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    Video games: A parent's best friend
    By James Moon | April 3rd 2010 03:26 PM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About James

    I am a licensed clinical psychologist in Virginia and Florida. I have been practicing since 1982. I treat a wide variety of disorders. I also write...

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    When I was the president of an international private coeducational boarding school for teenagers with dyslexia and other kinds of learning disorders, I was frequently asked by parents to curtail their children's use of video games. I often wondered why they thought I could curtail the use of their children's video games when they themselves could not, but that is the subject of my next blog on effective parenting.

    I found myself challenging parents' statements asserting that video games were bad. I disagree. I think the research on the link between video games and violence is weak at best. However, that is not the point of this blog either.

    I smile when I find someone who enjoys video games. When I find someone who enjoys video games I know:

    1. The person can sustain their attention for long periods of time;
    2. The person can follow rules because a computer game is nothing but computer code and what can be more rule-bound than computer code;
    3. The person can rapidly adapt to changing rules, even when those changes are not explicitly stated;
    4. The person has frustration tolerance;
    5. The person will work very hard to get to a new level, where the work just gets that much harder, and;
    6. The person will endure this additional work and new challenge all for the very abstract reward of typing their initials next to a "New High Score" designation, i.e. they desire to achieve due to pride of accomplishment.

    So I ask parents who complain of their video game enamored offspring, "Do you know you have a child who has a long attention span, can follow the rules even when they change without warning, are adaptable, have high frustration tolerance, have a good work ethic, want even greater challenges (and will work hard to get them), and are motivated by a sense of pride of accomplishment?"

    After the parent blinks a few times, stammers a bit, and mutters something about "well, I never really looked at it that way before," they frequently recover enough to retort, "but if only they could show those characteristics in places besides video games." And that is the trick, is it not?

    If parents knew as much about parenting as video game makers know about making video games, perhaps their children would be able to demonstrate their skills beyond the confines of the video game environment. The secret is that parents can learn more effective parenting skills. Fortunately, there is a lot of very good research on parenting skills, and this will be the subject of my next blog. Stay tuned, but while you wait, why not try out a Wii or Playstation 3 and see how many of the six characteristics noted above you possess?


    Gerhard Adam
    Well, not to be argumentative (OK ... perhaps a little).

    It seems that the traits you're describing might be associated with arcade type of games, but I'd be hard pressed to draw the same correlations with role-playing.  Part of the problem is when the individual begins to enjoy (or even identify with) their online experience as being more positive than the real world.  While this doesn't just occur with video games (i.e. internet addiction), it does point to one problem that can be difficult to address.  In my personal view, the challenge is how one can replace real-world experiences to compete with those that an individual can indulge in at a computer or TV screen.  

    More importantly, some of the games certainly have pushed the boundaries of acceptability and one can't help but wonder at the potential consequences (for susceptible individuals).  In those cases, it would be particularly hard to find those attributes you're describing.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard, some of the arcade type of games also suffer from what some might call moral deficiencies. Your comments in general, I think, are valid ones, but your comments would not be unique to the video game arena. People who prefer to be immersed in a Star Trek world, a Harry Potter world, or a Lord of the Rings world to real life, might have problems. Then again, they probably do not. Watching movies, reading books, going to plays, and playing role-playing games (video or otherwise) are all forms of suspending one's immediate reality. Usually this results in entertainment value, with few if any problems incurred. As noted in another comment I have made, I am not sure that Internet addiction really exists as a discrete entity. The research on this matter is not compelling at all.

    Games (and books, and movies, and plays, and music, and television shows) have exceeded the boundaries of acceptability, and have done so for a long time. Most people can easily distinguish between killing objects on a video screen (or pencil-and-paper wargames), and killing an object in real life. Some prefer the latter and call it "hunting," or "huntin'" in my neighborhood. However, pushing the boundaries of acceptability whether in gaming or in real life is a moral/ethical decision which humans have a hard time making until their brains are fully developed in their early 20s.

