The surprising effects of video games with Ash Brandin (Transcript)

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ReThinking with Adam Grant
The surprising effects of video games with Ash Brandin
January 17, 2023

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking: my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.

My guest today is Ash Brandin, one of my favorite people to follow on Instagram. Ash is a middle school teacher with a mission of making school as motivating as games and a thought leader in bridging from science to practice. Wherever you stand on video games, our conversation might just challenge you to rethink some of your assumptions about how they affect kids and adults too.

Hey Ash, so great to meet you. I wish I had discovered you like three decades ago ‘cause it would've been extremely helpful.

[00:00:50] Ash Brandin:
Maybe help some childhood guilt with video games or something that you brought to adulthood?

[00:00:55] Adam Grant:
I think you could have prevented a few scars, definitely.

[00:00:57] Ash Brandin:
Well, hopefully, we can kind of maybe lay some foundation for that for other people.

[00:01:01] Adam Grant:
I look forward to that. And yeah, I've just been so impressed with the depth and breadth of your knowledge and the clarity of your communication.

[00:01:10] Ash Brandin:
Thank you. Yeah. When we first connected, you said that I was unusually thoughtful, which is by far the best compliment my anxiety has ever received.

[00:01:19] Adam Grant:
Wait, you're not nervous for this, are you?

[00:01:21] Ash Brandin:
Oh my God, of course I am. And a lot of my life, I feel like with what I make, I overthink a lot. So anytime that can be somehow validated as, as being a good thing is nice.

[00:01:32] Adam Grant:
Last time I checked, it is much better to be an overthinker than an underthinker.

[00:01:36] Ash Brandin:
Yeah, I'd agree.

[00:01:37] Adam Grant:
Thinking too much is sometimes unpleasant, but thinking too little is dangerous. How did you get into teaching?

[00:01:44] Ash Brandin:
So, I was a musician for a long time, starting in childhood, and knew it was something that I was serious about and felt like pursuing, but I didn't really wanna pursue like performance, professional performance. And my parents are both educators. My father is a, was a music educator.

So it just, it just kind of felt like the obvious choice. I’ve taught pretty much everything. I started as a music educator and then moved into other subjects, core subjects. I currently work as a teacher-librarian.

[00:02:15] Adam Grant:
Okay. So growing up you played the violin. Did you also play video games?

[00:02:18] Ash Brandin:
I sure did. You know, I grew up as a kid just thinking of video games as another part of my life. They weren't special. They were just a thing. I played violin and I baked and I rode my bike and I played video games. They weren't weighted in any way in my mind. So I grew up into an adult who saw them that way. And it didn't occur to me that that was a unique perspective until, you know, originally I was in education looking at the use of commercial entertainment games in, in academic spaces, ‘cause it was something I was personally really interested in.

And so I kind of retreated into my classroom and just started trying stuff and thought, well, “I'll just kind of do this.” And that's kind of how I got into doing anything public about it, was I started presenting kind of my ideas around education and video games at conventions, mostly in video game-centric spaces because they were a lot more open to this idea than a lot of education spaces.

And once the pandemic hit, I thought, “Well, I'm not going to a conference anytime soon, so I probably have to find some other way of doing this.” And kind of pivoted into social media and Instagram, and that's when I realized, like, all over again, “Oh, I thought maybe this was a unique take within education. Turns out, this is maybe just a unique take in general.”

[00:03:31] Adam Grant:
One of the things that's so refreshing about your perspective is you're not a game designer. You're not selling anything. You're an educator. I think it gives you a kind of a kid-centric perspective that a lot of parents are missing.

[00:03:46] Ash Brandin:
A lot of the time, the things that video games do are actually things we would love for education to do. When education does those things, we applaud it, and we're so happy about it. But when video games do those things, we say, “Ugh, that's all they wanna do. What a waste of time.” But psychologically, what's happening is the same. It's the same thing.

So I think it's so fascinating that you know, on the one hand we can look at these psychological tools that are getting used in video games and think that they're being used in some negative way. But if it was happening in most other activities, like if a kid were that motivated to play the cello, we wouldn't be like, “Ugh. All they wanna do is play the cello for four hours a day.” Right?

Yeah. It sounds absurd. So that was kind of my entry point to really looking at it, was to really focus on what's going on and not just attributing it to superficial things about games, but really looking at, you know, what's going on under the hood.

