Video games are electronic, interactive games known for their vibrant colors, sound effects, and complex graphics.
First mass-marketed in the 1970s, video games are played by installing cartridges into a game box connected by wire to a television set. The child then manipulates a joystick or controller to control the actions of a character or series of characters as the characters face obstacles displayed on the screen. Video games, designed chiefly to appeal to children and adolescents, can also be played in arcades, on computers, and on small, hand-held screens.
As of 2004 nearly every home in the United States with children had one or more of the most popular game systems, for example, Nintendo GameCube, Sony Playstation2, or Microsoft Xbox. Few children have not been exposed to some form of video game, and access to the games is readily available to children from all walks of life.
Video games for home use proved popular from the start. Children are particularly attracted to them for a variety of reasons. Fantasy characters and situations appeal to young imaginations and provide an escape from everyday routine and the stresses presented by parents, friends, and school. In addition, the games give children a level of control that they do not experience in real life, as the characters on the screen respond to the children's commands. Players also receive immediate rewards for making the right moves. Most games can be played at a variety of skill levels so that every player can be challenged.
The popularity of video games has been matched by the controversy they have sparked among parents, psychologists, and educators. The most prevalent objection results from the violent themes and characters that dominate in most video games. A 1989 study by the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV) found that, of the 95 most popular home video games, 58 percent were war games and 83 percent featured violent themes. As technology has improved to allow the games to show situations and characters that are more realistic, debate has escalated about the potential effects of video games on children's behavior. One NCTV study that monitored the playground behavior of eight- to ten-year-olds immediately after playing a laser-weapon game found an 80 percent increase in fighting. There is also added concern that repeated exposure to violence desensitizes children to its effects. Other experts and video game manufacturers contend that negative effects have not been proven adequately, and, in fact, playing such games gives players an avenue for the harmless release of stress and aggression.
Public pressure prompted some video game manufacturers in the early 1990s to begin labeling games with warnings about violent or sexually explicit content. In 1994, in response to considerable political pressure and the possibility of a federal rating agency, the industry created its own rating system, overseen by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Ratings are assigned based on the games' suitability for various age groups. An "Early Childhood" designation on a game box indicates that the game is suitable for players ages three and older, and there is no violence, sexual content, or profanity. The designation "Everyone" indicates the game is for players ages six and older and may contain minimal violence or crude language. A "Teen" game for ages 13 and up may contain violence, profanity, and mild sexual themes. A "Mature" rating is considered suitable only for ages 17 and older and may include more intense violence, profanity, and mature sexual themes. "Adults Only" games are not intended for people under 18 and may include graphic depictions of sex and violence. The ratings system, however, is just a guide, and parents still need to oversee which video games their children buy and play.
In the past, the issue of gender bias in video games was another area of considerable debate. Not only were most video games male-oriented sports and combat games, female characters in the games were portrayed as victims to be rescued by the male hero or objects of violence or sexual desire. In the early 2000s, however, an increasing number of games had girl-oriented themes and an increasing number of gender neutral games became available.
Besides the socialization concerns presented by video games, medical concerns were also raised in the early 1990s, when video games were linked to epileptic seizures experienced by some 50 children. About one third of the children had experienced previous seizures, and there were questions about whether the seizures they experienced were related to playing or watching a video game. Two large studies later reported that the children who experienced video game-related seizures (VGRS) were particularly sensitive to light and that video games with flashing lights merely precipitated, rather than caused, the seizures. Sitting too close to the screen could exacerbate the effects of the light sensitivity, as could the increasingly complex graphic technology featured in games. Individuals with epilepsy are not thought to be particularly susceptible to VGRS, and no lasting neurological damage had as of 2004 been linked to these seizures.
Despite the controversy surrounding video games, benefits have also been noted: development of hand-eye coordination, increases in concentration, logical thinking skills, and healthy competition among children, as well as socialization skills gained from sharing strategies and the heightened self-esteem resulting from successful performances. One research study even found that doctors who had played more video games had better surgical skills.
There are a number of specialized video and computer games that are designed to be educational for toddlers. Many use familiar characters to teach basic things such as shape matching, the alphabet, and counting.
Children in preschool can be exposed to video and computer games that reinforce the basic skills that they are learning, such as phonetics, shapes, colors, and basic addition.
School-age children can be encouraged to play educational games that reinforce what they are learning in the classroom. Parents should research the games that their children want to buy to ensure appropriate content for the child's age group. In the early 2000s marketers have developed increasing numbers of educational games that are also adventurous and exciting. Children, especially young ones, should be encouraged to play these instead of more violent games.
Middle and high school
The effect of violent games on behavior and social development is an especially important concern for older children. These children often spend much of their time playing video games when their parents are not present to supervise the content. Also, many teens buy video games with money earned from allowances or part time jobs, making it harder for parents to control which titles are purchased.
Studies have begun to find significant correlations between violence in video games and violence in real life. One study done on eighth and ninth graders compared teens who generally had personalities considered non-aggressive but who played violent games to those teens who had aggressive personalities but did not play violent games. The researchers found that the non-aggressive, video game playing teens were actually more likely to get in physical fights than the teens considered aggressive but who did not play video games.
Some states are trying to pass laws that would make it illegal to sell video games with certain ratings to people under the age for which the games are intended. Even if laws are created to try to prevent underage sale of very violent video games, parents should still be alert to what their teen is playing. Making the teen play video games in a common area and not in his or her bedroom with the door closed can be an important first step in regulating game play and facilitating discussion.
Children often become very involved in video games and do not want to stop playing them. Setting concrete limits about the amount of time that can be spent playing games and then enforcing these limits is essential. Even educational games should not be played to excess, because playing video games is not a substitute for positive social interaction or traditional learning. Children can also be encouraged to play the games with other children, because discussing strategies and problem solving in a group is a positive social activity.
The amount and degree of violence in video games is an important concern for parents. Monitoring the games that a child buys or rents and plays is an important way to help deal with this problem. If a child plays a violent video game at an arcade or another child's house, it can be helpful to discuss the difference between games and reality and to discuss what the real life repercussions of the actions taken in the game would be.
When to seek help
If a child has violent or aggressive behavior or a tendency to mimic the negative actions taken by characters in a video game it may be helpful to consult a mental health professional to discuss possible solutions.
See also:Television Habits
Calvert, Sandra L., Amy B. Jordan, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. Children in the Digital Age: Influences of Electronic Media on Development. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.
Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
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Levermore, Monique A. "Violent Media and Videogames, and Their Role in Creating Violent Youth." The Forensic Examiner 13 (Fall 2004): 38–42.
"Video Game Play May Increase Laparoscopic Proficiency." AORN Journal 80 (August 2004): 290.