Boy Racer



Growing up, I always had a deep connection with cars. In addition to living in the Midwest, my Dad was a reformed street racer and Corvette fanatic (“All Corvettes are red. The rest are just mistakes”). With all of those things going for me, I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

When I was about nine years old, I was lucky enough to receive an electric slot car race set as a gift. In a world before computer gaming, this was the best thing since sliced bread. I, along with my sisters, spent hours racing these small cars around the electrified plastic track. Competitions were intense, and every racer looked for any opportunity to get an advantage. Cleaning the rubber tires for better grip. Wiping the electric contacts for better connections. Learning how to sling-shot out of a turn. Over time, these lessons not only helped us win races, but they indirectly taught us how things like friction, heat, and electricity impact us in the physical world. In a small way, they also helped us build a personal relationship with our surroundings.

Most kids today who have a similar “racing” experience will do so through  computer simulations (racing games). Video game franchises like Gran Turismo and Need for Speed offer incredible simulations of high performance racing, featuring exotic sports cars and Formula 1 racers. The games provide players with as much enjoyment (if not more) as I experienced playing with my slot car set in the basement of my family’s home.

While neither experience will teach a nine year old how to actually drive a race car, there is an important difference between the two experiences. The kid playing a racing simulation video game will undoubtedly have a lot of fun, and will likely get a better understanding of what it’s really like to sit inside a Ferrari. The gamer will not, however get the same object lesson of how elements of the physical world behave. He or she will experience a SIMULATION of it. A theoretical take on how the natural world behaves. This is a simulation in which the game developer has “tweaked” real world physics to enhance the excitement of the game. As exciting and fun as these games are, they do not fully replicate the physics of the real world.

As a result, the gamer’s understanding of the physical world, and his relationship with it, may be more distant and less personal. And if people learn from personal experience, the computer gamer (when it comes to understanding the world around him) will come away from the experience poorer than the kid with the physical world, slot car track. While this is a small point today, more and more of our children’s’ lives are experienced online. Assuming that trend continues, the time children spend experimenting with their surroundings will decrease. Where will they develop their relationship with the physical world? When the virtual world provides a more enjoyable experience than the physical, what will motivate that child to have those critical physical experiences?

And isn’t our connection to the natural world around us part of what makes us human? It’s also part of what helps us define our relationship with God. Many of Jesus’ parables are based on elements in physical world. How relevant will the parable of the Three Soils be if your only understanding of earth and growing things comes from playing Farmville?

Please share your thoughts in the comments…

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