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But video games are bad for kids, right?

There’s still this myth that video games harm children both socially and intellectually. Things aren’t quite what they appear — and here’s why…

There’s still this myth that video games harm children both socially and intellectually. Things aren’t quite what they appear — and here’s why…

kids playing a video game

Of urban myths, video games, exercise and social interaction in the 21st century

Parents and the popular press are often quick to criticize, citing examples of kids sat zombified in front of the screen playing games all day and all night. So let’s approach the prickly subject of video games from the point of view of parental questions.

But playing video games doesn’t teach them anything, surely?

First of all, it’s highly likely that video games are not bad for us:

“Researchers are discovering that people who play video games are processing information more rapidly, are more able to multi task and quicker to assess situations and respond to them and are generally more mentally alert. So next time your partner or child is engrossed in a video game, don’t be tempted to complain, join in, not only will you run the risk of improving your brain power you might even have some fun too.”

Want more evidence that video games can have real, measurable benefits? Take the example of surgeons playing video games to be more precise:

“Surgeons who play video games three hours a week have 37 percent fewer errors and accomplish tasks 27 percent faster, he says, basing his observation on results of tests using the video game Super Monkey Ball.”

Ultimately, practice will only ever make perfect if applied correctly — there’s no point learning to speak Spanish if you don’t intend actually speaking Spanish at some point in your life. The same applies to any skills you’re likely to pick up while playing a video game.

But what about kids being sat about on their arses all the time — surely that’s no good?

True. Because of a whole slew of environmental and social issues, children are leading increasingly sedentary life styles. This is not good.

Again, the theory is that kids just don’t like physical play and to be active, which is nonsense. We just lack the imagination to conjure up stuff that’s engaging enough to meet with their imagination and the times we live in.

That all changed when Nintendo launched their wildly successful Wii, which transformed video gaming forever:

“My nephew told me of a work colleague of his who has a Nintendo Wii, and both he and his wife decided to play a boxing game. After a little less than half an hour, the two of them collapsed in a heap .. back on the settee! This kind of thing I love. It’s amazing, it really is.”

It would appear that the living room is the Backyard 2.0, likely to help combat — at least in some small way — the increase in childhood obesity, assuming Sony and Microsoft follow suit and include similar physical interactivity in their respective games consoles.

My kids come straight in from school, run upstairs with barely a word said and straight onto that damned video games console! What kind of social life is that?

This exclusionary argument against video games isn’t new. My parents said the same thing when I was a kid. This is still an argument I hear a lot of today and it’s so outdated as to be daft.

You take any of the the major games consoles, such as the Xbox, PlayStation and the Wii, and you’re going to find dozens of games titles that have a multiplayer option, with internet multiplayer probably being the most common of them all.

And then there’s the PlayStation Portable as well as Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch — all portable games consoles, with multiplayer options.

Sure, kids aren’t always playing together in the same room, but they’re still playing together. Put in much simpler words, technology doesn’t not exclude people by default, only by design:

“I recently went to my sisters house to see my nephew. When I entered his room, he was sat there with three other friends playing a team game on his games console. That’s technology enabling group activities, not excluding people from participation.”

And let’s look at this from the point of view of the video games developers and the video console designers — why on Earth would they want to develop a product that excludes an audience? They want as many people to participate as is practically possible because that’s where the money is.

Because the internet and it’s great leveling of world geography, we now have friends scattered all around the world, as well as those who live next door, or just a few streets away. Whether parents like this or not, it’s the world their children live in.

What about all this talk of video games making kids more violent?

You have the popular press to thank for that myth, and by all accounts, video games inspiring children to violence is most probably nothing more than a myth:

“Media scare stories about gamers obsessed with violent games and many research reports that claim to back up the idea that virtual violence breeds real violence would seem to suggest so … However, Kierkegaard explains, there is no obvious link between real-world violence statistics and the advent of video games. If anything, the effect seems to be the exact opposite and one might argue that video game usage has reduced real violence.”

I go jogging and I go to the gym. I use this me time to flush out all of the negativity and physical stress that’s accumulated during the course of the day. In the same sense, I often play a video game to exorcise all of the mental negativity that’s built up over several days and sometimes weeks.

I do not play video games as practice, or as a prelude to killing someone I’ve taken a disliking to. Clearly we’re not all the same, but I’ve long suspected my take on video game usage is not too dissimilar to that of anyone else.

Seeing anti-social behaviour in children is rarely the cause of anything, but the effect of not being as attentive to their needs as we might otherwise be.