[00:04:47] Adam Grant:
About 15 years ago when my wife was expecting our first child, I got really curious about, well, what does the evidence show? And as a psychologist, I knew there were a lot of people who had been studying this. And so I went and started reading the meta-analysis, the studies of studies, and it was very clear that there were not consistent harms and there were lots of benefits, and I just took for granted that at some point the world knew that, and we had moved on to scapegoating other kinds of screens, like, you know, social media became the devil, and video games were the devil of the last generation, just like TV was the, the devil of the one before, and I was unprepared for the reaction.

Let's just walk through a little bit of the evidence. I think you and I are both fans of the, the Ferguson research.

[00:05:33] Ash Brandin:
Oh, yes.

[00:05:33] Adam Grant:
That cumulates a lot of this, this work. So my, my favorite meta-analysis from Ferguson, and there are multiple, was over a hundred studies, over a hundred thousand kids and teenagers showing that there is not a meaningful effect of video games on grades, attention, depression, or aggression.

And then my read also of the evidence was only about 3% of kids and teens show any kind of problem behavior. And where we do see those problem behaviors, they are more likely to be symptoms of mental health issues than actual causes of them. That was kind of my high-level understanding going into all of this. How does that track with what you've read, and what else should we put on the table there?

[00:06:15] Ash Brandin:
I mean, that definitely tracks, and I love the work of Ferguson and also Shibilski, who does a lot of work in this area. I also really love some of Ferguson's work in reexamining studies that claim to show these negative associations, some of which are really kind of foundational studies because they came out so long ago that they became the most-often cited ones.

And Ferguson found that when you accounted for the bias in those studies, the significance of their supposed results actually disappeared. So they really didn't find anything significant to begin with, even though maybe they thought they did, or they were published that way. It was more looking at a, at the publication of these studies as a whole and found that studies that claim to find negative outcomes associated between video games and, you know, behavioral outcomes or any sort of negative outcome are more likely to be published than studies that show neutral outcomes or positive outcomes.

The bias is coming from inside the house. It's just sort of built into the system because sometimes people would say, like, “Oh, but there's so many more studies that show negative outcomes,” and well, maybe there actually aren't. And as you probably know much better than I do, it's very hard to prove that something does not do something.

I like one of Ferguson's quotes where he's talking about video games and violent behavior, particularly around, like, mass shooting violent behavior. And he says, “Can a near-universal behavior truly predict a rare one?” You know, if you look at how many people play games, it, that's kind of ambiguous and hard to define because you know what actually constitutes a game, especially in this era of mobile gaming and what constitutes playing it? If you do it once, does that count?

You have to do it regularly, but depending on the study you read, overwhelmingly, it is consistently above 90% of the population, particularly of adolescents. There's one study in the 90s that found that like 98% of teenagers were playing video games. So even back then, the number was really, really high. So, you know, if we think about anything else where over 90% of the population is engaging with it, it would seem absurd if we tried to find a link between that and truly rare behavior like mass violence.

Video games so often become this scapegoat when acts of gun violence occur, particularly, like, mass gun violence. And I've done some posts on this because I was tired of that line of thinking, but I really did just wanna turn to the data and tried to really do some side-by-side comparisons looking at incidents of gun violence compared with the number of people who play games, both measured in, like, people per a hundred thousand.

And you know the countries that have the highest video game playing levels, Japan, South Korea, they have the lowest levels of gun violence. And when I originally put this out on Instagram, even though most of my audience is very amenable to what I have to say, the immediate response was, “Well, what games are they playing?”

Right? It's this sort of like whack-a-mole of like, “But really, maybe they really are the problem. You know, maybe just have to look at other data.” And so I thought, “Okay, fine.” Like I'll look at that data too, and found that the US—actually among the countries I could find data on for this, the US has among the lower rates of gamers who play shooter games, but has the highest rate of gun violence in the countries that I surveyed.

The countries that had the highest rates of percent of gamers who played shooters were India and South Korea. Many, many video games are made not in the United States. They’re made elsewhere, in other countries. So we sometimes get myopic in our focus on this and think that somehow, you know, video games are unique to America or American youth, but if they really were causing these problems, then we would see that reflected elsewhere in the world in a similar way.

