Why I’m Glad I Grew Up Playing Neopets

Published at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education.

When people find out I was homeschooled, they sometimes ask, “But did you learn? If I was a homeschooler, I would just play games all day.”

I always say, “Yes I did learn, and yes, that’s exactly what I did.”

While other kids were in school or doing homework, I was often spending countless hours playing computer games, sports or any other kind of game.

One of my favorite games was Neopets, a virtual pet website. I would sometimes hear the parents of friends say that spending so much time playing Neopets as a kid would prevent me from being successful as an adult, yet my childhood of playing Neopets is what led me to develop the passions and skills that help me succeed in my career. By letting children play, we let them chart a course to a happy and successful life.

Here’s why:

Through play we learn to define our own goals.

There were dozens of different ways to to earn a living in the virtual community of Neopets. You could run your own shop, you could trade in the stock market, you could complete quests. As a player, you could choose to pursue any path you wanted. Recently, I found my childhood Neopets profile page. On it, I had written a list of my goals for the game. When playing, I was free to chose the goals that were most fulfilling to me and I eagerly worked towards achieving them.

In school, we are told to go after the same pre-defined goals as everyone else. We often become unhappy and bored working towards these goals, as they are not our own and therefore, we don’t care about them. Yet through play, a child learns to figure out what is important to her and how to get it.

Today I love working hard to accomplish my goals — because they’re mine. In the real world, much like in Neopets, happiness and success come from defining our own goals and living on our own terms.

Playing is the most natural way to learn.

When I first joined Neopets, my profile page was plain. To fix it, I started learning HTML and CSS so I could make my page look cool. I was also part of a guild, but it didn’t have many members. To solve that problem, I figured out how to make my writing more engaging to attract new members. While playing Neopets, I spent countless hours deeply engaged in learning new skills so I could use them as tools for solving problems I cared about.

In school, learning is not about gaining new skills to use as tools for solving problems — learning becomes the problem. As Peter Gray writes, “The biggest, most enduring lesson of school is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.” In school, we’re taught that we’re only truly learning if we’re suffering through school work and assignments we don’t care about.

Fast forward to today. I’m a front-end developer and I continue to enhance my coding skills to create work that matters to me. Many parents see the career of being a developer as a lucrative one. What do they do? They push their kids into learning to code and discourage them from playing games. Yet it is through playing games that I first developed my love of learning hard skills such as coding.

Games encourage creation — and failure.

When the founder of Spanx was growing up, her father would ask her during dinner, ‘What did you fail at this week?’ He knew that if you want to create something, you must push yourself out of your comfort zone and be willing to fail.

In school, we’re punished if we fail. We learn to avoid failure at all costs. School trains students to be consumers, not creators. We stop creating because we’re terrified of getting the wrong answer, and we stop questioning, because we’re forced to focus on getting only the right one. Yet failure is a vital part of the process of creation. In the real world, we succeed through trial and error. We become creators by pushing through our failures as part of an iterative process to self-discovery and expertise.

Learning how to learn is better than memorizing facts.

Zach Klein, founder of DIY, points out that we do not know what the jobs of the future will be, or what knowledge or skills children might need to know. So instead of teaching kids to memorize certain facts, we should encourage them to learn to solve problems and comprehend things fast. This is precisely what a child learns to do when playing a game.

Games allow you to choose (and re-choose) your identity.

From our first day of school, we’re set down the same path as everyone else. We’re taught that we must live the kind of life others do. We are grouped together by our age and put in the position of the student, someone who is only allowed to consume or listen but never to create or teach. We learn there’s one right answer, one right way to live.

On Neopets, I could be anyone I wanted. My real gender, ethnicity, and age were not factors in what I could do or who I could be. Men and women, adults and children alike engaged in the community as equals. I defined my own happiness and success. I had the freedom to play and view the world as one in which I was the driving force of my own life.

We’re taught that playing games — the beloved activity that comes naturally to us — is a detriment to learning. Yet it is through playing games that we are learning most deeply. Through play, children create, take risks, and realize they are the creators of their own destiny.

Let’s play!

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