Parents: everything you know about video games is wrong

Tuesday, 27 March 2012 12:58 GMT By Scott Steinberg

We know gaming can be a healthy pastime for children, but many parents see it as an unnecessary evil. Scott Steinberg, author of The Modern Parent’s Guide book series, hopes to redress the balance.

As you’re aware, video games are one of today’s most positive, uplifting and enjoyable escapes, and a pop culture medium that even the famed Smithsonian’s now recognizing as among the era’s defining art forms. Alas, many parents still believe that gaming is evil, promotes violence and can foster issues like addiction, obesity and stunted social growth, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Happily, the next time someone tells you “video games are bad for kids,” or you observe a mother or father going into apoplexy just because their child asks for a PlayStation Vita, well… Here’s why you might gently suggest they plug themselves back into reality.

Fact: Controversy sells when it comes to games, but doesn’t necessarily reflect the status quo. While many popular games are rated M, and intended for discerning adults, not only is the average player a 37 year-old male – most game titles are perfectly safe and fun for everyone. “Games can definitely be good for the family,” says the ESRB’s Patricia Vance. “There’s plenty of selection. Oftentimes I think parents feel that they’re not because video games in the media are portrayed as violent, and hardcore games tend to get the lion’s share of publicity. But parents also need to be comforted knowing that E for Everyone is by far largest category [of software]. Nearly 60% of the almost 1700 ratings we assigned last year were E for Everyone, which means there’s a huge selection of games available that are appropriate for all ages.”

Fact: Research shows games can be tremendously beneficial to kids’ growth. Per a recent piece in Parents magazine by Harvard Medical School collaborator Cheryl Olson, “parent-approved video games played in moderation can help young kids develop in educational, social, and physical ways.” Having surveyed interviews with over 1,000 public-school students, her data shows that playing even nondescript outings (read: everyday titles found on GameStop’s shelves) can confer tremendous benefits on children. Beyond encouraging planning, problem solving, and creative self-expression, she also points out that many titles can promote lifelong loves of history and literature, while others encourage socialization, exercise, healthy competition, and leadership. Setting stereotypes aside, as she points out in no uncertain terms, games (shocker) are a perfectly normal part of childhood.

Fact: Games are a powerful tool for teaching and providing new perspectives on the everyday challenges kids face. Unlike boring, passive lectures and training courses, games and virtual worlds actively engage children, encourage them to experiment without fear of embarrassment or repercussion, and let them problem-solve in lifelike scenarios that evolve in real-time. Providing an experience that more closely resembles real-world scenarios, better engages pupils and promotes heightened retention, Duke University’s Dr. Jeffrey Taekman actually calls them the future of education. “The traditional textbook will soon become passé,” he asserts. “Gaming platforms will offer an interactive way for students to learn and apply information in context.” As you’ll happily note, even medical students are now being trained this way – a fact which may come in handy the next time newscasters run a sensationalized media story and Mom has a proverbial heart attack. Oh, and added bonus: Because of their ability to promote strategic thinking, interpretive analysis and rapid adaptation to change, The Federation of American Scientists even claims the skills games teach map well to those sought by today’s top employers. Next time someone tells you to get off the PC and get a job, you may want to let them know you’re actually building valuable career skills.

Fact: Games have great social benefits. Beyond titles such as Just Dance 3, which help bring families together, and can bridge the gap between generations, there are also many games that have positive social messages and encourage families to be a force for good. In a series of experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that participants who had just played a “pro-social” game in which characters must work together to help each other out as compared to those who had just played a “neutral” game (e.g. Tetris) were more likely to engage in helpful behaviors. So-called “serious games,” specifically designed to teach and inform, are also teaching kids about real-life issues, humanitarianism, and geopolitical concerns. Even titles not specifically designated as educational help build confidence as well, providing kids with a sense of positive reinforcement and achievement as they solve puzzles and rise to the challenges contained within.

Fact: Gaming doesn’t have to make you fat and lazy, and can have marked physical benefits. Naturally, kids need both physical and mental exercise – cheerfully, motion-controlled games for Kinect, Wii and PlayStation Move help provide both kinds of workouts at the same time. In fact, the American Heart Association now recommends video games as a fun and entertaining way to enjoy physical activity. Upsides of active play are considerable too. A study reported in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine of 39 Boston middle-school children who played with six different interactive gaming systems found that the games compared favorably with walking on a treadmill at three miles per hour, with four out of the six activities resulting in higher energy expenditure. Other studies show that action video games can improve several aspects of brain activity, including multitasking. “The attentional and working memory demands of video games can be much greater than other tasks,” says Michael Stroud, a professor of psychology at Merrimack College. “Consider Pac-Man as an example. In Pac-Man, you must navigate your character through a spatial layout while monitoring the separate paths of four additional objects (the ghosts), while keeping the overall goal of clearing the small pellets in memory, as well as keeping track of the remaining large pellets. Think about how this may apply to skills such as driving… When you drive your car, you are faced with a constantly changing environment in the road, not to mention several other distractions that compete for attention that reside in the car. At the same time, you are attempting to navigate through the environment to reach a goal.”

High-tech parenting expert Scott Steinberg is the author of The Modern Parent’s Guide book series and host of “Family Tech: Technology for Parents and Kids.” A noted games industry consultant and business keynote speaker, the following is excerpted from latest book, The Modern Parent’s Guide to Kids and Video Games, free to download now.

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