Coeur d’Alene, ID. One evening our family and two cousins were playing Uno. It’s a simple game requiring nothing more than a deck of Uno cards. We’ve played this game for some years, and the boys enjoy it. When things began to feel dull, we invented interesting new rules to spice up the game.

When we finished, one cousin, who is eight, remarked that “I like the machine Uno better.” As it turns out, the creative minds at the Uno Company realized that selling a deck of cards is pretty limited. Why not improve the game by adding an electronic card dispenser that spits cards out in random quantities? This card dispenser is made of plastic, require batteries, and (best of all) cost much more than a measly deck of cards. Presto! Increased revenue potential.

Now I am certainly not against innovation as such, and I like a new and improved game as much as the next guy, but something about this bothers me. Perhaps at root I am troubled by the fact that a perfectly satisfying non-problem was turned into a problem and then solved in a way that actually creates more problems. Here’s what I mean.

The new and improved electronic version of Uno emits twittering sounds, has blinking lights, and spits out cards with reckless abandon. It delights and stimulates those who huddle around it. The gadget becomes the center of the game. This is quite different from the simple and old-fashioned card game where the cards facilitate a game where the participants are the primary object of attention.

I suspect the reason my nephew expressed his preference for the machine Uno is that, by comparison, the basic card game is, well, boring. It consists merely of people playing their cards in turn. If they can’t play, they draw a card from the deck. All very pedestrian. And as I said, players can always employ their native curiosity to make new rules to alter or improve the game. But even with that, was boredom the primary feeling for all Uno players prior to the machine? That it remains such a popular game suggests the answer. Yet, once the machine has been adopted, going back to the traditional game seems like a step backward into the shadows of partial pleasure. But, so what?

Well, for one thing, the machine Uno makes us dependent in a way that we were not before. If going back presents us with the specter of boredom, we find ourselves now beholden to the machine to relieve the tedium we dread. But the machine requires batteries, so we are now dependent on an energy source that requires periodic replacement. When the batteries die, we must either purchase new ones or be cast back into the world of boredom. When the machine breaks, we must purchase a replacement and throw out the broken item. More consumption, which, we are told, is good for the economy. More trash, which we intuit, must be bad for something.

It seems to me that dependence also arises by virtue of the fact that our ability to satisfactorily entertain ourselves is attenuated. We now need the interposition of a gadget to accomplish what once we did on our own with the help of our friends and family members. In short, the imagination of the players becomes dependent in a way that it was not prior to the innovation.

The glitzy stimulation of the machine (even one as modest as the Uno game) conditions its users to expect entertainment to be accompanied by electronic sights and sounds. It establishes an expectation for content that a machine can readily supply and a pace that only a machine can maintain (until the batteries die). Ultimately, this makes us less patient with that which is not wired for sound and flurry. It surely makes children less capable of, for example, sitting still to listen to the story of an elderly person. The elderly naturally desire to tell their stories. Children are naturally suited to listen. But children whose expectations have been formed by the stimulation of modern gadgetry are ill-conditioned to endure the pace of a story told by a grandparent. They are less capable of imagining the context of a narrative without the aid of electronic devices. Hence, the natural affinity between child and grandparent is broken, and an important means by which knowledge is passed from one generation to another is lost.

Finally, the sights and sounds of electronic gadgets, when constantly employed as prosthetic devices to facilitate entertainment, draw us further from the sights, sounds, and pace of the natural world and increasingly into the warm bosom of the world of artifice. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, quotes a child who remarks that “I don’t like going outside because there aren’t any outlets.” Indeed. The natural world can only be meaningfully encountered on its own terms. It requires submission to standards that are different from the world of gadgetry. It requires a willingness to countenance silence. To encounter subtle sights and sounds that cannot be seen or heard above the din of our artificially induced stimulation. It requires of us the willingness to encounter our humanness in the context of a reality created by God and one that, if we attend carefully, points us to mysteries beyond telling.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. The electronic version also masks the fact that Uno is, really, a boring game. In our family it is a form of gaming training wheels, like Crazy 8’s and War. As soon as possible the kids are initiated into games the adults enjoy playing, and with a little help and maybe a handicap or two that is a much earlier age than one might expect. What child would prefer to be off in a corner playing Uno when the adults are playing chess, Risk, Settlers of Catan, Quiddler, Boggle, or Full Body Contact Solitaire? In our family, no one above the age of five. Even the three-year-olds want to be an adult’s “partner” in the more interesting games. Bells and whistles make a game appear less boring and facilitate a form of extended adolescence.