[00:10:34] Adam Grant:
That’s a really good point. And maybe to add to it, I read a study a couple years ago out of the Netherlands showing that when a major Grand Theft Auto game is released, there's actually a decrease in violence and crime because the group of, well, you know, often like, young men, right, who are most likely to play violent games stay home to play instead of being out on the streets.

And so, the argument from that is maybe we should actually have more violent video games. No, I don't actually believe that. I personally choose not to play violent games, and I don't want our kids playing them either. But it is interesting when you actually look at the science.

And then I also, I love your point about publication bias. I know that when I started sharing some of this evidence on Instagram, there were all these people in the comments saying, “Who funded this research?” I'm like, first of all, a university. Like this is researched by a professor—

[00:11:29] Ash Brandin:

[00:11:29] Adam Grant:
—who’s cumulating all the data and accounting for all the studies, and looking at the average effects, both in randomized controlled trials and longitudinal studies. But to your point, there's a bias toward publishing studies that show harm. And so if anything, the fact that we see mostly null and positive effects suggests that we're, we're overestimating the costs and underestimating the benefits.

[00:11:51] Ash Brandin:
When I've asked my audience like, “What are you really concerned about?” Most often they say violent behavior. Like, there, there's gonna be some sort of causal relationship between video games and violent behavior, aggression, and desensitization. And there are studies, for example, there's one from Barnet in 2008, and they found that kids who play violent video games report lower levels of anger after they're done playing, not higher.

And if you think about that, if we think about, like, the purpose of playing games, well sometimes it is to safely release these feelings. You know, I had a friend in high school when he was having a really hard day, and he was feeling super angry, he would boot some game, you know. It’s like a world builder, and he would just kind of wreck havoc, you know, and just kind of destroy things because it was a safe place to do that. You know?

We'd much rather someone is finding a way to feel those feelings and get them out instead of bottle them up. Right? We want them to feel that in a way that is safe. Well, video games are a way to feel that. They're digital worlds, but the emotions that they evoke, as you alluded to earlier with, with being seven years old and trying to beat a level, those emotions are 100% real.

[00:13:10] Adam Grant:
Yeah. We're not, we're not outlawing karate.

[00:13:12] Ash Brandin:
Right. Right, right. But even adults, it's like, “Oh, I feel, I feel this anger. I'm gonna go for a run. I'm gonna write out every mean thing I'm thinking in my head.” Right? Because I just wanna get it out there and I want it to feel real. That's often something that violent video games and even not necessarily violent video games, games that might direct a feeling really evoke for people. And that will probably lessen the intensity of that feeling, not, not aggravate it.
[00:13:41] Adam Grant:
So interesting. I know, you know, I know the empirical jury is, you know, is very much out on when the effect goes in both directions. There was a Mather and, and van de Wiel article, I think multiple meta-analyses suggesting, yeah, on average, people who play violent video games more often engage in more aggressive behavior, but that also may be a self-selection effect, right? That aggressive people are drawn to aggressive video games in the first place, and we don't see strong effects in randomized controlled experiments where just people are, are given the chance to play these games. You don't see really kind kids turn into, you know, school bullies all of a sudden. Right?

[00:14:17] Ash Brandin:

[00:14:18] Adam Grant:
There’s a lot more I wanna discuss, but first, are you up for a lightning round?

[00:14:21] Ash Brandin:

[00:14:22] Adam Grant:
Good. Okay. First question is, do you have a favorite first game for kids to play?

[00:14:27] Ash Brandin:
I don't because it's so dependent on the kid. My kid's first game was Forza Horizon 4, which is like an intense driving simulator, right? Like, that is not a game marketed for kids. But my kid loves cars, and that motivated them. So for me, the best first game is something they're gonna be interested in.

[00:14:47] Adam Grant:
Okay. What about for middle schoolers? Is there a game or a category of games that you're especially fond of?

[00:14:53] Ash Brandin:
I think a lot of middle schoolers really love and gravitate toward, toward games that do give them that sense of, of control and relating to other people.

So, if you don't want them playing something like Fortnite, then maybe they can be playing something that has local multiplayer, that maybe has the same kind of feeling of exploration, even the, something like Minecraft they can be doing in the same room together, so to speak. But things that evoke that same feeling of control can be open-world games, right? Could be Zelda, could be Mario Odyssey, could be Terraria, could even be something like Kerbal Space program where you're kind of tinkering and using some STEM and experimentation.

