Defending the Wii: Sport Is Not a Competition

By Josh Korr
tbt*-Tampa Bay Times
February 15, 2007
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Nintendo’s new Wii system has gotten a lot of positive press for doing the unthinkable: getting video game players up off the couch. Claims for the health benefits of waiving around a motion-sensing controller can be overblown, but a recent commentary on NPR takes a decidedly odd approach to criticizing the Wii.

The commentary, by Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute (the nonprofit journalism institute that owns the St. Pete Times and tbt*), raises a new fear:  Kids’ enthusiasm for Wii Sports is giving them a false sense of accomplishment about their ability to play real sports.

The easy response is twofold: First, if kids are playing video games anyway, wouldn’t you rather they play one that keeps them active than one that keeps them rooted to the couch?

Second, just as we trust kids to be able to separate reality from fantasy in a violent game or cartoon, we can trust that they can do the same for a motion-sensing sports game. And with some parental encouragement of all their interests, they are plenty likely to go play on real fields, too.

McBride seems to be conflating playing recreational sports, which anyone can do and Wii Sports might very well encourage, and playing competitive high-level sports — which most of us can’t and will never do. Her comentary has a weird edge of antagonism or coaching-parent disdain to it.

She scoffs at her son’s insistence that he’s playing tennis on the Wii. “Does he really think he can play tennis? In real tennis, beginners rarely hit the ball in bounds. They can’t sustain a volley beyond a few swings.” Ouch. Why not just deliver him the news straight up: Son, you’re a terrible tennis player. That’ll encourage him to pick up a real racket!

McBride continues: “What if, when they pick up a real tennis racket, they’re so delusional about their ability, they walk away in frustration?” Or what if — instead of having played Wii Tennis, become familiar with the rules and terms, and gotten excited about the game in general — they get prepared for tennis by mom telling them how hard it is for beginners and how bad they are at it? I know which approach I’d pick.

Here’s her kicker, which starts to give a sense that this is about more than just Wii Sports: “The Wii is to sports what grade inflation is to academic achievement: it makes it so easy everyone thinks they can play.”

It’s a good sound bite, but the metaphor only works if you consider tennis to be as serious as high-school education and the precollege process. Why put so much pressure on what’s supposed to be a fun, physical hobby?

For McBride, sports seem to be something more serious. “On the bright side, think what that will do for the self-esteem of our nation’s out-of-shape children. They’ll always make the team. The stadium will always be packed. The crowd will always be on their side. On a virtual playing field, we’re all champions.” The discussion has quickly shifted to being about competitive, even professional (note: “stadium”) sports. She concludes: “I just wonder if our kids will ever find out what a level playing field is like.”

Of course they will. They’ll find that out the moment they step on a court — whether or not they have a false sense of accomplishment. But for the 99.5 percent of people who don’t play professionally and aren’t being groomed to play professionally, sports aren’t supposed to be about stadium crowds and level playing fields. They’re supposed to be about having fun, personal accomplishment, making friends (all of which Wii Sports encourages, by the way). Kids would only be “delusional about their ability” if you encourage them to think about sports in terms of relative abilities — as competition — rather than as about having fun.

Of course we should prepare kids for the challenges of sports; success, as in any activity, depends on how hard you work and how much time and effort you’re willing to put in. But success in sports doesn’t have to be defined in competitive or professional terms. In fact, it shouldn’t be defined that way for kids. That kind of success depends on inherent talent as much as on effort. If you aren’t born with the talent, hard work won’t matter one bit.

The kind of athletic success we should encourage in kids — a sense of personal growth, the self-esteem derived from playing well or showing teamwork — is different. It’s based on an excitement about the sport, a desire to play for playing’s sake.

And two kids trying to put off bedtime so they can play one more set? Virtual or not, that sounds like the kind of excitement that will make for very successful athletes — on their own terms, of course — down the line.

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