Ask Ali

This space is dedicated to answering frequently asked questions by critics and concerned parents.  Many people have common misconceptions about Ali's work that involves boys. Here we have given an opportunity for the community to view these concerns as well as add their own. 


Email question from a thougtful college student:


Is there anything being done to address the potentially more destructive learning that's inherent in games that support self-validation through being better than others? I think this is a tricky and unstable sense of self-worth that won't be available to everyone and a cultural mindset in the United States that perpetuates and supports separative or violent actions. I'm not saying people shouldn't feel like they're achieving what they achieve at their own pace or in a way that works, be that playing a game over and over until they get it right. I'm also supportive of personal accomplishment. But it worries me a little to think about this accomplishment being valued by the failure of someone else. 


I'm curious what you're thinking about that. Because, while it's a motivating and effective reward for young boys, I also would hope there's a discussion at least of what this sort of self-value means in how they judge others, or in how they judge themselves if this value is lost. I remember seeing the video about a boy who learned to try again if he failed through games, and that's great. But it's still a little off putting to me that it's to try again to be dominant and there's no sense of reward until that's achieved. I'm not saying everyone has to be rewarded equally, but I am wondering if personal achievement has to rely on knowing someone else has achieved less?


Thanks for your time,





This is an important facet of our research and needs to be addressed. There are two basic ways to look at this issue. The first is to understand that game play is a manifestation of the self including how we play, what we play, and the decisions we make during game play. These are extensions of individuals. From this sense we can see that the individual brings an agenda to the space and does begin to design meaning from his/her actions in cohesion with the system. This being said, if we are speaking to boy play, then it is important to have a deeper understanding of boys. Primotology, child psychology, neurobiology and even educational psychology among other fields tell us that boys are innately drawn to themes of power and dominance that stem back to the days of nomadic tribes. In contrast this is a foreign concept to females as competition and violence often tears apart relationships. We first need to recognize and understand that boys and girls are not neutral in their development, behaviors or neurobiology.


If we peel back another layer and investigate the meaning making that occurs for boys. It is a fact that our research strongly suggest that competition and yes violent fantasy is an activity that draws boys closer together. Their best friends are the ones that they beat up on the most in the game space and vica versa. First and foremost this is a bonding experience. It is a social function and how they make friends and close nit relationships. Competition is more about self improvement and the encouragement of social peers than anything else for boys. It gets loud, boisterous and even annoying because of high levels of engagement and excitement. There is even trash talk. Competition can be viewed as the gas that drives the vehicle of learning that include deep levels of problem solving, computational thinking, grit development among others. Stated another way, it can be seen as the ground our play mat upon which games are played for boys. There are close ties to self esteem and learning from failure and developing grit, but these concepts are bound within the activity of gaming in particular ways with peers.  The powerful thing about games is that the player has the power to gravitate towards the game, game style or environment that yields them the greatest return in terms of self esteem.


This is of course a shortened form of the argument and does not exclude the possibility of toxic environments. Toxic environments and harmful exposure is a real concern. However so is walking outside in the daytime. These are facts of life. They are not the norm nor are they isolated incidents. How we should view these destructive volatile environments is as we would the worldwide landscape. The vast majority of videogame play and intentionality is for the betterment of the player beit boys in violent games or girls in social games. 


Do you advocate violent game play for young boys?