[00:15:38] Adam Grant:
Interesting. All right. What about for adults? I'm sure we have some parents listening who did not grow up playing video games and have not yet experienced the joy that comes from them. Where would you begin?

[00:15:48] Ash Brandin:
When I am asked this question, I like to think about games that probably push on someone's idea of what a video game really is. Because I think most people think video games, and they think shooters, or they think arcade games, or they think side-scrolling, Mario Brothers. So I would push on what someone's idea of a video game really is, and I would encourage them to play a game like What Remains of Edith Finch, which is one of my favorite video games of all time. Have you played this game?

[00:16:16] Adam Grant:
No, I've never even heard it.

[00:16:17] Ash Brandin:
Oh my gosh. Play it today. It’s like a two-hour game. It's like the length of a movie, and I think it, I think it would make people completely see games differently. I don't, I… I don't think you're the same person when you get done with that game. Truly.

[00:16:33] Adam Grant:
I’m excited to try it.

[00:16:34] Ash Brandin:
So What Remains of Edith Finch, and then a game that I think is just a delight is Untitled Goose Game.

[00:16:43] Adam Grant:
All right, you're, you're completely expanding my horizons now.

[00:16:46] Ash Brandin:
An Untitled Goose Game is a great one to play with your kid. It's lovely. It has impressionist piano music playing in the background. You're like a goose just trying to mess with people. Such a delight.

[00:16:57] Adam Grant:
Oh, this is, this is actually great timing ‘cause I, I feel like whenever there's a holiday break, um, a lot of families have a tradition of, we're gonna do a puzzle on New Year's, for example, and we do puzzles, but we also will often get a new video game and then play that over a break as a family, which I love.

[00:17:13] Ash Brandin:
Great. I just realized one more that if I don't say I'm gonna be mad at myself and maybe there's not time for it. Braid, did you ever play Braid?

[00:17:21] Adam Grant:

[00:17:22] Ash Brandin:
Oh, I cannot believe that. Okay. It came out in 2008. And it is a, it's a side-scrolling platformer. It is so hard, the way it uses mechanics and time and the way it rethinks kind of the mechanics of a side-scrolling Mario game. Unbelievable. And if you get to the end of that game, when you figure out what the twist of that game is, you'll, you just see everything differently.

[00:17:45] Adam Grant:

[00:17:45] Ash Brandin:
It’s a game I wish I could play for the first time all over again. So Braid, What Remains of Edith Finch, Untitled Goose Game. If those don't, if those don't convince you, I don't know what will.

[00:17:54] Adam Grant:
I can't wait to hear from some of our guests, whether—

[00:17:57] Ash Brandin:
Me either.

[00:17:58] Adam Grant:
—those who are resistant have come around based on those few. Okay, you mentioned Mario. I have to ask. There is a Mario movie coming up in a few months. If you could voice any character, who would you pick?

[00:18:11] Ash Brandin:

[00:18:11] Adam Grant:

[00:18:11] Ash Brandin:
No hesitance. Toad.

[00:18:13] Adam Grant:
You didn't even… There, you didn't even pause there.

[00:18:14] Ash Brandin:
No, absolutely Toad. Yeah.

[00:18:18] Adam Grant:

[00:18:18] Ash Brandin:
What’s not to like? Gender ambiguous. Happy. Is the top of this a head or a hat?

[00:18:24] Adam Grant:
Final question for the lightning round. What is your favorite life lesson from teaching middle school?

[00:18:28] Ash Brandin:
When we were living in Japan, I got from a, from like a claw catcher game, I got this tiny little stuffed gudetama, and people may not know what a gudetama is. It's this like mascot that's an egg, and it's like a lazy egg. And I have one that’s, like, unbroken, it's just white. And it has a little face, and I have it on my wall where I work, and I have had it for years, and I have a sign behind it that says “Raw and hard-boiled look the same from the outside” to remind me that you know, so often middle schoolers kind of portray that they're kind of hard-boiled and sturdy and have it all together, but really they're pretty raw on the inside, behind the shell. That's something that I really try to keep in mind.

[00:19:24] Adam Grant:
That is a lovely metaphor, not just for middle schoolers, right, but for humans.

[00:19:29] Ash Brandin:
Oh yeah. I try to keep it in mind for myself of like how I'm portraying myself to them.


