Video games: Addictive or just a waste of time?

‘Alien Hominid’ features animation This undated image from the

They’re educational. They’re violent. They’re mind-numbing.
They’re a test of skill. They’re the devil’s work.
A lot has been said about video games since the introduction of
the first Atari. There have been debates over their content and
studies of their effects on children.
They’re educational. They’re violent. They’re mind-numbing. They’re a test of skill. They’re the devil’s work.

A lot has been said about video games since the introduction of the first Atari. There have been debates over their content and studies of their effects on children.

There have been movies about them, from The Last Starfighter and Super Mario Brothers to Mortal Kombat and Tomb Raider. And there have been an increasing number of stars, studios and advertisers ready to jump on the video game band wagon for a little bit of extra exposure.

Many games for younger children encourage them to pass obstacles and kill non-human entities like aliens and monsters.

First person shooter games, however, can often involve depiction of blood and gore such as dismemberment and mutilation. Some even allow players to “finish off” writhing victims who plead for help.

The popular Grand Theft Auto series entices players to steal cars and kill police officers, not to mention allowing them to hire electronic prostitutes.

The violent content of such games worries some parents, especially those whose children are enthralled or even addicted to video games.

Questions about the ties that video games may have to violence, social development and addictive behavior have yet to be answered.

Indeed, parents often find children to have more aggressive play after having watched a show with physical violence like Power Rangers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, said Vicky Tamashiro, assistant program director at Chamberlains Mental Health Services in Gilroy.

But children often report that video games help them release tension, letting off steam that they may otherwise direct at peers, according to Judy Robertson, a researcher at Edinburgh University in Scotland and a spokeswoman for the video game industry, who spoke with BBC News.

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have made tentative links correlating physical violence with violent images, finding that third- and fourth-graders whose consumption of television and video games was reduced to under seven hours per week were 50 percent less aggressive verbally and 40 percent less aggressive physically than their peers.

Most children spend at least 14 hours watching or participating with some form of electronic media per week, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

If such ties are proven, it could spell future troubling times for a new generation. Women and minorities are often portrayed as victims or evil-doers in video games, according to a 2001 study of the year’s top-selling video games by the children’s advocacy group Children Now.

According to the study, three out of four player-controlled characters were male, with non-human characters outnumbering the remaining females.

Also, the study found that nearly 90 percent of heroes were depicted as white.

“What are we teaching them that the masculine side is?” asked Gilroy Marriage and Family Therapist Edna Dowell. “Violent! And that’s not necessarily valid. In general, we’re moving into a different time where it’s not how strong you are, but how smart you are. Tell me what, in adult life, is needed for your eye and your thumb to connect on.”

Video game use tends to peak in the “tween” years, when boys (who play at a far greater rate than girls) max out their average daily play time at 46 minutes, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Some parents see the incessant desire to play these games as an addiction, but Tamashiro said children are not truly addicted to video games.

Instead, parents all too often use gaming consoles, televisions and the Internet as electronic baby-sitters, she said.

However, Licensed Clinical Social Worker Flo Creighton of Morgan Hill said she sees teens and even some adults addicted to games that allow themto feel socially involved, confident and powerful.

“It gives them a momentary high, a fix, that break from reality,” said Creighton. “But in teenagers it becomes a fine line of what’s an addiction and what’s functional.”

She noted the case of a young student who turned to online gaming as a way to feel socially accepted when she chose to firmly pursue school interests over her peers’ penchants for sports and parties.

“The one place where she had a sense of belonging and acceptance was online,” said Creighton. “In that sense, she was functional, but the mom was worried about the amount of time she spent online, so she chose to limit that.”

Despite parental fears, new research conducted by Teachers Evaluating Educational Multimedia, a private research company in the United Kingdom, had good news for gaming manufacturers.

The British study suggests that video games could actually be good for children, boosting strategic thinking, planning and multi-tasking skills, but the research is limited to certain types of games that emphasize building, reading and counting such as City Traders, Sim City 3000, RollerCoaster Tycoon and Bob the Builder.

Concerns persist over the social development of children heavily involved in the fantasy worlds that such games create, however.

Some children seek out video games, in which limited levels of social development are required to participate, to feel at home despite their awkwardness, while other children stall their social growth by continued participation in video gaming, said Creighton.

The best approach, say all parties, is moderation. Know what your kids are doing. Make sure that they continue interacting with family and peers as well as getting enough rest and study into the mix, said Creighton.

“Are kids interested in violence? If the kids are only playing violent games, is that something to pay attention to?” asked Creighton. “Yeah. Just because they’re playing those games doesn’t mean they’re going to be violent, though.

“My worry is always that if these kids are going into chat rooms, what kind of people are they meeting? A lot of video games are online now, so walk in on your kids and see what they’re doing. Sit with them for a while. Monitor what’s going on so that you’re certain because kids are going to assume best intention (when contacted by strangers).”

Better yet, advises the Kaiser Family Foundation, keep computers, televisions and video games outside of your child’s room.

Forcing them to play in public view lessens the likelihood that they’ll overindulge in gaming or talk online with strangers.

Video game ratings for parents

As set by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board

EC = Early Childhood

Titles rated EC – Early Childhood have content that may be suitable for persons ages three and older. Titles in this category contain no material that parents would find inappropriate.

E = Everyone

Titles rated E – Everyone have content that may be suitable for persons ages six and older. Titles in this category may contain minimal violence, some comic mischief and/or mild language.

T = Teen

Titles rated T – Teen have content that may be suitable for persons ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violent content, mild or strong language and/or suggestive themes.

M = Mature

Titles rated M – Mature have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain mature sexual themes, more intense violence and/or strong language.

AO = Adults Only

Titles rated AO – Adults Only have content suitable only for adults. Titles in this category may include graphic depictions of sex and/or violence. Adults Only products are not intended for people under the age of 18.

RP = Rating Pending

Titles listed as RP – Rating Pending have been submitted to the ESRB and are awaiting final rating.

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