  2. Linda, I must speak out in defense of boring, simple, card games. It is not them that are “boring,” it is that the people playing them have not been trained in the kind of strategy, imagination, and/or aggrandized fatalism which can turn the luck and repetition of these games into high drama or vicious fun. Uno, Rook, Pit, Scum–all of them perfectly appropriate for adults and children (at least ones old enough to understand the rules), with no batteries required. (And by the way, while I played many a 16-hour Risk marathons back in the day, I maintain that Settlers of Catan is completely overrated.)

  3. Russell, you are right, of course: attitude matters. There is probably no more boring game on earth than solitaire, but the way our family plays it — from two (civilized) to eight (murderous mayhem) people playing on each other’s cards — it is one of my favorite games.

  4. Mark,

    I am confused by your second to last paragraph. Are you blaming machine Uno for a breakdown in society of grandparents to grand children? (I know this is not your point). I think your point is that with technology we have become an impatient society and our children have picked that up from their parents and the grandparents suffer. I am amazed how much of a sponge that children are and how much of what they learn comes from us as far as attitudes are concerned.

    Do I take the time to listen to my parents stories so that my children think they are worth listening to. My children love to listen but they only tend to listen to what I and my wife listen to. If I do not value my parents stories neither will my children.

    A couple of weeks ago I asked my Dad about his grand parents and was amazed at how much he knew about them. I realized that living closely to one another and needing each other to survive and thrive that stories would be told. This has been lost in my parents generation and my generation growwing up in suburbia did not learn this. How do I pass this on to my children.

    It is nice to blame technology for our children not caring about the world around them but I personally suspect that in many cases they are only reflecting what we their parents demonstrate.

    Gardening tip “Do not go on vacation without making sure that someone will water your garden”

    • Brett,
      No, I am not blaming electronic Uno for the demise of civilization. I am suggesting that cultural transmission requires a sort of attention that electronic gizmos undermines. This kind of cultural transmission takes place in listening to the stories of our elders (and also reading books). When our habits of attention are attenuated and when we come to expect our hours to be filled with “whiz-bang”, we are far less capable of appreciating the pace, scale, and content of the unplugged world around us. So, parents should, I think, help children to cultivate habits of attention suited to the responsibility of appreciating, appropriating, and tending the human and natural world we inhabit.

  5. If you want a good example of the new kind of cognition afoot in the mechanistic clanging and flashing world of todays media…take a look at a new textbook . They too seem a bit disjointed and chaotic but for the children habituated to the diverse information streaming at them from a variety of directions, it seems the most prudent way to “learn”. Distraction is now apparently an educational modus.

    One thing that strikes me is that it seems a perfect vehicle for managing propaganda and maintaining mythology within a constantly moving populace grazing upon primarily image and never digging in past the thinnest of veneer.

    But then, I have a bad attitude.

    Confronted with someone’s electric can opener to open a can of soup one day, I noted the blade and gears were caked with what appeared to be a little cat food and it seemed a good time to resort to more manual means.

  6. Mark,

    I know you were not blaming Uno for world demise. I was suggesting that children would be better off if we as parents led by example. My children look to me for direction. This became clear when I realized that my daughter knows more about computers than talking with neighbors. I put a premium on having things now and unfortunately that translates to my children. I am now trying to ween myself from many of todays luxuries so my children will appreciate them (and not go into shock when they visit my wifes country of Indonesia).

  7. Agree with your basic point, but there’s another pressure involved.

    Disclaimer: I’ve written ‘courseware’ (computer-based study guides) so this may be my vested interest speaking! …

    Courseware is partly flash and movement, but it’s also needed more now than before. Fear of lawsuits and tighter professionalization make real-world practice much harder to accomplish. Forty years ago you could dissect a frog, or turn undergrads loose to practice therapy on clients, with much less trouble and paperwork. Forty years ago you could let your kid fiddle around with chemicals, radio innards, or car parts, without fear of EPA or Child Protective Services.

    In fact virtual learning (“the teaching machine”) was available forty years ago, but it wasn’t used much because the real world was easier to reach.

    Now that the real world has No User-Serviceable Parts, virtual learning is far more attractive.

