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Experts State: Do Not Banish – Instead, Manage Violent Video Game Play

According to Drs. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, the authors of Grand Theft Childhood, those people examining violent video game play may in fact be asking the wrong questions and making incorrect assumptions. As but one example, the authors note that “instead of looking for a simple, direct relationship between video game violence and violent behavior in all children, we should be asking how we might identify those children who are at greatest risk for being influenced by these games.”

I Stock PhotoIn addition, Kutner and Olson stipulate that parents and educators should examine the entire gaming spectrum when thinking about video game play. As the authors note, “Some of the most popular games, even among teenage boys, are not violent.” That leads the Harvard professors to note, “We should ask whether children who spend a lot of time playing video games are failing to learn important interpersonal and social skills.”

When it comes to video game play and those video games deemed violent, the authors recommend a balanced approach that follows the basics of good parenting. Instead of trying to banish the games and create a “forbidden fruit” concept, a step most parents find simply does not work, these researchers offer a more manageable set of expectations around game play.

Appropriate Game Play
According to Kutner and Olson, parents should not think of the issue as a boxing match. “It’s aikido,” note the authors. In other words, successful parents don’t try to meet force with force by banning nor do they throw their hands up in the air and abdicate control. The key is “to work with and redirect your child’s skills and interests.”

The first suggestion is one that forms the basis for good parenting every step of the way. Stay involved. And according to the authors, one of the best ways to do so is to learn the games and the terminology, then spend some time playing the games with your child.

Halo 3The author suggests learning such terms as “first-person shooter” (Doom or Halo) versus “third-person shooter” games such as Grand Theft Auto or Tomb Raider? Find out what a MMORPG (A Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game like World of Warcraft) is. Learn what is meant by a cheat code.

In learning these terms, Kutner and Olson suggest having your children teach you these game terms. As you begin discussing the terms you can move to the various game genres to see why your son or daughter likes some types of games but not others? The basic key is to get the discussion going.

Finally, learn the game console and begin playing the game. Here again, having your son or daughter by your side teaching you is a great way to keep the conversation going and help you navigate the game. Parents may initially find the skills and dexterity very challenging but abandonment is not the answer. Here the Harvard professors cite Michael Jellinek, M.D., professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, who says that a parent’s awkwardness “can be used to your advantage when it comes to strengthening relationships with your children.”

In fact Jellinek has “prescribed” video games that parents and kids can play together in his work. According to Olson and Kutner, Michael JellinekJellinek has prescribed “golf, football or car racing games” as therapy. “It changes the dynamic of the parent constantly teaching the child, to the child teaching the parent.”

Two researchers who have conducted studies in the Netherlands have “found that parents who played video games themselves had a different perspective on the risks and benefits of those games on their children.” Drs. Peter Nikken and Jeroen Jansz note that parents knowledgeable of such games were not only more likely to play such games with their children, they “were more optimistic about the positive effects and less worried about the negative effects” of game play.

Keep a Proper Perspective
With greater involvement with your children regarding such game play, appropriate discussions can follow. Here, it is interesting to note how Kutner and Olson reframe the issue.

The authors note several negatives that are often sighted as correlates with anti-social or risk taking behavior and teens who play M-rated video games. The authors reveal that “violent video game play can be a marker of increased risk for certain behaviors.

For example, girls who played any M-rated game ‘a lot’ were three times as likely to say that they’d damaged property just for fun during the previous year, compared to girls who played E or T games. M-gamer boys were more than twice as likely as non-M-gamer boys to do so.”

Given that data, the researchers note that “the actual number of kids who do these things is pretty low.” For example, though one might be concerned with the fact that “15 percent of the M-gamer girls said that they’d damaged property for fun” it must be noted that “85 percent of the M-gamer girls said that they had not.” According to Kutner and Olson, this was carried through their research, that “for almost all of the problem behaviors we measured, the majority—and often the vast majority—of M-gamer kids didn’t do those things.”

In addition, the authors rightfully note that a correlation is not the same as a causation. Simply stated, it is not possible to determine if playing M-rated games inspires some kids to act in a certain way or if those who act that way are more drawn to play M-rated games. Or perhaps, it may well be that something else entirely is going on.

Lastly, the authors note that playing such games demands active parenting. In other words, violent video game play is in fact a marker of increased risk for anti-social behavior. By paying close attention to the potential behavior issues that are often associated with the teen years, parents can help guide teens towards appropriate behaviors. Such management and involvement is critical. The authors note that it is a far healthier approach than attempting to ban all such game play.

Game SpotIn their research, Kutner and Olson note that Richard Falzone, M.D., indicates a growing number of children act as if they’re addicted to video games. Falzone tells the tale of a 15-year-old boy that would spend 10-12 hours a day playing the World of Warcraft. At times the teen did not make it to school because he would sleep through the day after playing video games all night. Eventually, as the game took over his life, the teen became hospitalized for depression and for cutting himself.

Such situations are extremely rare but give rise to the notion that video games could in fact be addicting. Kutner and Olson do note that “playing video games that involve a lot of action has been associated with increased levels of two neurotransmitters in the brain, dopamine and norepinephrine, that help brain cells send messages to each other. These neurotransmitters are involved in both learning and in addiction.”

Kutner and Olson go on to explain the symptoms associated with addiction. They list three: a compulsive, physiological craving for a substance, an increased tolerance (needing a higher dose to get the same effect) following early use, and well-defined and uncomfortable physiological symptoms during withdrawal.