When my dad was a kid, him and his friends ran around pretending to shoot bullets and fire arrows at each other. Today, kids use laser beams and heat-seeking missiles.

And the difference is?

Recommended reading

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

34 replies on “But video games are bad for kids, right?”

Interesting article.

It would be interesting to know about other research.

I personally can’t believe so much time spent staring and pushing buttons can be good for anyone.

Socially, there’s no question that video games do keep teenage boys from doing other things including socializing IMHO. And a lot of the time it is a solitary activity. What are the effects of that? Have their been studies?

Gosh, Wayne you’re showing your age…I mean your young age. Never mind your Dad, me and my friends used to run around as kids firing arrows and bullets at each other in games with rather un-PC names. “Japs and Commandos” being a particularly popular one when I was about 6, which was in 1973…

I have to admit though, aside from racing my son at Colin McRae Rally on his Playstation and having a few rounds of Wii golf last Xmas with the kids, I’ve never really felt the urge to play computer games. I spend enough time in front of a screen as it is without it being a leisure activity. But, then maybe it’s me showing my age now…I am well over 40 now, after all…

Hi Lisa and thanks for the comment!

Socially, there’s no question that video games do keep teenage boys from doing other things including socializing IMHO.

As I mention in the article, these things are artifacts of society and not solely a deliberate choice made by children.

A lot of parents don’t let their kids out anymore, mostly for fear of abduction and bullying among other things.

Also, the other point that I make is that playing video games isn’t entirely a solitary act, as a lot of games encourage interaction with other players.

My nephew is a good example of the social gamer.

The point of this article is to counter a lot of misinformation surrounding video game usage, which often builds upon misconceptions and unfounded ideas.

David, I played army as a kid, but I was fortunate (up to a certain age) in that I had options. That said, even though I have my Sega Megadrive, I was still to be found lost in the local woodlands, playing with my friends.

Little has actually changed, but children spend less time stretching their creative, imaginative muscles these days, sadly.

So on the downside, video games do offer a very compelling visual alternative to reality.

But if I had my time to live again, I’d still opt for getting your my wet, scuffing my shoes scrimming up trees and risking a clip around the lug hole for ripping my trousers on barbed wire fences…

I’ve had many videogame consoles over the years, none of which stopped me as a kid from going swimming, being in scouts, joining two bands and spending plenty of time with friends and family.

To say that it’s socially inhibiting is a cop-out. To argue that it’s lazy is hypocritical if you spend anything more than a handful of hours a week watching TV. At least videogames are stimulating your brain if nothing else.

As for violence, this debate is as old as any form of entertainment you care to name. I firmly believe that young boys will always play Cops and Robbers etc. Games like Halo are just another version of that.

There are always disturbed people who have violent tendencies. Videogames (like films) may indeed inspire them to act those impulses out in certain manner but those impulses were there anyway.

It’s absurd (and a naked attempt to dodge responsibility) to even suggest that the assaults, murders etc that fill our newspapers have anything at all to do with videogames.

Newspaper headlines such as “Don’t let our children play Manhunt / Grand Theft Auto” should be scorned at every opportunity. The bottom line is, if a parent gives a 14 year old a copy of a game/film that clearly carries an over 18 certificate that is a clear-cut case of parental neglect.

Maybe if parents took an interest in their children and what they are doing, rather than sticking them in front of the TV to “keep them quiet”, we wouldn’t have an issue.

Hear, hear…I’ve nowt againt video games, I just never got into them, having spent more time melting shoes on dying bonfires, scrumping crab apples, and scavenging for treasures in incredibly derelict buildings…and more to the point at my age never having the option of a console in childhood (the ZX Spectrum didn’t even appear till I was doing O levels and on the verge of leaving school…

Hah! I am both a scrumper and a journalist. Why only this week I was nabbing blackberries and gathering sloes* (yeah, I know scrumping is illicitly whipping apples from someone’s tree, but you need blackberries for a proper crumble and the sloe vodka we made last year is to die for, as the more fashionable journalist might say).

*Don’t wait till the first frost, they’ll all be gone…

I’m glad video games didnt stop Alex from going swimming, being a scout etc

But that’s him. And it’s not now.

As a mother of teenage boys now – and a friend of other similar mothers – I would say many boys dont do enough of these other things any more.

And not because I – and others – don’t take an interest in what they are doing. We struggle against the boys’ unwillingness to do other things and sometimes, begrudgingly, they do.

No idea why saying video games are socially inhibiting is a cop out. I do think it depends.