As with all things, moderation is important here. I do not advocate for unfettered violent video game play.  However, I think we as a society must realize and accept that a violent fantasy play life is completely normal and a natural stage of development for most boys and some girls.  Violence in itself is not a bad or off-limits subject to be avoided by children and their parents. Sometimes it's precisely through children’s’ fantasy role plays that they figure out and learn how to handle themselves as they grow up and learn to handle bullies or other difficult situations in the future. A boy’s development, guided by the parents and caretakers, is also about understanding the pathways to maturity and becoming a man with integrity and confidence in the world.  The statistics and studies have shown some mixture of pros and cons associated with violent video play.  I believe that we should follow proper guidelines and avoid too much play and too much violence too early in life.  These guidelines offered to us by pediatricians and psychologists are valuable and we should pay attention to them.  Good parenting doesn't just leave kids to play advanced violent games of any sort or watch violent tv or movies or read overly violent books --including Shakespeare by the way.  But I think we've misread masculinity and don't understand the real role that violent fantasy life can play in the healthy development of kids.  Our zero tolerance policies won't allow us to accept this.  We want to protect our kids from any and all violence.  This is understandable; we have an entirely nostalgic and optimistic view of children and want only sunshine and light for them.  While this remains a natural instinct, we shouldn't let it override our good sense to let children explore the darker sides of life, too.  Statistically we know that as violent video game sales have skyrocketed, teenage real world violence has decreased.  We also know that among teens who have had trouble with the police, those who gamed were less likely to have additional trouble than those who didn't game.  It may turnout that video games are just a very useful outlet for aggression.  So yes, I'd say I do advocate for violent video game play, within limits and bounds, with proper supervision AND particularly to the extent that parents can play WITH kids and are able not just to supervise but help kids make translations from their play into their learning.



Are video games the only answer to the boy issue?


Without a doubt there's a big NO to this question.  There are so many factors at play in any broad system like education and learning.  It is essential that we recognize this as just one of many ways we can show boys that they are welcome at school; for example, getting more men into elementary classroom teaching is one way to do this.  Making sure boys get plenty of recess time and maybe allowing exercise balls in the classroom to accommodate regular kinesthetic movements may help boys and all active kids concentrate more effectively (though all those bouncing kids may make it tough for teachers to concentrate!).  There are many answers, and I hope lots of people will work on a variety of answers. I chose to work in the video game space because it's one of the best ways to confront the serious issues associated with the anti-boy culture in schools today; it brings into sharp relief cultural issues of zero tolerance, anti-violence, anti-competition, and collaboration over individual achievement.  


What about issues with young girls and games?


Issues with girls are a serious concern.  Most of the games that girls like to play are social games, as opposed to MMORPG's.  This difference is really important because businesses are increasingly looking to the leader boards of MMORPG's such as World of Wacraft to find their CEOs!  Girls are missing out on this because these kinds of games really don't appeal to their sensibilities, which are also just as natural and normal as are the aggressive tendencies of most boys.  We need to figure out how to engage girls in games that will help them learn these important skills that the boys are learning such as followership, leadership, wicked problem solving, critical thinking, endurance, perseverance, even "grit." I feel that as long as girls are avoiding these games and mostly focus on social games, they may be missing out on some of the deep engagement that is needed for their futures.  So game designers need to crack that code next.


What can I do as a parent to help my boy?


You are the most important person in your son's life, no matter his age.  First, accept that he's a boy. Don't try to make him into a girl even in subtle or insidious ways.  He's great just as he is: energetic, crazy, fun, inquisitive.  Encourage all of this, and the next time you see a boy who is driving his mom or dad crazy, compliment him and his parents.  We all need more encouragement.  Don't expect to drop your son off at the school gate at 5 and pick him up a fully formed, confident and accomplished man at 18.  He needs you to take an active role.  Get him into a scout troop and support him. Look for lists of books that are boy friendly.  Plan on spending a lot of time with your son filling in gaps that you find from school.  Any school, no matter how wonderful, will miss some instruction with active boys who may or may not catch everything that goes on in a classroom in the same way that well-focused kids may.  In my house, summer school was serious work. Each year I spend the school year figuring out what they're missing and then we plug gaps in the summer time.  Be there for your boys, and make sure you read a lot about boy worlds.  They are not only different from girl worlds, but they are different from boy worlds of 15 years ago, so do take some time to get acquainted with the new culture of what it means to be a boy in today's society.  Pay close attention to their health issues. Boy health issues tend to get lost in the shuffle of their educational and social needs, so make sure you son is getting careful regular health screenings and that you're paying close attention to his entire world. 

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