  8. Last Child in the Woods ––
    Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,
    by Richard Louv
    Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
    November 16, 2006

    In this eloquent and comprehensive work, Louv makes a convincing case for ensuring that children (and adults) maintain access to pristine natural areas, and even, when those are not available, any bit of nature that we can preserve, such as vacant lots. I agree with him 100%. Just as we never really outgrow our need for our parents (and grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), humanity has never outgrown, and can never outgrow, our need for the companionship and mutual benefits of other species.

    But what strikes me most about this book is how Louv is able, in spite of 310 pages of text, to completely ignore the two most obvious problems with his thesis: (1) We want and need to have contact with other species, but neither we nor Louv bother to ask whether they want to have contact with us! In fact, most species of wildlife obviously do not like having humans around, and can thrive only if we leave them alone! Or they are able tolerate our presence, but only within certain limits. (2) We and Louv never ask what type of contact is appropriate! He includes fishing, hunting, building “forts”, farming, ranching, and all other manner of recreation. Clearly, not all contact with nature leads to someone becoming an advocate and protector of wildlife. While one kid may see a beautiful area and decide to protect it, what’s to stop another from seeing it and thinking of it as a great place to build a house or create a ski resort? Developers and industrialists must come from somewhere, and they no doubt played in the woods with the future environmentalists!

    It is obvious, and not a particularly new idea, that we must experience wilderness in order to appreciate it. But it is equally true, though (“conveniently”) never mentioned, that we need to stay out of nature, if the wildlife that live there are to survive. I discuss this issue thoroughly in the essay, “Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!”, at http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/india3.

    It should also be obvious (but apparently isn’t) that how we interact with nature determines how we think about it and how we learn to treat it. Remember, children don’t learn so much what we tell them, but they learn very well what they see us do. Fishing, building “forts”, mountain biking, and even berry-picking teach us that nature exists for us to exploit. Luckily, my fort-building career was cut short by a bee-sting! As I was about to cut down a tree to lay a third layer of logs on my little log cabin in the woods, I took one swing at the trunk with my axe, and immediately got a painful sting (there must have been a bee-hive in the tree) and ran away as fast as I could.

    On page 144 Louv quotes Rasheed Salahuddin: “Nature has been taken over by thugs who care absolutely nothing about it. We need to take nature back.” Then he titles his next chapter “Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?” Where indeed? While fishing may bring one into contact with natural beauty, that message can be eclipsed by the more salient one that the fish exist to pleasure and feed humans (even if we release them after we catch them). (My fishing career was also short-lived, perhaps because I spent most of the time either waiting for fish that never came, or untangling fishing line.) Mountain bikers claim that they are “nature-lovers” and are “just hikers on wheels”. But if you watch one of their helmet-camera videos, it is easy to see that 99.44% of their attention must be devoted to controlling their bike, or they will crash. Children initiated into mountain biking may learn to identify a plant or two, but by far the strongest message they will receive is that the rough treatment of nature is acceptable. It’s not!

    On page 184 Louv recommends that kids carry cell phones. First of all, cell phones transmit on essentially the same frequency as a microwave oven, and are therefore hazardous to one’s health –- especially for children, whose skulls are still relatively thin. Second, there is nothing that will spoil one’s experience of nature faster than something that reminds one of the city and the “civilized” world. The last thing one wants while enjoying nature is to be reminded of the world outside. Nothing will ruin a hike or a picnic faster than hearing a radio or the ring of a cell phone, or seeing a headset, cell phone, or mountain bike. I’ve been enjoying nature for over 60 years, and can’t remember a single time when I felt a need for any of these items.

    It’s clear that we humans need to reduce our impacts on wildlife, if they, and hence we, are to survive. But it is repugnant and arguably inhumane to restrict human access to nature. Therefore, we need to practice minimal-impact recreation (i.e., hiking only), and leave our technology (if we need it at all!) at home. In other words, we need to decrease the quantity of contact with nature, and increase the quality.


    Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearances of Species. New York: Random House, 1981.

    Errington, Paul L., A Question of Values. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

    Flannery, Tim, The Eternal Frontier — An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

    Foreman, Dave, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.

    Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, eds. Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, 1995.

    Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods — Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005.

    Noss, Reed F. and Allen Y. Cooperrider, Saving Nature’s Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Island Press, Covelo, California, 1994.

    Reed, Sarah E. and Adina M. Merenlender, “Quiet, Nonconsumptive Recreation Reduces Protected Area Effectiveness”. Conservation Letters, 2008, 1–9.

