Many kids (both the chronologically young and the young at heart) love video games of different varieties and flavors. What lessons can we learn from this common tendency, and what action steps should our thoughtful observations and research provoke? In Atlanta last week for NECC, I read the front page headline article, “Millions of kids hooked on video games? Doctors to urge study.” The article begins:

Dr. Sandra Fryhofer of Atlanta is worried that millions of American youngsters may be as psychologically hooked on video games as some people are to gambling, hard drugs and alcohol. She’ll be among 550 members of the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates expected to vote today to urge the American Psychiatric Association to consider labeling video gaming as an addiction. The AMA is expected to recommend that the psychiatrists study the issue to decide whether video-game addiction should be included in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of mental illnesses. Inclusion in the manual would mean that more insurance plans would have to cover people treated for addictions to video games.

Video game playing is certainly on the rise, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise these activities are attracting more attention. The size of the video game industry in gross revenues, for example, dwarfs the Hollywood film industry and has for some time. Is watching movies on DVD, VHS and at the theater an addiction for some people that should be should be formally “labeled” an addicts in a upcoming issue of the DSM? Personally I do not think so, and this article appears to focus more on hyperbole rather than facts and reasoned conclusions. (Sadly normal for the mainstream media when it comes to articles about kids and digital resources.)

game pad

The article does quote one research project on youth and gaming:

Dr. Douglas Gentile, director of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, said one of every 10 youth gamers “shows enough symptoms of damage to their school, family and psychological functioning to merit serious concern.” Young people classified as addicted were making lower grades than their peers, were more likely to have video game systems in their bedrooms, were spending much more time playing games each week —- an average of 24.5 hours —- and were also more likely to have been diagnosed with an attention deficit problem. Dr. Suzanne Martin, youth and education researcher at Harris Interactive, said the prevalence of video gaming among youths “is great cause for concern and highlights the need for further research in this arena.”

The problems this trend seem to highlight may have more to do with PARENTING rather than a psychological addiction. The main medical doctor quoted in the article seems to suggest this, although the article author does not make this connection or point this out:

Fryhofer, an internist, said most parents “have no idea their children are spending so much time playing video games, and there’s reason to think it’s addictive.”

If some or “most” parents don’t have any idea what activities are consuming large amounts of their children’s time (online or offline) that’s a parenting issue. One of the key assumptions of “Digital Dialog,” a parenting workshop series my wife and I started this past spring and are going to teach again in July for a local Oklahoma City Church, is that adults and kids need to be in more regular communication about multiple issues, including gaming and online social networking. Declaring gaming to be “an addiction” sounds alarmist and unjustified by evidence to me at this point. The suggestion might make for a good attention-grabbing headline in Atlanta and elsewhere, but I don’t think that makes it good medical science.

Certainly we have a need for continuing research in the area of gaming, learning, behavior and human psychology. What is suggested by the “symptoms” highlighted by Dr. Douglas Gentile, however, needs more scrutiny. What does “damage to their school” mean? Is this a misquote, and was he saying that kids who report high frequencies of home game playing show poorer performance in school? He states subsequently that frequent gamers seem to have “lower grades than their peers.” So do video games CAUSE kids to have lower grades, or are kids who are generally more bored with School and the lack of intellectual challenges they find there more likely to find meaningful, engaging activities in electronic games? As is typical in many media articles, authors seem to misunderstand (or at best, not fully explicate) the terms and differences between correlation and causation.

At least there is a slight glimmer of reasoned advice included in this article. Of everything written by author Bill Hendrick, I find the following two sentences the most reasonable:

William Vestal said he allows his two children to play video games and worries more about the television they watch. He said he keeps track of how much time children Codie, 8, and Kelly, 6, spend behind the screen. “I don’t look at it as a bad thing,” said Vestal, 37, of Avondale Estates. He said Codie plays racing games and Kelly games with themes. “There’s no violence in them,” he said. “I consider it somewhat healthy.”

William doesn’t seem to be a medical doctor, as no medical credentials are mentioned in the article for him, but I think he may have the most balanced view on the issue of gaming and kids of those quoted by Hendrick.

video game tshirt

As human beings, we generally need to seek “balance” in everything we do. Most things, taken to an extreme, can take on a negative and harmful influence. Watching too much television? Eating too much fast food? Spending a huge number of hours on the golf course away from your kids and family? All of these activities can take away from other potentially more important and beneficial ways to spend limited heartbeats in life. Time is zero sum. We need to all monitor the ways we’re spending our time and make sure we’re following the priorities we have for our lives, based on our own values and the values of our families.

Video games certainly CAN be highly engaging. Perhaps this tendency toward high-level engagement is at the root of this article and what alarms many adults about video games, because many adults may not be used to seeing kids spending large amounts of time on console games or behind the computer screen. Why do video games, as well as many other computer-based activities like social networking, have such a high potential for brain engagement of youth and others? I think Seymour Papert, in the beginning of his chapter on “Yearners and Schoolers” in “The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer” offers some excellent insights. On page 4 he writes:

Video games are toys– electronic toys, no doubt, but toys– and of course children like toys better than homework. By definition, play is entertaining, homework is not. What some parents may not realize, however, is that video games, being the first example of computer technology applied to toy making, have nonetheless been the entryway for children into the world of computers. These toys, be empowering children to test out ideas about working within prefixed rules and structures in a way few other toys are capable of doing, have proved capable of teaching students about the possibilities and drawbacks of a newly presented system in ways that many adults should envy.

