhere inside that a)education is dry and should be and that b) the lessons and going through the motions are "education" rather than achieving the outcomes. Does it REALLY matter if we do or don't go through the workbook on maps if Caleb can use maps and create his own? I don't think so. But I have to stop and remind myself of that over an over. Why not make the hoops fun to jump through? The result is not the same--it's better. Kids learn more and more thoroughly when they enjoy it and have reason to be engaged (reason besides "I don't get to play if I don't do this blah stuff.").
Bottom line for me: Education should be joyful, not the mental equivalent of immunizations.