    Stone, Christopher D., Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1973.

    Vandeman, Michael J., http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande, especially http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/ecocity3, http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/india3, http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/sc8, and http://home.pacbell.net/mjvande/goodall.

    Ward, Peter Douglas, The End of Evolution: On Mass Extinctions and the Preservation of Biodiversity. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.

    “The Wildlands Project”, Wild Earth. Richmond, Vermont: The Cenozoic Society, 1994.

    Wilson, Edward O., The Future of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

  9. Mike,
    I just bought a new fly rod today. I loved building forts when I was a kid, and I encourage my boys to do the same (and I take them fishing). Hunting is great as well. Some of the most responsible and contientious stewards of the natural world are hunters and fishermen (fisherpersons?). If a person insisted on encounting the natural world only as a fisherman or a hunter, perhaps I would buy your point. But every fisherman or hunter or fort builder knows that part of the wonder and pleasure of it all is just sitting still at different points during the day and enjoying simply being there. The rush of the water, the sounds of the birds, the wind in the pines, it’s all part of the deal.

    Hiking, as you say, is a wonderful activity. Zero impact camping is something I practice and teach my boys. I also teach them to catch and clean a fish and then to be grateful when eating it. The fact of the matter is, humans are consumers. We must eat to live. We do a disservice to our kids it they think that food ‘naturally’ comes from the grocery store. Picking berries in the woods is good as well.

    Maybe we disagree here: you seem to think that the natural world is “out there” and we should encounter it with care and leave it when we are done. I think it is better to see that we are part of the natural world. We don’t enter it and leave it. It is all around us. We cannot live as if the “natural world” is a museum to be encountered in its pristine state on ocassion and then left behind. The cow in the field is part of the natural world. So is the tomato in my garden. It all needs to be treated with care and respect.

    If you want to speak specifically about wilderness, that is another topic and I would be happy to discuss that as well.

  10. From time to time it has occurred to me that despite their wonderful attributes, the Wilderness Areas and Parks we create are a license to sanction the trashing of the so called “man-made” world where market forces under Locke’s theory of labor and property are the “natural” control agent. We look at the High Uintas or Escalante Plateau or Adirondacks and admire them and “escape” to them and confirm our love of nature and look back at the squalid entropy of our human world, call it inhumane and certainly less beautiful as the “natural ” world , thus institutionalizing a mindset of declining opposition and fatalist nihilism.

    The existence of Wilderness is an improvement over the exploitive paranoia of nature during earlier eras but if we are to survive as a species, we need to get way beyond wilderness and achieve beauty, health and dynamism in the man-made world. Until that time, Wilderness may simply act as that dripping bloody nose caused by punching our own lights out as a way of life.

  11. “…with technology we have become an impatient society.”

    I take a slightly different tack on this – children are naturally disposed to desire immediate gratification. Learning to delay said gratification is a key component of emotional & mental maturity. But in our zeal to cater to popular perceptions, we’ve dismissed the need for patience & tolerance.

    The populist view is that our children must be entertained, so our society goes the extra mile to keep kids plugged in to constant, instantaneous digital entertainment. (When a child can’t endure a 10 minute ride to the grocery store without popping in a DVD, there are some significant problems.)

    There’s nothing wrong with boredom – it can be a very effective tool for prompting creativity. Stillness too, provides time and space for thought.

    By the way, I almost cried when I discovered that my old fave Monopoly now uses credit cards instead of cash. I promise you that my son will only play the classic version!

  12. “The gadget becomes the center of the game. This is quite different from the simple and old-fashioned card game where the cards facilitate a game where the participants are the primary object of attention.”

    This is why I make it a rule never to watch a good movie when guests or relatives are around. If, however, you have companions who insist on activating some kind of cathode ray tube, it is perfectly acceptable (on occasion) to watch a really bad movie, because everyone feels free to crack jokes about the lousy acting, badly-written dialogue, and incoherent plot, or just ignore the movie and talk over it about something completely different. The focus is moved away from the film and toward the wit and sense of humor of the viewers (Another tactic I sometimes use is muting the sound entirely and having my companions fill in the dialogue themselves). Showing your favorite film will kill all conversation and keep everyone staring slavishly at the glowing box; showing “Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny”* in lieu of whatever slick entertainment somebody else wanted to see might just salvage some community spirit and provide a lot of laughs, if you have a few quick wits among your number.

    *Oh yes, this movie is very, very real.

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