Video Games: Finding a Balance

“You’re about to lose your video games for a week, young lady.” More often than not, a warning like this is all it takes. The prospect of a week without gaming will catch the attention of most children who love to play video games. Meanwhile, the parents may appreciate the chance to withhold something they’re not so sure is a good pastime.

For game lovers, video games have an irresistible allure of endlessly exciting challenges to overcome. For parents and other caregivers, these games frequently generate fears their children will become sedentary, violence-loving gaming addicts.

There are numerous video game genres and sub-genres, to say nothing of how many individual games exist. In this respect, video games are similar to movies. There are many movie genres and individual titles that parents would not want their children exposed to. Some of the most serious concerns about gaming relate to violence, but there are hundreds of games with mild or no violence. Popular genres of this kind include quests, action/adventure, sports, exercise, puzzles, trivia, music, and dance games. With the great variety of games available, parents should be careful not to over-generalize.

Like every activity, playing video games has benefits and detriments. A better understanding of the pros and cons of gaming will help families make the best decision about if and how to include video games in their lives.

The Upside of Gaming

Skill building
Developing both fine motor and cognitive skills are among the benefits of playing video games. Manipulating the controllers and timing certain moves help improve manual dexterity. Guitar Hero is a fun way for kids to work on hand-eye coordination and boost their auditory perceptions. This game has been used to help burn victims recover fine motor dexterity and coordination.

Children can learn problem solving and creativity by playing games such as LittleBigPlanet 3, singled out by Consumer Reports in 2014 as a top kids’ game where “creativity rules.” In the LittleBigPlanet series, like the many similar “puzzle platformer” games, players make decisions about their characters’ features, abilities, and actions in order to advance to the next level.

Dave Binkard of Barnesville, Minn., co-founder of PODS Game Design, recommends strategy and role-playing game (RPG) genres, which “require forethought and careful planning,” to improve cognition. He gives the example of SimCity, where “a player has to zone property types (residential, industrial, and commercial) on an undeveloped countryside and ensure it has access to electricity, water, and roads. The player also has to balance a yearly budget with realistic expenditures that must be taken into account, like education, healthcare, and infrastructure.”

Binkard also praises the hugely popular Minecraft. “In this game, players find themselves in the midst of a gigantic pixel world. There is no goal, which also means players must have the initiative to guide themselves through it. Players can transform and create the world around them.”

Elizabeth Brey, a game researcher and doctoral student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, says playing narrative games such as RPGs has taught her how narrative functions and what does and doesn’t work in a story. “As a writer, it’s been indispensable to literally play with the conventions of narrative,” Brey says. “The puzzles and logical games integrated into story-based problem-solving games have also helped me far beyond being a better gamer. I’ve improved as a critical thinker and am much more patient with problem solving than I used to be.”

In recent years, increased online connectivity has created the opportunity for social development through gaming. Tweens and teens can acquire social skills within virtual environments by interacting with others playing the same games—frequently young people from all around the world with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Some popular games involving virtual networks (also called massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs) are Wizard101 (rated E10+ for everyone 10 and up by the Entertainment Software Rating Board), ROBLOX (not rated but played by many children under 14), and League of Legends and World of Warcraft (both rated T for teen). One thing for parents to be aware of with this type of game is that usually the more competitive the game, the more aggressive and hostile other players can be. Still, working through antagonistic exchanges and learning how to respond appropriately to conflict are some of the very social skills parents might want their children to practice.

Career opportunity
If your child is passionate about video games—not just playing them, but everything about them—consider encouraging that career path. Binkard’s company teaches video game design to area children, and he stresses the connection to the “STEAM” subjects (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics). Each component in the process, from scripting code to problem solving to creating dialogue, relies on those subjects.

In addition, today’s video game industry is a place where many composers, arrangers, and sound editors find reliable, well-paid work. Some video game scores use full orchestras and choirs. The game Journey received the first Grammy nomination by a video game in the category “Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media” in 2012.