[00:19:32] Adam Grant:
Let's go back to when I was, I was seven, I think at the time, I was trying to beat Metroid, and I guess one Saturday I played for a bunch of hours, and my mom got fed up and you know, instead of banning me from Nintendo, she called our local newspaper, the Detroit Free Press, and said, 
“I don't like what video games are doing to my son, and I think you should do a story on it.” And before I knew it, there's a news crew at our house putting me on the front page in the newspaper asking whether Nintendo is frying kids' brains.

[00:20:10] Ash Brandin:

[00:20:12] Adam Grant:
Yeah. It was a little intense, but I was trying to freeze-dry one of the enemies. And then the reporter said, you know, “Adam's mother would like to freeze dry him after he's been playing for too many hours.” And I remember feeling so misunderstood, and I didn't have the vocabulary for it at the time, but looking back, it wasn't video games that were making me cranky. It was the fact that I had a goal. I had invested a lot of effort in trying to achieve the goal, and I had fallen short, and I was frustrated, and I, I felt the same way at age seven when came this close and then didn't beat the game as I would a decade later when I trained for four years as a diver and missed my best dive in the state championships, and it cost me a goal that I'd been working toward for years. And I think it's a, it's an emotion a lot of people can relate to, but exactly as you just said, because it was video games, it got put in a different box. So talk to me about what is that box? Why are parents so allergic to video games?

[00:21:11] Ash Brandin:
I think it's a really important question to try to examine, but I also think it's a complex one. Like, I don't think that there's one answer to this, and I think my take is that in my opinion, there's like three main things that are contributing.

One, there were a handful of studies, particularly in like the early 2000s that really shaped, kind of, the narrative and kind of public consciousness that we have around video games. And for a long time, there was just a dearth of research on the subject in general. So then when something got published, it became the only cited thing ‘cause it was kind of the only thing out there. And these early studies mostly tried to show an association between video games and negative behavioral outcomes.

We can get into the nitty gritty of that if we want to, but since those studies have come out, they have since been reviewed by other researchers who found that by and large, those studies were not necessarily valid, or they were misinterpreted, or they had bias that was making their results seem significant, even though they actually were not.

But those studies made their way out there and they were published and cited just really ubiquitously, you know, not just in academic journals, but in parenting pieces, even in, like, textbooks that for educators, like the teachers read to become teachers, published all the way through 2018 and maybe since. I just haven't checked since 2018.

So, they really found their way into our public consciousness, and that has huge ripple effects. I think that's one big piece of it. I don't think it's the only piece of it because as you've experienced recently, when people are confronted with the idea that maybe this data that they're using to base their negative association with video games on, when they realize or hear that that data's maybe not fully accurate, or maybe there's a whole host of data that actually says the opposite, suddenly the data don't matter anymore.

Um, and one look no further than the comments on your Instagram post recently about a study that showed an association between playing video games three or more hours per day and doing better on some cognitive tests. And if you look, I thought it was fascinating. If you look at the comments on that, there are so many comments from big names, like recognizable names, blue checks, and they're saying things like “I don't believe this.” “I don't care.” Like, “I don't care what the data says. I still think they're bad.” And that just kind of proves my second point, just that it, it was never really about the data, and the thing I think contributes a big, in a big way to this is we as a society, and I really mean American society, rooted in a lot of systems of oppression. we do not tend to value leisure for leisure's sake.

A lot of things that we do as leisure, we tend to only place value on them if they're being done in a way that we think of as good, you know, that's productive in some way. You know, someone knits and we're like, “Oh, that's great. You're learning a new skill. You're creating something for someone else, right?” It's about, like, productivity and your own sense of self-improvement. There's something you're getting or achieving from it, but video games are often just done purely for enjoyment’s sake.

And that's not to say that there aren't benefits you can get from it. There are, but if we fundamentally just view it as a waste of time, then we're not gonna notice some of those potential benefits. And I really think that fundamentally we just don't place a lot of value on, on things that we do purely for enjoyment.

So I think you take those things, you kind of put 'em together, and then you add in the third part, in my opinion, which is that video games are the perfect scapegoat. They cannot argue. They can't fight back. They're amorphous, right? Like, politicians can blame them for all of society's ills on the floor of Congress and they can't do anything about it, and it's a lot easier to blame something like video games than it is to maybe be introspective and look at what we might be complicit in or doing as a society that might be adding to these problems. So I think those things, they create this perfect storm where it becomes really easy for video games to suddenly seem like this root of all evil that we sometimes like to think of them as.

