A wee Wii experiment

Posted: Sunday, March 22, 2009

Like many other families, we got a Wii last Christmas. In a radical departure from previous years, it was almost the only thing my wife and I bought. We enjoyed a very sane and modest Christmas.

Subsequent game purchases for the console have since made up for our initial holiday frugality, and based on our pattern, I can only imagine that Nintendo isn't suffering too much from the global economic meltdown. On those occasions when I swoon at the accrued cost, I remind myself that unlike many Christmas gifts, this one gets a lot of use.

Home video arcade systems weren't around when I was a kid, so watching how my children interact with them is intriguing, and informative. By watching I have gained a clearer sense of how well my kids are reading, for instance, and I have also seen them work through logical sequences that seem to defy what I was taught about the mental capabilities of young children.

Our kids have their favorite games, of course. My 5-year-old girl likes MarioKart. Loves it, in fact. If I could drive like she can, I would love it too. When we race she beats me, perhaps not in every race, but in the vast majority of them.

I find it especially stunning to race against my daughter because she always discards the goodies that could otherwise be used to gain an edge against her opponents. She doesn't know how to use them, and she doesn't need them to win.

When I race, I use every goodie that comes my way. I don't cut my kid any slack either, or I wouldn't if I could catch her. The problem, for me at least, is that I can rarely catch her.

Then there is the 4-year-old boy. The boy loves Star Wars - Lego Star Wars.

I read the label on the box before I bought the Lego game. Ten years old. Because these are virtual pieces of Lego and not animations of actual beings it's probably a good assumption the rating has more to do with the difficulty of the game than the violence of its content, a point which I remind myself of as I watch light sabers and energy bolts and rapidly deconstructing Legos.

My main concern was that my kids would be endlessly frustrated by the game controls and the complexity. Not so. While there have been occasions where one or both children have come asking for help getting past some particularly difficult maneuver, they have also successfully unlocked many levels that I never even saw, much less helped with.

One day my son wanted me to play along with him. I agreed. Well, almost. Out of curiosity I sat in the chair beside him with a controller in my hand but for almost an hour I never activated it, allowing my screen character to blindly follow my son's lead.

What I saw was a 4-year-old who was following multi-step sequences that required background knowledge, special tools and specific actions in order to succeed. He didn't need my help: he knew precisely what he needed to be doing.

His newfound knowledge was gained mostly from his sister, in what turned out to be the most unexpected benefit of our Christmas purchase. Because of the way the two-player versions of the Lego games (both Star Wars and Indiana Jones) are structured, teamwork between the two players is an integral part of the games.

The teamwork structure means that both players need to perform certain tasks in certain sequences, and they need to communicate with each other to do this. As a result, the Wii has prompted an ongoing dialog between our kids.

It is truly remarkable to listen to my kids while they play their games, chattering back and forth as they work through unknown levels. This is especially so considering that one of them is autistic.

My kids have been playing and talking as I've been typing this. I can hear my daughter now, using good descriptive details, giving directions, and even offering praise to her brother as he follows her lead.

The Wii: just another tool in our struggle with autism.

• Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and long-term Juneau resident.

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