Ryan Jackson, music technology specialist and coordinator of the Music Industry Program at Minnesota State University Moorhead, has some suggestions for young people interested in a career in video game music or sound editing. “Study things like music production and synthesis, traditional and modern composition, some basic graphics and animation, and film. A well-rounded background in all of the media and traditional arts will give a student an edge,” says Jackson.

The Downside of Gaming

Exposure to violence
Of all the unwanted effects of playing video games, the idea they promote, cause, or desensitize children to violence may be the most prevalent. Violent video games are often blamed in the wake of mass shootings like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. However, a new report by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows there is no evidence that playing video games alone leads to juvenile delinquency, violence, or lawless behavior. The report stated it was an “accumulation of risk factors” including things such as antisocial behavior, problematic home life, and other dynamics that leads to increased aggression. While it’s not a lone factor, video gaming can be a contributing factor.

Kim Douglas, a family counselor with The Village Family Service Center in Fargo, hears parents say their children are more physically or verbally aggressive after playing video games. She talks with parents about how it’s not only the amount of time children spend gaming that needs attention, but also games’ ratings. “The ratings are there for a reason. If it says ‘Mature’ and your child is 10, that is not a good thing. Some parents are afraid to upset their child by taking away video games, but they really need to take back control,” says Douglas. “It’s for the good of the child. As a family therapist, the most frustrating thing is when parents won’t take away the aggressive games from their children, despite their concerns about how it’s affecting them.” Douglas singles out two popular games, Grand Theft Auto and Halo, as “absolutely inappropriate for any child under the age of 17.”

Brey says the best way to ensure children “aren’t playing inappropriate games or playing games inappropriately”—an important distinction—“is to actually sit down with them while they play. This isn’t to say you have to be there every minute, but be there sometimes. Let them know you are checking in on them. Understand what they’re playing and how. Being around while your children are playing games online can ensure they aren’t taking part in toxic game cultures, either as a victim of harassment or a perpetrator of it.”

Promotes inactivity
Whatever the content—violent or otherwise—of a video game, another concern is that gaming contributes to an inactive lifestyle. In addition to taking away from pursuits like homework, reading, and the arts, gaming can take time away from outdoor play with other children and physical activity. Though kids can exercise by playing games like Dance Dance Revolution and Wii Sports, many kids choose games that simply require them to sit in front of a screen. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend children and adolescents do a minimum of one hour of physical activity every day.

Douglas reminds parents, “There’s a line between a healthy amount and an excessive amount. There are some pros to playing video games, but if kids are playing too much, they’re not playing outside and getting exercise. Obesity can happen. But then the opposite can happen, too. Some kids won’t stop gaming to eat and can become underweight as a result.”

One of the primary complaints about MMOs is their addictive nature. Because the game is constantly changing, and the story continues to progress, players get drawn into the game and lose track of time. When kids constantly talk about gaming, feel like they can’t go without gaming for a period of time, or start breaking rules and doing anything they can to play video games, they may be moving toward gaming addiction.

Just as parents need to monitor which games children are playing and their manner of game play, they need to make sure children aren’t gaming for hours a day and that they’re taking enough breaks. “Moderation is important even with ‘good’ games,” Douglas says. Too much screen time of any kind (TV, phones, desktop computers, tablets, and video games) contributes to poor physical health as well as a lack of real human connection and real-world socializing. Douglas says a healthy amount of total screen time is one to two hours a day.

Kids play video games because they challenge them. But along with a good challenge, the fun, and the development of a variety of skills, video games carry the possibility of unwelcome behavior, physical inactivity, and—at the extreme—addiction. The best path to healthy, constructive gaming is parental awareness, communication, and supervision.

Gwendolyn Hoberg is an editor, writer, and classical musician. A resident of Moorhead, she is the office manager at Ringstrom Law, teaches horn at NDSU, and plays with the Duluth Symphony.

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