Video Games: The Good, The Bad, The Utility

When my son first started playing video games, I was unsettled. Gaming is sedentary, the imagery often grotesquely violent, the activity a time-sucker. In the end, one consideration outweighed my misgivings: childhood has enough trials without adding pop-culture cluelessness, take this from a boy who moved to North Jersey in 1958 not knowing Mickey from a fireplace mantle. According to a recent article in Scientific America Mind, 90% of children play video games. Lots of adults do too. The average gamer’s age is 33.

In the beginning, my son was easily frustrated. The resulting histrionics were alternately amusing and irritating. Yelling at technology is a common foible. More than half of us, including me, admit to doing so, a smaller percentage assaults their devices. Interestingly, shouting at a computer may actually cause it to work more slowly. “Yelling at Your Computer May Have Serious Consequences” provides evidence that it does.

One day I was so put off by a tantrum that I showed him a video of a boy destroying his keyboard in a fit of anger. “What an idiot,” he said and then reminded me that I “talk” to my computer. I told him walking away can sometimes be a good strategy for dealing with frustration. “Not in the middle of a game.” I told him he should try to think of each set back as a problem to solve. He introduced me to computer game glitches. I introduced him to Internet game forums. He invited me to play. Finally, I decided I’d said no too often and tried my hand at Call of Duty Black Ops. The kettle taught the pot about video game frustration. A controller has a lot of buttons and toggles that require mastery on top of the game action. Both offer all sorts of wonderful opportunities for expressing emotion in colorful language.

In the end, phone calls to friends, Facebook messages to other friends, game play with friends, and many hours in single play helped him gain competence and overcome frustration. If I’d been a gamer, perhaps I could have done more than spout platitudes, but my son was on his own, extremely motivated but stretched. Maybe that was exactly the place from him to be.

Mastering an activity often includes other benefits. Though I was initially put off by the graphic violence of Call of Duty, I watched my son mature as he mastered the basics. He learned to deal with frustration, search out answers, focus attention, and sit quietly. The same article I referred to earlier notes that playing certain video games improves vision, attention, spatial reasoning, and decision-making. (Scientific American Mind Jan/Feb 2013, pages 28-35) The caveat is that the games that “have the most powerful neurological effects are the ones parents hate the most: violent first-person shooters.”

Two papers supporting the SciAmMind article’s thesis can be downloaded or read without charge. “Children, Wired: For Better and for Worse” reports that video games can be “exemplary learning tools.” In its conclusion, the authors state “What we do know is that, in technology, we have a set of tools that has the capability to drastically modify human behavior. What remains, which is not trivial, is to determine how to purposefully direct this capability to produce desired outcomes.” In the second study, “The Multiple Dimensions of Video Game Effects” the authors stress that the outcomes of video games are not simply good or bad but multidimensional and “To have the greatest effects, game designers should consider each of these dimensions when creating games.

The blog Game Theory, a NY Times Series explore gaming, many of the posts critical of gaming’s prevalent violence. The fear that violent games might create violent children is one reason I’ve watched my son closely. A 1981 study comparing how violence was portrayed in the media in Japan and the U.S. found that the amount of violence in the media in both countries was roughly the same but that the way it was presented was different. “Japanese programs emphasize the consequences of violence.” This difference is occasionally present in Western media. The grieving over the death of Boromir and the loss of Gandalf in the film version of The Fellowship of the Rings struck me as being very different from the happy havoc of Star Wars.

Jane McGonigal of the Institute for the Future provides a more positive assessment of gaming’s effects and potential outcomes in her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World and in her TED talk Gaming Can Make A Better World. In her 20-minute talk she names four positives gained in online gaming: urgent optimism, blissful productivity, social fabric, and epic meaning. These outcomes will sound familiar to anyone who works hard to achieve an end and succeeds. Some are clearly features of team rather than solitary activities. The added value to online games, McGonigal argues, is that games are designed to provide success and life is not. A valid point.

Three IFTF games mentioned in McGonigal’s talk are World Without Oil, a collaborative imaging of an oil crisis that includes lesson plans; SuperStruct was a massively multiplayer forecasting game that is no longer active but its archive can be explored; and EVOKE, “a ten-week crash course in changing the world,” with ten missions as diverse as providing clean water and empowering women.

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