    And if games like Big Game Hunter cause children to don camo, wield lethal weapons, and hunt down harmless mammals such as squirrels, white-tailed deer, and bunny rabbits...oh wait, children learn these behaviors more from their parents, do they not? Hmmm...
    On a slightly different note, I know that many fun video games can be educational in a real world sense. Sometimes they use real maps or real historical scenarios, providing a geography or history lesson. I remember some games that had the player exploring a cavern from a first-person perspective, which had me constantly drawing and reading maps. Finally, there's Sid Meir's Civilization, which is basically a very complex version of chess, which also seems to incorporate some theories of history. Anyway, video games are a growing part of our culture, and I see no problem with them replacing movies and TV. They can be a bit more addictive, so that's something to watch out for. But mainly, the challenge for parents is to find games that include skills or information that will be useful in the real world.
    Adam, the educational aspects of video games are interesting to consider. There are also the meta-educational aspects of video games such as the development of problem-solving skills, etc. Two of the games I am currently playing, Dragon Age and Heavy Rain, have some relatively new components where the games' outcomes are based on moral reasoning.

    I was interested in your choice of the word addictive to describe video games. That word tends to have negative connotations, and I prefer the word compelling over addictive. In the psychology literature, there is some discussion about a diagnosis of Internet addiction. I am not fond of this term because I think most people who are compelled to be online actually have a variation of a pornography compulsion.

    I also think the challenge for parents is to be aware of the games their children are playing, and to understand what is (and is not) going on in the games. The parents must exercise a reasonable control over their children's gaming, and all other aspects of the child's development. The key is for parents to be authoritative in their approach (and this is distinguished from the term authoritarian).

    Gerhard Adam

    I certainly don't want to overstate the case, but it's a bit difficult to argue that video games can be educational, but that the player can distinguish reality from fantasy.  I'm not sure I buy that argument completely.

    Certainly people can distinguish between complete fantasy and the real-world, but the immediate problem with some educational games, is that they can blur the line between a true representation versus merely a plausible one.  In that respect there is much that might be considered "educational" that is just as much a fantasy as Harry Potter.  So when it comes to direct influence my primary concern is for "educational" games that may simply be promoting myths (obviously not those that are simply drills for arithmetic, etc. but rather those that are more oriented towards simulators, like Civilization).

    On the other side with role-playing games, I'm certainly not suggesting that they are the only source of influence or information and as you've pointed out, there is much that they will learn from parents/peers as well.  I'm also not suggesting that they are arbitrarily "bad" or "evil", but rather that they are a first step to a virtual reality that too many people may be susceptible to.

    I agree that I'm not clear on what an internet addiction would be, but I think it is fair to say that many people find the internet a preferable way to achieve social interaction when their own environment may be more constrained.  As a result, there is a strong urge to continue to participate in that virtual environment over the real-world, which may not necessarily be the best approach for dealing with the shortcomings in one's own life.

    However, my biggest complaint about video games is that they tend to promote the idea of instant gratification which is already problematic in many people.  You mentioned prolonged concentration and dealing with frustration, but that's only within the context of the game.

    Taking a relatively innocuous game such as Rock Band, or Guitar Hero, we still have people pretending to play instruments and expending all manner of effort for a null result.  In other words, at the end, they still won't know how to play, but they've created the illusion for themselves that they've achieved something notable.   My point is that the effort expended to master a particular song, doesn't translate into the real world to practice a real instrument.  Since it takes a much longer time to even approach something musically in the real world, the "student" becomes easily frustrated because he doesn't sound very good, and tends to give up.  While I have no scientific data to present, I can relate some anecdotes that suggest that a person will spend hours playing a simulated musician game like Guitar Hero, while they barely spend any time trying to master a real instrument.

    Once again, I'm not suggesting huge effects or influences by video games, but I am suggesting that much of their influence may be much more subtle even as it may be pervasive.

    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard, I think the first part of your last sentence sums up my review of the literature. The pervasiveness of television and peer influences account for a far greater chunk of the variance than do video games. It is virtually impossible to tease out the variance that video games might add, even with random selection of subjects, so in that respect video games' influence probably will be found to be subtle. If anything, I think a more powerful argument can be made that video games have a positive impact. They do demonstrate frustration tolerance, but are not designed to teach it. Frustration tolerance is a skill that must be practiced and frustration tolerance is not (and should not) be a skill that is demonstrated in all instances. Video games that provide instant gratification do not sell. They are not fun.
    Gerhard Adam
    ... more like Capt. Vivid Imagination ...
    Mundus vult decipi