[00:25:33] Adam Grant:
I think it's, it's important to establish that video games do not seem to cause any consistent harm, right? But then the other part of this argument that surprises a lot of people is, “Wait, there can be benefits. How is this possible?” So there's the, there's the meta-analysis that Benoit Bediou led showing, you know, consistent benefits for cognition, for memory, for focus of attention.

I don't see this as much in the data but, you know, it tracks for me with, like, I feel like playing video games was where I learned fast reaction time. It's also an area where like I, I built a degree of grit when I failed, and then I wanted to persist and, and try to achieve my goal. I guess I've been curious about what are the upsides?

And there was this recent study that, that set off this, this whole conversation in the first place, which you mentioned earlier, that kids who play three hours a day or more compared to those who don't play at all have better impulse control and also better working memory. And I looked at that research and said, “Oh, this is really interesting.”

I share new science regularly with my audience, and I think one of the implications here is adults should stop telling kids not to play video games. We should play with them. It's kind of, like, exercise for the brain, and people freaked out. I was impressed with how you characterized that research and how much nuance and depth you added to those findings.

So, talk to me about that study and why it was done the way it was. Because I was not telling people that anyone should, should play nine hours of video games a day. I thought the contrast made the results especially interesting because it was an unusually high level of play and some parents might even consider it excessive or obsessive.

[00:27:19] Ash Brandin:
That was actually, I think one of the most interesting distinctions about that study. And that was something that, initially, some people who follow me brought up of like three hours is a lot. Like, should we really be encouraging kids to play for three hours a day?

And this study was a subset of a larger ongoing study, and so, I think because of the participants to which they had access, they basically had to choose between people who never play and people who are playing three or more hours per day. And what I find personally very interesting about those being the two groups, is that three or more hours per day does actually align with most definitions of excessive play.

The AAP used to have specific time recommendations. They don't anymore because they're really trying to get families to more focus on, on finding something that's a good fit for them. And I actually think that’s probably better in the long run. When they did do time recommendations, the most they really recommended was up to two hours per day.

But a lot of times, three hours or four hours is often the threshold for what is defined as, as excessive play in other studies and in some diagnostic criteria around, you know, problematic video game behavior. So, the fact that they were focusing on kids who really are playing what most people would define as too much, and so there isn't an in-between in this study. We don't necessarily know if someone's playing one hour per day, are, are they getting some cognitive benefits from that? It's also hard to say what those cognitive benefits really translate to in real life, right? Improved reaction time of 50 to 100 milliseconds was significant in the study.

What that really equates to in real life is hard to say. But the other thing this study did account for, which I really liked, was that it looked at negative behavior outcomes. So it looked both at cognition and found improved cognition, and it found no significant negative behavioral outcomes. And again, these are kids who are playing what is often thought of as an excessive amount per day.

So we see some potential improvements, and we're not seeing those negative outcomes. This is one reason though, where I don't actually love just focusing on data, because what ends up happening is it becomes like, which data is right? Right? And. I, I personally don't love that because my greater point is it's okay to do things you like because you like them, right? It's okay to do things you enjoy because you enjoy them. But when I think about the benefits of gameplay, for me, the benefits are really looking at the psychology of what's going on. Video games are incredibly intrinsically motivating experiences, and they do that not through trickery and not through graphics, and not through, you know, guns or sex appeal.

You know, if a game is not designed in a way that makes you intrinsically motivated, you won't play it. There's, there are thousands of different kinds of video games and titles out there, and not every gamer wants to play all of them, and so it has to be something that makes you feel motivated to do that. And video games do that by making players feel generally one of three things: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. And these are—

[00:31:00] Adam Grant:
Oh, self-determination theory. Deci and Ryan are having a field day right now.

[00:31:03] Ash Brandin:
Yay! I know. I love, I just love to talk about this because when I first started doing this work and talking about video games, this is what I focused on is why is it that people wanna play them? And it's because they make us feel these things. Anything that we love to do makes us feel these things. Autonomy, this sense of control, and depending on the game that can look really different. Like I love games that are really objective-driven because then I know exactly what's being asked of me. But kids like games like Minecraft, where it's this super open world, and they can do whatever they want.

