Are video games a plus or a minus in children’s lives today?
We know the tragic histories of the school shootings, from Littleton, Colo., to Paducah, Ky., to Jonesboro, Ark., where the shooters were students who had regularly played violent video games.
But is there a connection between a few players’ lethal actions and the explosion of America’s $10 billion a year video-game business?
Yes and no, says Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Institute at the NYU Child Study Center.
“Most youth are able to recognize the difference between reality and fantasy,” he says, meaning, he explains, that most children are able to “see the games as…entertainment.”
But while experts differ regarding the pluses and minuses of video-game exposure, there is consensus that “about one out of eight gamers, youthful gamers who play games, develop all of the patterns similar to an addiction,” says Dr. David Walsh with the National Institute on Media and the Family.
But does the possibility of developing an addiction to video-game playing lead to violence?
According to a report issued by the American Psychological Association, “violent behavior is learned, often early in a child’s life.” With the typical American child watching 28 hours of television a week, and “seeing, by age 18,” approximately 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 simulated murders, the connection between violence and the media has been under discussion since the advent of multimedia. Add to this the fact that, according to a study conducted by Gentile, Lynch, Linder and Walsh, today’s adolescent boys in the U.S. average 13 hours a week playing video games (and adolescent girls five hours a week).
With statistics like these, the APA recommends parental monitoring of media consumption in general, and advocates a reduction of violence in video games and interactive media.
ON THE PLUS SIDE
Moderate video-game playing, Gallagher says, “can be very helpful, in the development of everything from time management skills to computer literacy to manual dex terity/hand-eye coordination.
As for “video games that are violent or of limited instructional value,” he suggests they be “thought of as treats or guilty pleasures.
“Children can enjoy them in moderation while they are also participating in leisure activities that enlighten them, provide physical and mental exercise, and enrich their experiences.”
On the exercise front, according to a Mayo Clinic study, children playing Wii boxing games “burned 190 more calories an hour, on average, compared to resting; adults burned an extra 150 calories.” The study further found that while “exer-gaming is not a substitute for regular exercise,” it’s “better than doing nothing,” and that virtual sports games “may also be good for people who have physical limitations due to a sports injury, a stroke or other illness.”
The Federation of American Scientists advocates video games as well. Formed in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists who developed the atomic bombs dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the FAS generally devotes itself with such over-arching issues as national security, nuclear proliferation and humanitarian problems; now, the organization has called for the federal government to expand funding for video game research and development.
Video games, the FAS argues, could help children prepare to address one of America’s most pressing problems – how train for an increasingly competitive global economy – because they “can teach higher-order thinking skills such as strategic thinking, interpretive analysis, problem solving, plan formulation, and execution, and adaptation to rapid change,” especially today, with many U.S. companies farming out more and more work to the developing world’s lower-paid work force, American students must learn technology-related skills to remain competitive in the world’s workforce.
Those in the video-game business agree. “It’s not the button pushing that’s important,” says Mitch Wade, co-author of Got Game, a book on the subject, but rather, the training game playing offers in problem-solving.
“We saw that when we surveyed professionals who grew up playing video games,“ says Wade, a consultant for Google and for the Rand Corp. “What’s a surprise is that they’re better at things you need in business — like team play and careful risk-taking,” and have well-developed skills in areas like multi-tasking. The high level of quick gratification is an effective teaching tool, Wade suggests, with players, when they lose, happy to begin again, in hopes of this time being able to reach their goal.
For at-risk children, however, excessive video-gaming can have a negative side.
Some children in that 12.5 percent of potentially addictive video-gamers can take the games to a heightened level, Gallagher says, possibly leading to “an acceleration” of aggressive attitudes and thoughts.
But even in the world of violent video games, there are gradations. For example, “Several of the teens responsible for school shootings,” Gallagher explains, were regular players of what he calls “first-person games,” in which players view the action onscreen as if they themselves were the shooters.
Eric Harris, one of the two Columbine High School killers who murdered 13 people and wounded 23 in Littleton more than a decade ago before killing themselves, had even developed a customized version of the extreme video game, Doom, complete with features that eerily presaged the Columbine shootings, report Iowa State University researchers Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman in Psychological Science Magazine. Harris’s version of Doom featured two shooters carrying extra weapons, unlimited ammunition and victims who could not fight back, “features that are eerily similar to aspects of the actual shootings.”
So among the estimated 90 million American youth playing video games today, Gallagher suggests, those at risk of using video-gaming as a steppingstone to actual physical violence are children already “prone to get excited by violence,” who often seem “over-stimulated by games” and who “may have an increased reaction to the content of the games,” possibly becoming immersed in the games’ violence.
Like most potentially problematic child-rearing issues, when it comes to video games, the healthiest approach is moderation.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids spend no more than two hours each day on screen time – watching TV or movies, or playing computer or video games – and setting limits regarding how much time is spent on schoolwork, household responsibilities, and the physical activity compared to video-gaming, every day.
They recommend children play video-games suitable for their age group, and that the video game console stay in a common area of the house, not in the child’s bedroom.
But with that in mind, let common sense prevail.
According to Elizabeth A. Vandewater, a senior research health analyst at Research Triangle Institute, a social science group, in North Carolina, the commonly held belief is that “if kids weren’t watching TV and playing video games, they’d be reading or outside running up and down a soccer field.”
In today’s world, however, “It’s not an even trade-off.”
Gallagher agrees that putting on the brakes is important to keeping video game playing a positive experience. “If the games are viewed as a form of light entertainment, they can have advantages,” he says. “As part of a balanced entertainment diet, the games can provide stress relief for kids, they can help with aspects of coordination and concentration on visual details, and they help kids relate to one another in some forms of healthy competition. As long as this part of the entertainment diet is not overdone, video games can have useful purposes.”