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The Video Game Curse

Video Games have come to occupy a big space in many children’s days. While managing children’s ‘screen time’ is important to avoid it becoming an obsession, video games may also offer some kids a healthy escape from today’s over-protective childraising argues Harald Breiding-Buss.

Once upon a time, children roamed their neighbourhoods free and unrestricted, spent most of their time outside and physically active, socially interacting with other children.

Or so the legend goes. I’m old enough to remember a childhood in pre-video days and, yes, we were outside a lot and physically active without realising it—but we were also bored a lot and our social interactions were only partly positive. A lot of time was spent ganging up on other kids and being ganged up on; racism, sexism and bullying was rampant amongst us kids, and sometimes we stole from each other and did other nasty things that, in our mind, the other person completely deserved.

I guess you can call this ‘social learning’, but it is easy as we get older to put on those rose-coloured glasses when we look back in time. Times were different, for sure, better in some ways, but maybe not so in others.

The attention and criticism on modern video games is a result of this change: now we actually want to know, and have more control over what our kids are doing all day.

I’ll come out now and say that I rather enjoy video games myself, especially the adventure-type games that allow you to get immersed in a story, such as Final Fantasy or Prince of Persia. Some, like Assassins Creed, offer absorbing environments (ancient Florence, Venice and Rome) that are as historically authentic as you can make it.

As fast-paced and fully engaging entertainment, video games are hard to beat. As an educational tool, or a holistic form of entertainment, they rate very poorly. The biggest problem with video gaming is: what is it the kids (or adults) could be doing instead?

Still, video games are with us now, and they are helpful in occupying our kids’ attention at opportune times. They also beat TV, which has all the negative attributes of gaming while also being an entirely passive form of entertainment, where the viewer has no other control than the remote.

Boys seem to be drawn to video games much more than girls, and this may be because they offer a kind of adventure that real life no longer does, and hasn’t done for a long time. Sports is often suggested as an alternative, but this is not so simple. Sports give physical entertainment, offer challenges and goals, but only very few people become top players and your involvement is restricted by the rules (and frustrations) of the game. Many kids get put off sport by overly competitive and sometimes abusive coaches, which turn the sports experience into a confidence-destroying nightmare.

You also do not exactly save the world by beating another sports team, and your coach will get fired if he tells you that the other team is evil. It is hard to underestimate the importance of sports in children’s development, and even for us as adults, but nevertheless sports represent another highly regulated environment where we dance to another person’s tune, and where social dynamics can make or break it for an individual. In today’s world, where children are supervised every minute of the day, video games offer the otherwise very rare opportunity for an ‘average’ kid to be fully in control, pursue adventures with unknown outcomes, and get rewarded often.

I would argue that there is a place for this, that a certain amount of it is healthy and fills a void in some people’s beings that would otherwise leave them unhappy or prone to much more dangerous activities.

And while not exactly a social activity, video games offer gallons of conversation material that boys (and some girls) get excited about. One of my teenage daughters shares my enthusiasm for the Final Fantasy series, and for me it makes for much better conversation than hair, clothes or looks.

However, too much of it and kids run the danger of becoming disconnected from the world around them. Gaming also has some very real negative health effects such as disturbed (or too little) sleep and anxieties. The jury is still out on whether video game behaviour, especially violence, spills over into the real world.
As with TV, video games convey certain messages about heroism, the sexes, violence, values and so on, although many of the more popular video game series offer protagonists that have much more depth than can ever be expected in a Hollywood movie. Just like you wouldn’t let your child watch any movie you should also be informed about the games they play, and probably err on the side of caution.

For more info and ideas on moderating ‘screen time’, see here:

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