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The Lessons of Video Games

By — Video Game Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

Change is the promise and threat offered by all new technologies.  When writing was first introduced to Greek society, Plato worried that it would lead to forgetfulness and the death of wisdom.  Many parents today react in a similar way to video games.  Parents’ concerns are understandable, and the risks are real, but with them also come opportunity.

How do video games differ from other forms of media?

Video games differ from other forms of media (e.g. TV, film) in important ways.  Video games are more active than other forms of media.  Video games also require players to identify with characters.  Because of these differences, video games have enormous potential as educational tools, at least relative to other more passive forms of media.  Seeing this opportunity, soldiers, doctors, firefighters, pilots and others use virtual technologies as a part of their training.

What can video games teach kids?

Although video games can in principal teach any lesson about the world, game manufactures, and consequently researchers, have been most interested in lessons that video games teach about the prevalence, appropriateness, and consequences of violent behavior.  True to video game effectiveness as a teaching tool, kids take the amount of violence in video games (and other media) as representative of the amount of violence in the real world, leading to the belief that the world is a dark and hostile place.  This can make children both more afraid of the world and less empathetic toward the suffering of others.  Violent video games can also teach children that aggression is the best way to solve conflict.  Reviews have shown that the statistical relationship between violent video games and aggression is about as strong as the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer.  Less is known about the link between violent video games and criminal acts of aggression.  Thus parents need to carefully evaluate the lessons that video games teach.

Using video games may also have effects beyond their content.  Sociologists such as Roland Barthes have noted that children’s toys are a means of socializing them to be adults, which is why so much of what children do for fun parallel the tasks adults do for a living.  A great deal of technological literacy is needed to succeed in the modern world, so it makes sense to start learning early.  Playing video games may also enhance other more basic cognitive skills such as visual attention, memory, and eye-hand coordination.

However, it is also important to remember that every lesson comes at the cost of something else untaught.  An easily overlooked effect of video games is that time spent playing them is time not spent doing something else.  Excessive video game use can be related to obesity (by way of less exercise), social isolation (although interactive video games may actually foster social bonds for some children), and difficulty with reading or other skills that require time to master.  However, the severity of these negative side effects depends on whether kids are playing more video games at the expense of watching less television (which has many of the same negative effects) or some other activity.

Video games are here to stay, and they cannot be ignored.  Parents need to be aware of the messages their children are receiving.  Parents also need to be conscious of the kinds of tradeoffs that occur when a child decides to play video games.

References

http://healthyminds.org/mediaviolence.cfm

http://www.mediafamily.org/facts/facts_vlent.shtml

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