Video Games and Democracy

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As we draw to the close of our second year, we’ve been reflecting on some of the ways in which our community has evolved. It has been really interesting, for example, to watch how the weekly meeting has taken shape. I had always thought that a self-directed learning community had to be, almost by definition, a totally democratically run, self-governing organization. This meant that no decision, big or small, was outside the scope of the weekly democratic meeting. I remember my impassioned attempts to incite the kids to action; “This is your center, it can be whatever you want it to be! You can run it however you want to run it!”. This went on for a few weeks. Nothing, blank expressions all around. I remember saying to a friend, “They must just not be used to having real power, they think it’s a ruse, but if I’m persistent it will eventually get through to them that I’m serious, and finally they will rise to the challenge and take control.” It took me a while, but I eventually came to accept what was clear from the very beginning; kids want to have control over their own lives, they want to be involved in any decisions that have a clear and direct effect on their everyday experience. On the whole, however, they do not seem to have much interest in the larger organizational issues involved in creating and running a place like the Macomber Center. They care a lot about things like scheduling for the week ahead and figuring out sensible rules for the community to follow, and they will engage actively in the democratic process when these kinds of issues are involved. They could not care less, though, about marketing strategies or hammering out the details of our annual budget. It began to feel more and more that the democratic meeting was not the place for these topics to be discussed, and the kids were all too happy to have the staff take them up on our own time.

Our meetings are much simpler now, more oriented around the practical, everyday issues of the community, and much briefer than they were in the beginning. But the items that come up for discussion now are no less consequential. Recently, the topic of video games appeared on the agenda. Some members of the community felt that video games should be restricted to personal devices and should not be played on the main computers owned by the center. One eleven year old boy, who was unable to attend the meeting, prepared a position paper in support of a motion to ban video games and had it read at the meeting. I’ve included a section of it here with the author’s permission.

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“I am in favor of completely banning all video games permanently, and without exception, on the Macomber computer(s). It would be a majorly bad idea to pitch the computer completely, since it’s fast, it’s got Flash, and it can handle programs like Scratch. However, video games are simply a recipe for disaster. For starters, we’ve only got one computer that can actually play them, so everyone’s always quarreling with everyone else about whose turn it is. Now, I’m no hater of video games myself. Matter of fact, I rather enjoy them at home on my free time. But at Macomber, the entire point is to get outside, be creative, develop new skills etc. etc. Video games don’t do any of that, unless it’s an educational game that’s no fun anyway. Also, games are a big suck on the Center’s pool of kids for playing outdoors, card games and such. So even if you can summon up the willpower to resist watching or playing them, you’re still gonna be affected. The biggest problem here is the fact that kids seem irresistibly drawn to the games like moths to a light. If only one kid was playing at a time, this wouldn’t be that much of a problem, but that’s not the case. People sign up for a turn order, but until it’s their turn, they don’t seem to be able to do anything else besides watch other people play.”

This whole thing seemed a bit strange to me. For one thing, the kids who were most against video games being played on the main computers were themselves the ones who had been playing video games the previous week on those computers. I asked them, “Why don’t you guys just make a personal decision not to play games on those computers, instead of making a rule about it? After all, it’s important to be able to make conscious decisions about how you want to spend your time and then develop the discipline to stick to it.” But they stuck to their position.  In the end, maybe this was their way of self-regulating. Since it didn’t really affect me that much, I abstained from voting, and it passed almost unanimously.

These kinds of decisions play a huge role in determining the direction of the Macomber Center. Ultimately we realized that to burden the community meeting with issues that kids have little or no interest in would only cause them to become disengaged from the democratic process altogether. But we have also seen over and over again that when issues come before the meeting which directly affect their everyday lives, they engage seriously in the process. In the end we want kids to learn how to function effectively and get their needs met within an institutional setting. Because eventually they will take this with them into adulthood and they will already know what it means to participate in the institutional structures which shape their lives.