April 30, 2010— -- These are not your father's Boy Scout awards.
Carpentry, campfire building and other outdoor feats might have occupied Scouts of yesteryear. But in the digital age, Boy Scouts of America wants to reward its troop members for digital deeds.
"Let's be serious, most households have video games in them, and if they don't have them in their households, they're at school, they're in libraries," said Renee Fairrer, manager of public relations for the Boy Scouts of America. "They're a part of our lives."
She said the video game merit awards are for Cub Scouts (the Boy Scout program for boys 7- to 11-years-old) and are earned by kids who don't just play video games, but learn the media literacy skills related to them.
To earn the belt loop, Scouts have to learn about the video game ratings system, play a parent- or teacher-approved game and create a schedule that includes chores, homework and game playing. Scouts trying for the pin must install a gaming system, learn to comparison shop and complete other educational tasks.
Fairrer said pins and belt loops reward Cub Scouts for developing a range of interests, from photography and pet care to various sports and science.
The video game awards aren't meant to create couch potatoes, but rather to help kids and parents learn to create healthy guidelines and critical thinking skills related to video gaming, she said.
"We realize kids are interested," Fairrer said. "When it comes to video games, we want to make sure parents have tools and a full understanding of how best to integrate [them] into their households."
But the new awards have left some former Boy Scouts shaking their heads in dismay.
"Being a Boy Scout is about getting outdoors, it's about being in the woods with your friends and building campfires," said Christian Marino, 24, a Home Depot manager in Emerson, N.J. "It's not about sitting at home playing video games."
Media Literacy Advocate: Video Game Awards Help Impart Valuable Skills
Marino said he joined the Scouting as a Cub Scout, graduated as an Eagle Scout and learned valuable leadership skills along the way by constantly interacting with peers.
"I'm the youngest manager in the store, and I learned all of this because I was a Boy Scout," he said.
Requiring Cub Scouts to learn the video game ratings system and think critically about gaming are valuable tasks, he said, but added, "It doesn't help them grow into a responsible adults if [they]'re sitting at home alone all day playing video games."
But despite those complaints, media literacy experts say the new Cub Scout awards mark a step in the right direction.
"They really are looking at some of the key things that [we] think are most important when it comes to media like video games," said Jeff Weitzman, chief marketing officer for Common Sense Media and a father of a former Boy Scout.
From encouraging parental involvement to helping kids determine age-appropriate games to playing games that teach math and reading, he said the awards emphasize the skills necessary in a media-soaked world.
"We can't cover kids' eyes, it's more important to teach them how to see and teach them to be smart, savvy digital citizens," Weitzman said.
As educational as the awards may be, he said he doesn't think they were intended to promote a new hobby.
"But if those games were a part of my kids' lives, absolutely, it would be a great way for me as a parent to become more involved in that part of their life," he said.
Still, some child health experts say that while the general idea is valuable, it all depends on the execution.
"The devil is in the details," said Dr. Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico.
"Kids spend more time with media now than they do in school, and more time with media than any other activity than sleeping."
Study: Kids Spend More Than 7 Hours Each Day Using Media
A March report in the journal Pediatrics said that children and teenagers spend more than seven hours every day using media, such as television, video games, cell phones and computers.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has been calling for educating kids about media for decades, Strasburger said, adding that helping kids get a handle on the media they're exposed to is "potentially brilliant" and something schools should be taking on.
"If this is an attempt to teach kids media literacy, it's a great idea. If it's an excuse to play violent video games, like 'Manhunt' and 'Halo,' then it's a terrible idea," he said. "It's hard to know how it's going to shake out.
And he emphasized that parents need to be more aware of their kids' media habits and the impacts they can have.
"The presence of a gaming system at home undoubtedly means your child is going to be spending more time playing video games than you might like," he said. "Parents need to be very cautious with that."