Mario Kart and the Challenge of Teaching Children Mindfulness

Playing a video game with your kids might seem like the height of parental surrender, the cognitive equivalent of stopping at the drive-through window to pick up dinner: it's easy for you, and you know the kids won't object. But for me, there's a method to the madness.
07/03/2013 06:34 pm ET

It's early evening, and my kids, wife and I are playing Mario Kart on our Nintendo Wii. My avatar, a small, excitable, often-obnoxious monkey named Diddy Kong, is driving an old fashioned-looking dragster; my wife has a similar car, piloted by a human avatar. My kids favor motorcycles: my daughter drives the kind of aerodynamic bike that you usually glimpse as it blow past you on the freeway, while my son chooses among a variety of more eccentric bikes. We're in the final lap of our first race. I'm in the zone, my avatar and I are one, the steering wheel is an extension of my body. And I'm getting my ass kicked.

Anyone looking through our living room window would see four people holding steering wheels in front of them, as if driving invisible cars. Like players on old-fashioned pinball machines, when the action gets intense, we occasionally dodge in our seats or lean forward, hoping that the movement will translate into just that little extra kick of speed at the finish line. For a video game, there's an interesting physical dimension to the way we play.

I first saw a video game-- it was THE first video game, Nolan Bushnell's Pong, in fact-- when I was my son's age. For me, video games were an escape. Strafing alien landscapes that looked suspiciously like southern California, running through mazes chased by ghosts and shooting down alien ships, I was a world away from Planet Earth, from school and from adults, who my friends and I all just knew would never connect with video games the way we did. It was like rock music: how could someone who went to high school in the 1950s or 1960s possibly appreciate it? Now, though, our family plays together several times a week. It's a game we're all good at. It's exciting without being too violent: it's all cartoon physics and cars doing somersaults. And despite my kids' best efforts to avoid them, it's a platform for learning some lessons about digital life.

I turn into the final lap, drafting behind another car long enough to build up some speed, then knock it out of the way. Nintendo's design team lovingly crafted an elaborate, slightly psychedelic environment of mushrooms and fog-shrouded hills, which I completely ignore. Scientists long ago discovered that your visual field actually narrows when you're concentrating. When I first saw Mario Kart, the riotous graphics and constant action made my head hurt, but no more: I've learned to focus only on the road and the competition, and to tune everything else out. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would put it, confusion has been replaced by flow.

My 13-year-old daughter plays with a similar single-mindedness. When my kids were younger it upset them to lose, so I would hold myself back, orchestrate come-from-behind finishes where they crossed the finish line as I tapped on the brakes. Now that they're older, every game is a fight. She recently mastered a new, faster motorcycle, and I spend a distressing portion of the race studying it from behind. Occasionally, she taunts me by stopping just before the finish line, then nudging her vehicle ahead as I close in. Not the most diplomatic way to play (especially on a motorcycle that I UNLOCKED FOR HER, an irony she seems unable to grasp), but then again, she learned it from me.

Now, though, I'm ahead, and determined to stay there. I'm not excited: I have the steely calm of a samurai lining up a killing blow. I throw a bomb back at her, which she deftly avoids. It doesn't matter, though: I'm so close to the finish line she won't have time to pass me. But a second later my car crashes to a stop. In my effort to line up my shot, I overlooked the pulse weapon that stalls my car. My daughter sees it coming and can shake it off quickly. At least she doesn't have time to stop at the finish line after she passes me.

Playing a video game with your kids might seem like the height of parental surrender, the cognitive equivalent of stopping at the drive-through window to pick up dinner: it's easy for you, and you know the kids won't object. And many alpha-type tiger parents would see this not as a warm family activity, but as negligence. My dad, who emigrated to the United States after the Korean War, would file it under "Lost Homework Time." But for me, there's a method to the madness.

Playing as a family contextualizes gaming. It puts a social context around it. In contrast to "social" video games, which either gather information about your location and friends and use it to get you to click on ads, or throw you in with players you don't know (they're social the way The Hunger Games are social), playing Mario Kart with the kids is a more old-fashioned experience. The kids are playing with people they know. They have to practice good sportsmanship. They're not allowed to insult each other, because they tend to take such slights personally. They're discouraged from bad behavior or cheating by the knowledge that, for all the excitement of the screen, they're actually playing against other people.

They kids also learn something about the value of focus and persistence. One of our rules is that you don't distract other players. Not only does this keep me from being thrown off my game, it cuts down on self-distraction and encourages the kids to focus. In some games, luck or frantic button-mashing can win matches. Not here. Mario Kart rewards practice, an intimate knowledge of the course, and a feel for the strengths and limits of your vehicle. If the kids win, it's not just luck.

And the key to winning is to concentrate, to learn to exclude distractions and focus only on what really matters. I'm good at the game because I know how to focus. I always loved the immersive quality of games, and I want my kids to appreciate that pleasure. I also want them to be aware of the decisive value of focus. The ability to become so utterly absorbed in something that you lose all sense of time and forget yourself is one that world-class musicians, scientists, software developers and writers all share -- but they need to know how to find it and use it without being taken over by it. Distracted people never make great discoveries, or think deep thoughts, or change the world. They also don't beat me.

Put another way, the game is a platform for teaching my kids to be mindful, to learn to be aware of their own state of mind, to be aware of other people, to command and direct their attention. Of course, it's all too easy for video games to be distracting, for people to play in ways that are alienating, addictive or self-destructive. I've done them all myself. The system is happy for you to keep playing without thinking; I want my kids to know they can play their own way. In fact, in a world that churns out systems that encourage mindless eating, mindless buying, mindless watching and mindless living, teaching them that they can use games to REFINE their powers of concentration and capacity for mindfulness might be the most valuable lesson I can teach them.

Helping children learn to use and make good decisions about information technology, I contend, is like teaching them about reading or food: no responsible parent would prevent their child from learning to read to protect them from heretical writing and pornography, or teach them to fear all food because of Twinkies. In the world they'll grow up in, Internet connections will be as ubiquitous as electricity, the web as familiar as books and social media a common as the telephone. As a parent, it's my responsibility to help them learn to make sense of it.

I don't want to protect my children from technology any more than I want to protect them from walking or eating or meeting new people, or any other activity that can have fearsome, even fatal, consequences. I want them to have great experiences doing all those things. I want them to be able to learn from their mistakes, to make better choices the next time, and over time, to become better people. We need to teach children that they have choices about how they use technology, that they can anticipate the consequences of using technologies or social media.

It's not just a question of how much time they spend online or playing games. It's HOW they do it: how they approach technology and game time, what mindset they have, and how they relate their online lives to their offline, everyday lives. The child who discovers that they can use video games to develop aspects of their selves that they can't on the sports field, and who learns to transfer those skills into the real world, is doing something very different than the child who uses games as mindless escape.

After an agonizingly slow second -- time perception slows dramatically when you're concentrating -- my car restarts, but before I can cross the finish line, my son's scooter knocks me off course. As a super-competitive gamer, I'm aggrieved. As a father, I'm proud.