Video games arent necesarily antisocial – boys do play together. But for shyer boys, they do make it all too easy to stay at home pressing buttons. And there are quite a lot of shy boys.

I don’t particularily blame the boys. I dont particularily blame the parents. Society develops in all sort of bad ways – banks take on toxic debt, we all use too many resources.

And the excessive use of video games amonst teenage boys does seem to me one of the less positive results of technological development.


But that’s him. And it’s not now.

Tell me about it. I’m only 30, and sometimes I look at “kids today” and feel about 100. I’m glad of any reminder that they’re not *all* psychopaths.

… but if it depends on the individual, then generalisms like “videogames are anti-social” don’t really hold water. They’re just an activity that shy boys often choose.

And…plenty of proper (Birds) custard, none of that creme Anglaise malarkey with a dash of icing sprinkled in a miserly manner around the rim of an oversize plate. Proper big bowl, plenty of crumble and just enough of the actual fruit to remove the guilt of eating all that sugar and fat.

“Video games arent necesarily antisocial – boys do play together. But for shyer boys, they do make it all too easy to stay at home pressing buttons. And there are quite a lot of shy boys.”

I’m sure your boy didn’t buy this games console himself, so this is all about parental responsibility, surely? I realize that sounds harsh, but if you object to your son’s time being monopolized by playing games, give him an alternative.

I have nephews & nieces from the age of 8 to 24, all of whom have or have access to video games. So far, no abhorrent bahaviour to report.

Kids (like everyone else) will find influence in anything they do often enough, so we can’t just arbitrarily label video games as being bad simply because some kids and their parents fail to see the separation between make-believe and reality, and to monitor their activities, respectively.

Also, another variable that could have some impact is where the kids are from. Sounds like David & I were fortunate enough to be able enjoy the countryside as kids.

I have to wonder how town & city kids lives are affected by their environment and their relative lack of options…

I didn’t have countryside per se, I grew up on the Northumberland coast, but there were still plenty of non-urban places to get into scrapes. I remember my best friend in school falling out of a tree and landing legs akimbo on a fence buttress, he ran screaming to the other side of the rec in ten seconds flat. You don’t get that kind of risk with video games…he never did have children, sadly…

I’ve seen lots of parties where the kids are playing multi-player games, like Mario Kart, and the Wii games are fantastic! If the games are chosen carefully, the games can be beneficial. If the games are NOT chosen carefully, then they can be harmful. Just like everything else, a little common sense goes a long way!

My cousin has played video games all of his life – ever since he was old enough to hold a controller in his hand. Now he goes to Princeton, so video games can’t be all bad! Many of the games he played were educational games, but they were still games. If you pick games with no social value then you complain that the games are bad for the kids, well all I can say is that you reap what you sow.

If the right games are chosen, video games are GREAT for kids! In today’s society where many kids are latchkey kids, an educational game can keep the kid entertained and teach him things when his parents are too busy to be able to do that themselves.

I’m in a minority here, but there is another side.

I accept completely that there is nothing wrong with video games per se. They don’t make kids stupid. They don’t turn them into murderers.

But however much boys play multiplayer games and play them together (which I agree they do), I still believe that many teenage boys now spend more time alone than they would otherwise because they have video games to enthrall them.

More than that, teenage boys nowadays simply do video games too much. They all do. Latchkey kids, Princeton scholars, whoever…

If they played football that much, it would seem obsessive. If they did anything that much, it would seem obsessive. It would be a shame that they wern’t getting stimulation from a wider variety of sources.

And as for parental responsibility Wayne, we’re not talking about malleable 9 year olds but feisty teenagers with the money to buy games consoles if they save and growing into the adult right to choose for themselves what they want to do.

I find it interesting the focus of these comments have been on video games effects on teenage boys. Many many girls play video games too, why no concern for them? Is it because they tend to choose more cooperative games when there is violence involved, such as the extremely high number of females who play massively multiplayer online games, or because the assumption is they just don’t play games? Teenage girls can be extremely cruel and a shy girl is just as likely to create her own world in a video game as a shy boy. Thoughts?

Hi Kristina! I personally attribute the extra emphasis on boys to the propensity for boys, or young adult males, making up the news, acting out weird stuff and then blaming it on a video game.

I have three older sisters, so I’m living proof of the cruelty of girls!

But seriously, while girls are just as able to be violent, their violence is often of a verbal / mental variety. Whereas boys go for the more direct / simpler, physical route…

Girls and violence is off topic here, but there is growing concern because the statistics are showing a dramatic increase in the number of violent crimes committed by girls. Of course there’s no mention of video games in these stats so there’s no sensational story for the news media.