Well, a lot of times kids don't have a lot of control in their lives, right? They spend all day essentially being told what to do and what's expected of them. They don't get a lot of control. So then they're put into this world where they can do literally anything they want, and it's fine. And if it's not fine, the game enforces it, but it doesn't chastise them, right? If someone tries to go somewhere in the game that they're not allowed to go, they just hit a wall, right? The game doesn't come in.

And then relatedness obviously comes up with a lot of multiplayer games, but it can also be, like, competitive or even casual. Like you have a friend who plays the same game that you do.

And a big part of that motivation, though, is competence, like you were talking about, with trying to beat that boss. You know when you are working at something and you are failing time and time and time again, the game doesn't rescue you. It doesn't say, “Oh, please, just try again. You can do it,” right? It just says, “Nope. There's the level. Like, do it or don’t. Take a break. We'll be here when you come back,” and it's up to you to decide, “Okay, what am I gonna do differently?” You have to think strategically, right? You might have to evaluate what you were doing, and then when you finally do it right, you feel on top of the world because that sense of achievement is the same sense of achievement you would have if you were working on doing free throws in basketball.

It's that same sense of achievement. And those are the things that really get people to want to play. And to me, that's the benefit. The fact that we have something that kids love to do, that they are building up these skills, these skills of tenacity, of evaluation, of strategic thinking. And when we view video games as just as valid as other uses of time, then we're suddenly able to recognize those things as benefits and as benefits that we can pivot into other parts of their lives.

[00:33:34] Adam Grant:
You know, thinking about this, kids playing three hours or more per day and experiencing some of these benefits for me raises big questions about what does a healthy relationship with video games look like? So you're a parent, like how do you think about that in your own household?

[00:33:49] Ash Brandin:
So, the very few guidelines I, I do have are around predictability. Because it's very easy for games to become a scarcity mindset type thing. So we have video games available every day for 30 minutes, and 30 minutes is from an arbitrary… It just, it works for us. It fits well in our day.

That is a given at our household is that they're kind of controlled in terms of when they're available, and they also serve a purpose because that's often when I'm making dinner or doing something else. I am someone who thinks about depictions of relationships, depictions of friendships, depictions of masculinity, kind of more of those things in kind of our overall philosophy of what we kind of want represented in the media.

And that's why sometimes just looking at age recommendations is tricky because you know, something might be completely appropriate for a kid who's eight years old, but maybe it has messaging that doesn't align with a particular family's philosophy. I avoid trying to give like an amount, you know. I'm on Instagram, so a lot of people who come to you know, influencers or like parenting spaces in Instagram, they want answers, right?

They want me to say, “Oh, this is the right amount. This will work for you.” But it's just not that black and white. And for me, when I'm trying to define healthy amounts of screen time or video game time for me, that answer is an amount that is beneficial for everyone in a family. When we talk about video games and even screens more broadly, we often focus solely on the person playing, on the kid, which I completely understand because parents are just, we're just so worried that we're gonna irrevocably screw up our kids. And I empathize with that very deeply.

But what we're often overlooking is that screens are often filling in a systemic gap, and making something possible for an adult as well. You know, adults might be relying on their kids having some screen time or playing some video games so that they can attend to the needs of another child or make dinner or take a shower or answer a work email.

And that's also valid, right? That's a valid use of that time. People often describe screens or video games as a tool for parents, and if we really do want to view them as a tool, then we need to think about the needs of everyone in a family when deciding what a healthy amount really is. And some kids, they can play for an hour and they can put it down and they're fine. Right?

And other kids, that threshold is a lot lower, and it might depend on the kind of game they're playing or what they're watching. It can be really nuanced and it just kind of takes some problem-solving and experimentation sometimes to find out what that really is and what that sweet spot is for your family.

[00:36:37] Adam Grant:
I love that. It really broadens the lens beyond thinking about, “Okay, you know, I want to minimize the costs for my kid, and I want to try to maximize the benefits for my kid,” to say, “How does this fit in to our overall goals and values as a family?” I think that's the discussion we're gonna have at home actually.

[00:36:56] Ash Brandin:
So I'm an elder millennial. I was in childhood during, you know, NES/SNES, but I didn't have a console until actually, probably middle school. So for me, it was N64, was the first console that, like, I had in my house. So that's where all my nostalgia lives is with N64, and I still have that same N64. It just lives at a cabin we have in the mountains. And so we go up there and now my kid gets to play it and just reignites the nostalgia anew.

