In the test-obsessed, grade-gripped hothouses of meritocratic striving that are America's suburban public schools, some kids are thriving. They are the ones we (revealingly) call the "overachievers" — students who, with curricular, cultural, and parental support and encouragement, study hard after school, cramming their waking hours with homework, music lessons, sports, special projects, volunteering, and even the occasional fastidiously scheduled "play date" with a suitably achievement-oriented peer.
And then there are the children left behind.
I'm especially interested in and troubled by what's becoming of the boys who fail to win medals in the rat race that now begins in pre-school. Academically, most of them will be fine. They won't get into Harvard or Yale, but between instructional supports, extracurricular tutoring, and boosts from pharmaceuticals, they'll graduate from the public schools with good enough grades and test scores to get into one of the hundreds of perfectly adequate colleges and universities that, in return for a couple hundred thousand dollars in tuition, will gladly credentialize them in four to five years for a passable entry-level job earning $20,000 or so a year.
There are worse economic fates in post–financial crisis America.
What I'm far more concerned about is social development — and in particular with how a certain cohort of academically middling boys are withdrawing into a world of virtual competition and social interaction.
I'm talking about "gaming" — the $66 billion-a-year industry that held its annual trade fair in Los Angeles this week. For several hundred dollars, companies like Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo will sell you a console that turns a TV into a video arcade in your home, complete with computer-generated graphics and sound that approach the intensity and realism of Hollywood's effects-driven movie blockbusters.
Many studies of gaming have focused on the ubiquity of violent "shooter" games (like the enormously popular Call of Duty and Halo series) and how they may adversely influence the predominantly white boys who play them. (Respondents to a recent survey about video game usage were 87 percent male and 79 percent white.)
Others have highlighted alarmingly high rates of video game addiction, which may afflict 12 percent of regular gamers.
Both are serious concerns. But I'm especially troubled by how these gaming tendencies (violence and addiction) interact — and by how recent technological innovations combine to produce what can only be called an all-encompassing gaming culture that can and does supplant real-world socialization.
Those who purchase Microsoft's Xbox Live and a headset get to communicate verbally with friends and acquaintances (and strangers from around the world) while playing games, creating a virtual arcade in the mind of anyone who wants to hang out online.
That sounds like it could be wonderful social outlet for a kid who doesn't consistently come out on top academically or socially at school.
But is it?
Consider the contours of this virtual world. It's a place oriented entirely around games that are designed to provide players with a continual stream of positive rewards. This is a potent source of their addictiveness. Imagine a slot machine programmed to hit the jackpot several times a week, each time raising the machine to a higher level that makes it ostensibly harder to beat, while also allowing the player to continue winning with regularity.
Before video games, some kids (including boys who didn't excel in the classroom) would get to enjoy this flush of success through playing sports — though of course only when the team won or an individual athlete displayed prowess on the playing field.
Now the thrill of victory is open to all — with no possible agony of defeat, and no discernable real-world, transferrable, physical skill required or acquired. I'm presuming, of course, that proficiency at using a game controller to fire automatic weapons at imaginary enemy soldiers, aliens, and other bad guys has little practical use. It certainly does nothing to increase a young person's physical health, acuity, or endurance.
All of the effort takes place within the mind, using talents that, once again, have no connection to life outside the gaming world.
The same holds for the virtual friendships that are largely based in that world, mediated by the gaming console. Helicopter parents terrified of their kids running into harm in and around the neighborhood might take comfort from them spending all their free time safely at home, standing or sitting in front of a TV screen, playing games, talking to friends and acquaintances about games, making plans to buy more games, sharing insights into how to earn ever-higher scores on games, passing along rumors of the latest, newest, coolest games coming down the pike.
Maybe these parents won't mind either when their kids start spending time online at YouTube, watching trailers for forthcoming games and games they're dying to buy or rent, and even streaming countless thousands of videos of other people playing games — videos that can rack up millions of views each, with some channels boasting over a billion views. Or when these kids temporarily turn off the games so they can email, text, and call each other to talk about...games.
These parents might not see a problem. But they're wrong not to be troubled by the trend.
Is technologically mediated socializing better than complete isolation? Of course it is. Are there worse vices than fixating on a pointless diversion? Absolutely.
But raising children capable of navigating life's social and emotional hazards requires more than successfully steering them away from solitary confinement and a heroin habit. It requires that they be encouraged to experience life in the real world — and that they learn through that (sometimes agonizing) experience to cope with its vicissitudes.
We just don't know what will be the consequences of allowing a generation of boys to withdraw from the world into a virtual reality tailor-made to painlessly satisfy their craving for adventure and success with imaginary (and often intensely violent) triumphs and rewards.
We don't know. But we can make an educated guess that the consequences are unlikely to be good.