» Girls and Boys and Violence
» Violence among girls on the rise

I think there are definite differences between teenage girls and boys especially in social skills at that age but I strongly question the standard media spin that all video games are bad. In the end I agree that it comes down to the individual, male or female, when judging the effects of video games or lack thereof.

Kristina, I wouldn’t say that’s off-topic. I think the bigger picture here is societal and not with any specificity related to any one thing, such as video games.

Guys, I got a visit to this article earlier today from another article entitled: “Question for Obama: do video games harm kids?

It would appear I’ve gone and got myself embroiled in US political debate! Not quite what I had in mind, but it’s certainly interesting to see that some people find my discussion has merit enough to be elevated to the highest political level…

I don’t see why everyone feels the need to separate video games from everything else. They are just another form of entertainment, no different from sports or other activities. I’ll admit that I’m not the most social person, but if anything video games have made me more social. Just like a group of people playing on a sports team, gamers do bond even if they are not right next to each other. To single out video games like this is to place them on a lower level than they deserve.

As for the violence that is often associated with video games, I feel that they are simply used as an excuse. If a person cannot tell the difference between the game and reality, or how about simply right and wrong, then the game is not the problem. As far as I have seen, video games do not promote violence, if anything they are a way to relieve stress for many people, just like anything else.

Hey there, I live in England and I think the idea that video games damage children socially is ridiculous. While I was at school and college I’d estimate that half my friendships began with a discussion about a video game someone else and I were both playing.

In “The Times” newspaper there was an article on a recent study that showed that children who did not play video games were very often socially stunted and even bullied.

As for violence in video games, it is true that violent kids often play violent video games. This is because violent kids are attracted to violent video games. The kids are violent in the first place because they have bad parents.

I may realize its been a while since any posted here but I figured id give it a go.

I’m currently 18 going on 19 and I would tell any one who asked that I found video games to be an incredible stress reliever. I’ve found that when coming home after a long day at high school where everyone is in their own little cliques, and all the gang activity going on, I feel much better after turning on some Halo, or some other first person shooter and going to town on them with the first weapon I pick up. Granted I realize I’m a little more aggressive verbally, but I would never actually start beating some one up for no reason as most of these studies seem to show.

I’ve found that by actually playing these games I’m less likely to hall off and start punching some one because they annoy me.

And as far as anti-social goes, most of us that are were anti-social long before we ever touched any games. In fact I didn’t even get my first game untill I was about 9 and that was an N64 by then I really didn’t have many friends.

Currently I have plenty of friends, all of them being gamers, and most of which have many other friends. In fact if it hadn’t been for games I would have never met some of my pin pals I talk to over the internet. I talk to a few people over in the UK quit often, I have a friend over in Japan, and one in Germany that I talk to and play games with all the time.

Through most of these internet video games I’ve even learned a bit about their society and how they live. I knew that cultures were different, but until I actually started talking to them I never really knew what life was like outside the US.

The BIGGEST problem is that people try to control what other people do! Just let people lead their own lives, because the majority of them aren’t hurting anyone. If you are a parent who thinks your kids use video games too much, then quit your whining and limit their use of the games. You are the parent afterall, so act like it!

All my friends play 2-5 hours of shooting games. Most have girlfriends and play sport as well. All of us have passed school and some go to university while others have gotten full time jobs (one is also a police officer). We are all friendly and play game online together.

Most of us have always played games and kept up with the latest technology and games.

This obscure picture of every gamer is fat a nerd and is anti social is nonsense. Media is to blame always looking for a scapegoat.

Any person who is going to kill somebody is not going to be stopped by getting rid of the video games…

Most people that blame video games have never actually played them and are ill informed. This sterotype needs to be wiped clear because it is totally wrong.

Someday, maybe the world will understand. Someday, people might just, maybe, get what video gaming is all about. Someday, people will realize that video games are NOT “murder simulators” or whatever you want to call them. Yes, in games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor I can kill hundreds of humans, and in Modern Warfare II there is a level where you cut down dozens of civilians while masquerading as a Russian Terrorist. As a “normal” “average” gamer, I was disgusted by this little sequence. Yes, I played through it; yes, I shot at civilians (and made a point to kill a few who were crawling away) but… that’s disgusting.