But as for being an addiction, the authors state that these “supposedly addicted game players may be behaving normally—but not in the ways that the adults around them believe to be normal.” Kutner and Olson note that “many young children and pre-adolescents have difficulty making the transition from one activity to another, especially when the initial activity is pleasurable.” The researchers indicate that the desire to continue to play a game children enjoy is not an addiction, it’s normal.

They also note that when a “child plays basketball or plays the piano for four hours per day, we may describe him or her as a dedicated athlete or musician. A teenager who knows all the game statistics and trivia about a local professional football team, and who spends a lot of money buying jerseys and other memorabilia, is considered a true fan. It’s a socially acceptable hobby; in fact, it’s encouraged. But if that child takes the same approach to playing video games, spending hours each day at the computer and reveling in the details and strategies of play, we may worry about an addiction.”

According to Kutner and Olson, parents and clinicians tend to focus on easily measured behaviors like the amount of time a child spends playing video games. More useful indicators would be the answers to questions such as: “Is your child finishing his schoolwork? Is he establishing balanced and reciprocal friendships with peers?”

Once again, if game play occasionally involves the parent it will be far easier to control and balance this time factor.

Many Other Practical Recommendations

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Kutner and Olson offer many more valuable tips in their book and on their web site. They discuss concerns about sexual implications of such games and note what types of media tend to really scare teens. There are separate sections regarding game play and children with learning disabilities as well as the implications for teen girls. There are even sections that discuss racial aspects relative to these games.

Parents and educators seeking a pronouncement that all violent video games are bad and must be avoided will not find reinforcement from Kutner and Olson. Instead, parents and educators will see a balanced approach to a complex topic, an approach that matches up with the various teachings of other experts as to what constitutes effective parenting.

Perhaps most notably, the work of Kutner and Olson explains why most well-adjusted teens and adults never display any anti-social behavior despite their enjoyment of video game play. It is an explanation that has caused this writer to reconsider his views on this complex topic.

8 comments

1 Zegai { 03.23.08 at 12:37 pm }

Hello, as a gamer myself who has 2 children (3 years & months) its nice to hear that a well-educated voice has spoken out for games and tried to educate people. Ive enjoyed video games all my life and intend to keep enjoying them, even at such a young age I find that games like Viva Pinata and Guitar Hero have helped me and my young daughter bond (she loves music) and hopefully me and my younger son will share that as well. I think its about time parents and politicians alike realised there is no easy answer or qiuck fix nor is there any one overiding influence that can explain bad behaviour that they can just get rid of and everything will be A-ok. Hopefully this is a nice first step to show that there is nothing wrong with games or gamers.

2 michael { 03.26.08 at 12:15 pm }

Hello, as a young gamer i know that what i play is only in the games and not in real life. Many people think that most violence is because of game, but i like violence games but i dont think of shooting someone or hurting them, I would talk to them and see what wronge, try to work it out with them.

3 William { 04.09.08 at 9:31 pm }

Now I have played Halo and Doom and such. I may still be a teenager, but I now understand that why parents usually don’t want kids to play ‘violent’ video games is that it can be connected to real life way too closely. In games body parts can be twisted and distorted, and they look funny. But when you see a twisted and distorted body of a human being… that is a VERY different story. The lifelessness of the person, who, I saw once, had his whole body practically crumpled into a ball, bones sticking out, guts spilled on the street and head sticking out of this lifeless ball with the shock of death on his face. Thats what happened to one guy a few days ago in a car crash, and it scared the living hell out of me. I played Halo 3 the day after and I felt that twinge when I was killed in the game that my dad felt playing the Halo 2 four years ago.

But we must understand that, it is a game. Yet despite that fact, it can still get to you.

4 Austin Fowler { 05.14.08 at 1:53 pm }

I think the management system on games is good, but people should have the game’s content explained in detail before purchase by the clerk so stupid parents can’t be tricked.

5 Liam { 11.13.08 at 7:14 pm }

I, a 12 yera old boy who enjoys violent games, think that parents should try 2 see it from thier child’s perspective. My mom thinks i have issues because i enjoy violent games. I dont know how 2 explain it 2 her. When you see violence and blood and gore in games, it becomes a normal thing to see- in games. i am stiil highly desturbed at the thought of real hmans dying, or blleeding. playing violent games doesnt desensitize u.

6 Fred { 11.27.08 at 5:23 am }

The problem that I see is children are not learning other skills they need to be. The most notable issue is they are not working on their interpersonal skills and use of written language. I think the 12-year-old boy above illustrates my point.

7 Danny { 01.25.09 at 10:12 pm }

Fred, leave Liam alone. He’s taken the trouble to read an article on gaming’s alleged links to violence, and commented on it. After reading your comment, how is he going to feel about his next chance to use his “interpersonal skills”? Text-speak is completely acceptable as an evolution of language, especially online.

What games are primarily about (even the most violent) is about problem-solving, lateral thinking, precise use of controls, working within constraints, and dealing with very obvious penalties for failure. To say that they encourage violence is like saying that Tom & Jerry encourages hitting people in the face with a frying pan.

8 Rashun { 11.02.09 at 11:54 am }

Manage is just nother soft word for “censor.” This article made sense for awhile, but i still think that kids should be allowed to play if they have a strong mind, both the gamer and the parents of the gamer. I am 15 years old, playing video games since i was 4. I am proud to see such young faces play an online session of Halo or Gears. Now there are some games where kids under 10 have to stop (GTA, Leisure Suit Larry, Dead or Alive Extreme 2) but other than that, let the young ones frag! but can we please touch on the issue of “Motion Sensoring Games?” Just because you do stuff that involves your body, doesnt mean that it’s healthy. Those are a lot of mistakes parents, especially mothers, make. Stay away from those general games.

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