Papert goes on to write more (page 36) about the “mediating role” which computers play between children and ideas. This reminds me (and is likely closely related to) a quotation from Nicholas Negroponte, shared by Alan Kay two weeks ago in Anaheim at EduComm, that:

Computers are instruments whose music is ideas.

I’m not issuing a blanket endorsement of all video games here (including first person shooters) and suggesting kids of any age should be allowed to play video games all day and night long. To the contrary, I think a healthy balance in time devoted to video game playing is very important just as balance in other activities is.

I do want to highlight, however, the qualitatively different experience which video games offer to people young and old which is powerful and fundamentally different than many of the experiences we’ve been able to have as human beings up to this point in our history. The complex worlds into which many computer games, as well as increasing numbers of online social networking environments invite people, are attractive not because they offer an addicting chemical like nicotine or crack cocaine, but rather because they offer opportunities to ENGAGE THE BRAIN in powerful ways.

Some of the lessons we should draw from the passion (which approaches the level of “addiction” in the views of some) kids young and old demonstrate playing video games and interacting with others online include:

1. As human beings, our brains want to be engaged in meaningful activities involving complex activities, challenging environments, immediate feedback, and interaction with other sentient beings (real and/or virtual.)

2. When we see people (young or old) highly engaged in sustained activities over a long period of time, it is appropriate to ask, “What is going on?” Rather than assume the dynamic in question is evil, bad, and worthy of a negative label like “addiction,” we should take a more scientifically objective view. Just because kids are not doing their homework, let’s not assume they are engaged in sinister and malicious work detrimental to their own health and the greater good of our society. Let’s face it, what adults do you know who would actually choose to do the mind-numbing worksheets some teachers continue to send home as homework instead of playing a video game or interacting with other interesting human beings?

3. Let’s remember the value of balance in our lives. We need balance in almost all aspects of our lives, and video-game playing is no exception.

4. Let’s remember the importance of good parenting. Open and regular communication has always been important for parents (and other care-givers) and children, and that has not changed in the 21st century.

5. Let’s not underestimate the powerful potential of creative, digital technologies to both engage human beings and also help them LEARN. Many adults seem to be “running scared” from all video games, Internet-based social networking websites, and other digital technologies. I wrote several months ago about how this group might be described more accurately not as “digital immigrants,” but rather as “digital refugees.” (Amazingly, as a related aside, if you do a simple Google keyword search for “digital refugees” you get the above blog post link as the first result of almost 2 million. Wow.)

Whether you are a digital refugee, are suspected by others of being one, or know some, I think we’d all benefit from sitting down with “these game-addicted kids” and have some thoughtful conversations together. Have the kids show you want they are doing in their video games and/or online, and talk about it. If the kids are spending all their time in graphically violent environments where they are killing others, that should be a point of concern. Talk about how much time they are spending playing said-activity (whether that is a video game or a website like Webkinz or Club Penguin) and how many hours per day seems healthy and fair to dedicate to face-time with that screen. This goes for TV watching too.

We need to be more intentional in the ways we all choose to consume, create, and interact with digital content. That is a key message of “digital dialog,” and is a key element of a concept (and possible future book) I’ve thought about for many months: Digital Discipline. Most people don’t like to think about or practice “discipline,” but it just as important to success in life as ever.

Digital discipline in the context of gaming should not equate to adults making blanket generalizations of all young people spending time in front of screens playing games as “addicts” on equal footing with addicts of illegal drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or even gambling. That view makes headlines, but it offers a poor template for parenting, teaching, or living life more generally in our digital 21st century information landscape.

smiling kid holding video game learning book

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  • Please refer to the following website for clarification:
    http://gamepolitics.com/2007/06/14/american-medical-association-takes-on-game-violence-mmo-addiction-esrb/
    http://gamepolitics.com/2007/06/25/ama-wont-make-video-game-addiction-a-diagnosis-yet/

    To sum them up, the news media are grossly exaggerating and omitting the message the AMA is telling. What the AMA is talking is specifically multiplayer online games, such as World of Warcraft or Everquest. These games are the foci of the video game addiction. Problems of addiction are well known among players of these MMOs, so there’s no surprise. However, some argue the “trivial” details and some say it doesn’t exist. Nevertheless, I don’t believe there’s a sufficient case for addiction for video games in general because the problem would have risen much earlier.

    Mark Griffiths of Trent Notthingham University is, in my opinion, the primary researcher concerning online video game addiction. His papers should provide a clearer picture of the situation. As well Nick Yee @ nickyee.com/daedalus, who discussed issues of addiction among others.

    I agree with the rest of your post. Especially engaging parents to gaming, one of the caveats I recall is that parents often buy M-rated games because their kids ask them to, even when they were warned by clerks and having seen the rating itself. Another caveat is that parents need to teach children to be media critical or literate, so that they understand the media as entertainment. Indeed, parenting is the most effective tool and not a law.

    To clarify on the issue of academic performance, research shows that video games has no effect on academic performance, some say it has positive effects. However, any activities that, like video games or football, consume an excessively large amount of time is a problem. How much is dependent on the individual.

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  • lajones

    Very informative post. Parents really are the most important factor and must be cognisant of technological world(s) around their children. I really appreciate the fact that you and your wife are personally involved in educating more parents about technology issues.

    I have no formal training in any of this but do find many opportunities to engage in dialogue around this topic. Parents (me included) all very eager to learn about many things in order to better protect their children.

  • Great post. Video game addiction is an important issue and it’s great that more parents will be aware about it because of this post.

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  • I have to say, that I could not agree with you in 100% regarding Moving at the Speed of Creativity, but it’s just my opinion, which could be wrong 🙂

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