I think this is the key thing that far too many non-gamers don’t get: Fantasy and reality are two independent things. In the real world, soldiers don’t regenerate health, they aren’t skilled in dozens of different guns, they don’t reload after every third shot. In the real world war is brutal, hellish and well… not fun. In fantasy war is awesome. War is made of win and nothing is greater than a good battle with EXTRA violence. (Okay, maybe not extra, but you get the point: violence sells). But the thing is… we all know that it’s fake. Honestly, how is it realistic for there to be something like 500 “militia” armed with SMGs, Shotguns and Rifles in the slums of Rio, Brazil? How is it possible for Russia to invade the EAST COAST just as British and America forces attack the Russian West Coast with commandos? It. Doesn’t. Happen. But it’s darn cool. I mean, let’s face it, fighting through the White House and flying a helicopter around the DC is darn cool. Seeing the Washington Monument in flames and the White House reduced to Ashes is neat, in a sort of depressing way.

Another thing that I find funny, is how much people criticize games like Modern Warfare II, GTA: San Andreas (Hot Coffee, people?), but then games like Dragon Age: Origins and Fallout 3 haven’t really received much (well-known) criticism. Dragon Age: Origins is violent, grim, gritty and well… very Mature. Fallout 3 is the same, if not worse: Sex, Language, Drug Use, and humans exploding into gore. So, why exactly do these games not receive critism? Because they’re not “real”? Come on, Russia invading the East Coast is hardly “real.” SAS forces running amok in Rio being chased by “200 militia” and killing DOZENS of said militia hardly strikes me as an everyday, run-of-the-mill SAS operation. Modern Warfare II is a fantasy game. Now, if this was Iraq or Afghanistan, and they did their best to really remain realistic, then I wouldn’t mind the criticism, but this game IS NOT realistic. So why the criticism?

And while I’m talking about video games, what is up with singleplayer FPS games these days? CoD 4 has a 10 hour campaign, and it appears Modern Warfare II has a shorter one! I won Crysis in like a week (during school!). It appears that the traditional linear FPS game is just… dead in singleplayer. Actually, this appears to be a cause of a very deadly disease that Video Gaming has recently received: graphics.

See, ten years ago, good graphics were… Half-Life. And I’ll be honest to say that game had BAD graphics compared to modern times. But the truth is, I played that game, and once you start playing, it doesn’t matter! The game is still AMAZING. It has GOOD gameplay and FUN levels, once you start playing, you won’t care that the game really shows its age, graphically.

But then you have games like Prototype, which, despite me having a good computer that meets the minium requirements, doesn’t run very well on my computer. The same can be said with Assassin’s Creed. Now, the really funny thing about this is that both of these games, as far as I can tell, are games that do not appeal to me at all. I’ve never been a fan of the “run around the city” “freeform” games like that. I prefer the more RPG freeform games. But, the point is, these games were huge. People love graphics. They’re obessesed with graphics to what I consider an unhealthy level. I didn’t realize this until someone else told me, but this overreliance on graphical power has detracted from video games on the whole, in my opinion. Actually, I just remembered something I heard a long time ago when the PS3’s graphical power was unveiled. This Japanese guy said, “The PS3 is great. Those graphics are great, but to develop that level of graphical realism will cost lots of money and take lots of time.” He didn’t sound very exicited when he said this and I kinda agree with him. I’d rather have Half-Life Gameplay and Half-Life Graphics instead of Call of Duty 4 Gameplay (fun, but SHORT) and Call of Duty Graphics.

It would seem, sadly, that I am the exception to the rule. I prefer long singleplayer games. RTS, RPG, Long, Linear FPS games (Far Cry 2 was okay, but I prefer CoD4, honestly. CoD4 was cooler). *sigh* such is life.

Awesome article, it really helped me out in some research I was doing. But when you put up quotes could you please site who you are quoting? It’s bad journalism not to do so cause how do we know you aren’t making the quotes up? All in all, very good. Thank you very much 🙂

Hi Chas, all quotes are preceded by a link to their original source, which is a practice I’ve always used, so that the reader has direct access to the source of my own research.

Incidentally, I’m not a journalist, I’m just thorough and honest.

Today, I went to my local Game Stop Store. While waiting in line to get my game I witnessed a mother buying Modern Warfare for her son.

The kid was 12 years old or maybe less. When the teller behind the counter informed the mother that the game is for adults only she froze for a brief moment before agreeing and then proceeding to buy it anyway.

All that information was entered into the Game Stop database just in case someone asks why they sold this game; similar to buying cigarettes.

For me this was unimaginable — why did she still proceed with the purchase? It’s like getting porn DVDs, alcohol or cigarettes for your kids! Any parent out there agree?

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