[00:37:26] Adam Grant:
Uh, multi-generational video game experience is just unbeatable.

[00:37:31] Ash Brandin:

[00:31:31] Adam Grant:
But I just beat the original Legend of Zelda with our nine-year-old son, and it was like, it was one of the most delightful things I've ever done.

[00:37:39] Ash Brandin:
Oh, I can only imagine. One of my, the first eye-opening games for me was, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, ‘cause that was the N64 Zelda. And you know, just those feelings of just how big the world felt and the feeling of freedom and exploration. And as an adult now, you know, I played Zelda Breath of the Wild when it came out, and I can still come back to that game and feel that same feeling, that same childlike awe of what you're seeing and then being able to see that through the eyes of your kid, oh, it's just, it's so special.

People will sometimes say to me, “Oh, you're like pro-screens and you're pro-video games.” I actually do not describe myself that way. I think of video games as what I like to call “morally inert”, because I don't ascribe value to a lot of different things that I do. They're just something that I do, and when I try to think of games in this sort of inert, this morally inert way, it does allow me to see the potential for good in them the way I do when my kid is drawing or creating with Lego or I'm doing a puzzle or playing outside.

And I think often our, our urge to restrict or to put rules around games really comes from this place of fear, and I do empathize with that really, really sincerely. Games are not going anywhere. You know, we've had commercial console gaming in homes for 50 years, like they are not going away. And we have really incredible power as caregivers to help our kids find ways to have games be a part of their lives, but not the center of their lives. And that's something that we can really help them do by making them just another part of our lives.

And they're available when they're available. And they're not when they're not. And it's okay if kids don't like that, but then we're building up those skills so that hopefully then they become adults who can just have video games be a part of their lives along with responsibilities.

[00:39:46] Adam Grant:
Beautifully put. I, I guess where, where I'm landing in this conversation is I think video games have been a major net positive in my life, and I think they've also been a great source of enrichment and connection for our family.

And yeah, I think that science is very consistent with that, and I would love for more families to experience that. And I think your work has given us guideposts for figuring out how to do that. I really can't thank you enough for sharing your wisdom and insight with us. And you know, for me, most importantly, for being a voice of reason in what is often an extremely unreasonable conversation, and also for being so balanced on what tends to be a rather one-sided issue. I think you're, you're doing a great service to parents and kids everywhere, and I'm so glad I got to meet you.

[00:40:33] Ash Brandin:
Thank you so much, Adam, and thank you so much for having me, and I just really hope that I can help families. So hopefully if they're hearing this, I hope it just helps in some way.

[00:40:42] Adam Grant:
I think it already has. Thank you.

[00:40:44] Ash Brandin:
Thank you.

[00:40:48] Adam Grant:
All right. I'm now rethinking our entire philosophy of setting boundaries around video games. I think what Ash really impressed upon me is the idea that we shouldn't just limit the conversation to “what is it doing to my child”, but “what is it doing to our whole family, and how do we make sure it's enriching as opposed to depleting? How do we make sure it's aligned with our values as opposed to interfering with them?”

And I think that's such an important conversation to have, and I think that one of those values that has to be in the conversation is leisure. I love the point that Ash made early on that as a society, we devalue leisure, and it's okay to do an activity just because it's fun. It doesn't have to be productive. You do not have to spend every waking hour mastering the violin, right? You can just have fun playing video games. And lo and behold, there are some side benefits. You get the spike in intrinsic motivation. You get the feeling of mastery. You may get some impulse control, some discipline, some focus, some grit.

And I don't think those should be reasons to do the activity. I think they should be byproducts that are unexpected. And the real reason to do it is because it's fun. So, yeah, let's have more fun. We could all use it.

Rethinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michell Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington-Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.


[00:42:39] Adam Grant:
Okay. Ash, in your life to date, how many times have you died of dysentery?

[00:42:44] Ash Brandin:
Oh, I mean, more than I can count. I think. I don't know if I have personally, but like Paul, you know, someone some other poor soul of my wagon.

[00:42:55] Adam Grant:
But you do know how to ford a river?

[00:42:56] Ash Brandin:
Yes. That I do know how to do. Can't tell you anything about Oregon Trail history. That's why it's not the best example of an educational cane, but I definitely learned what dysentery means.