Over the past few decades numerous studies have investigated the negative consequences of gaming, including depression, violence, and addiction. Recently researchers have taken a closer look at past studies and are conducting new ones that indicate video games might actually improve learning, health, and social skills. Given that 97 percent of children and adolescents in the United States play video games for at least an hour per day, shouldn’t we aim to understand potential benefits while also reducing the risks?
Contrary to the stereotype of gamers as loners, more than 70 percent of gamers actually play with a friend, and millions of people worldwide play virtually as part of a community. In these communities players must make quick social decisions about who to trust or reject. Players must cooperate in order to achieve goals, solve problems, handle frustration, and recover from disappointment quickly. Individuals who play together must also navigate interpersonal conflicts that arise when choosing a game or deciding where, when, and how to play. Although the majority of gaming occurs in a social setting, much of the past research is based on children and adolescents who play alone.
The research in general has been so elusive in part because there are so many different types of video games. What the newest research is suggesting is that cooperative video games may encourage cooperation in the real world even if games are violent in nature. Strategic games that involve role-playing seem to improve problem-solving skills and school grades, according to one 2013 study. Another review of past studies found that shooter video games strengthened cognitive skills (e.g., spatial navigation and reasoning, memory, and perception) just as much as academic classes designed to foster these abilities.
When used appropriately, gaming offers emotional benefits. A number of studies have linked playing preferred video games with positive emotions, improved mood, and feelings of control and competency. Games like Angry Birds that are easily accessible and don’t require a big commitment can promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. Gamers often describe gaming as intrinsically rewarding.
Many adults worry about certain games because they expose children to sexual and aggressive themes. Parents need to use judgment to decide if their child is developmentally capable of grasping the content and separating games from reality. Whether or not certain games are allowed in your home, however, chances are your child will be exposed to violent and sexual images elsewhere. Parents can use discussions about games (whether or not you own them) to increase awareness of morals and values. Find out why your child wants to play a certain game. Show interest. Don’t shame children so they avoid coming to you for answers. Take the time to discuss the “adult” aspects of these games rather than avoiding them.
A lot of this boils down to common sense, it seems. If a child is friendless, neglected, and spends hours upon hours staring at a screen shooting virtual players at the expense of real, nurtured relationships, he will probably be maladjusted and more likely to make bad life decisions. But the video games themselves probably would not cause violence on their own. When people are scared they often cherry pick evidence to make their point. Yes, Adam Lanza played violent video games. But he was reportedly far more obsessed with playing Dance Revolution. Factors other than video games contributed to the unfortunate outcome at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Games can give children and adolescents a sense of connection and provide opportunities to practice teamwork. Games are even being devised that foster self-efficacy and help children with cancer adhere to treatment. Focusing on the enormous positive potential of video games will allow us to capitalize on what is already a cherished staple in our homes.
Dr. Jaime Black is a licensed psychologist practicing in Westchester and New York City. Jaime works with high-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum, doing psychotherapy, conducting evaluations, and facilitating socialization groups including an improv social skills group. Visit www.spectrumservicesnyc.com, e-mail JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com or call 914-712-8208.