After lengthy negotiations, we agreed to our son having an Xbox for his 12th birthday. Fellow secondary-school teachers will understand our deep parental forebodings – not so much because of the financial cost involved (which he contributed towards) but more because of what it may cost him academically. Will he corrupted by the allure of Fifa 16?
We have often seen the lengthy and rather over-dramatic stare both mum and dad give their own “Fifa” child at parents’ evenings whenever we begin to raise the issue of (lack of) homework. “Well that’s because he spends all his time on that [Xpletive] Xbox” must surely be in the top five most uttered parental statements on such occasions (“bloody PlayStation” is well up there, too). Indeed, a survey conducted by the charity Action for Children confirms that the regular attempt to prise your offspring away from a screen is now the toughest parental task of all (bit.ly/ActionPoll).
As teachers, we know that the black box (along with smartphones) often ruins sleep patterns, homework, any notions of top-up work and many a well-intentioned exam revision schedule. Frankly, I think I would feel slightly less parental anxiety if I had just bought him his first cigarettes, soft drugs or pornographic box set.
The allure of the games console can, in extreme cases, wipe out a student’s commitment to homework entirely. The more familiar problem, however, is that homework is still completed but becomes a mere five-minute interlude, written during half-time or a brief ceasefire in Call of Duty (although our son won’t be allowed that kind of game until he’s 35).
We see the lure of the console in the “research” homework consisting of a token few sentences, or in an A-level essay that starts promisingly but stops after exactly one page. We see it in discursive tasks containing just one narrow opinion on an issue – to include any other views would have delayed the student from the paused console for another 20 minutes. We see it, also, in a lapse into slapdash handwriting, Wiki-plagiarism and in those brief platitudinous conclusions.
Our fears for our son were hardly allayed by two 2015 reports – from the University of Cambridge (bit.ly/CamStudy) and the National Children’s Bureau (bit.ly/NCBstudy). Both suggest – not the most staggering finding, admittedly – that the more hours a student spends on video games the less likely they are to achieve high GCSE grades.
I also worry about other effects the console might have on our son. At the moment, his interests are still widespread and growing, his leisure time is rich in diverse outdoor and indoor activities.
To help us get over these deep and widespread parental worries, Microsoft and Sony surely need to embrace GCSEs and A levels with a couple of £40 games packages. Just call the games something like “Grade Theft Auto” or “A Star Wars”, with variations for each course. At the moment, the “educational” offering is too focused on quizzes and mental agility – not what the guilt-laden, exam-focused parents of 2016 are looking for.
For each subject, the player would negotiate a suitably perilous course. Hazards and devious characters would pop up intermittently. These might include a wayward friend, the odd error-prone teacher, maybe a minister periodically taking over the screen to announce a few adjustments. Teachers would obviously need to be on hand to advise on production. I, for one, am more than happy to help Microsoft with this. My son’s Xbox would then become an academic asset, not merely a liability, and sharing a percentage of the computer giant’s fortune might perhaps help me to sleep a bit more easily.
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire