"Oh, God, I'm going to die now," my 8-year-old son, Tully, laments. "Come on! How am I supposed to press Tab that fast?"
He's interrupted by a serene but authoritative female voice from the speakers. "You have five minutes left," it says. His computer time is almost up.
Tully started playing video games when he was still in preschool, first driving games because he was obsessed with cars, and then more elaborate games of exploration and battle.
His game-playing sparked the only major parenting conflict I've ever had with my husband, a software developer who’s worked on games and wanted to introduce Tully to their fun challenges. As a mother, I felt all my alarms going off: too much violence, too much screen time. At one point I even played the crack-cocaine card, as in: “You’re introducing our child to the media equivalent of crack cocaine!”
But then my attitude began to shift. Tully picked up reading early because he so wanted to decipher instructions on the screen. He started to spout historical facts. And he played one particular spelling game, "Bookworm Adventures," that was undeniably violent but also clearly educational — and I loved it. You got a grid of letters, and the longer a word you spelled, the harder you got to clobber a mythical enemy.
So I’ve ended up... confused. In over 30 years — a full human generation — computer games have evolved from primitive ping-pong to rich, immersive worlds, some with more content in them than "War and Peace." Many children now spend more time with games than with books or even TV. Critics warn that games may be addictive and lead to aggression. Supporters say that games may be the best educational tools ever. But what do we really know about their long-term effects?
I'm not the only one posing this question. Last week, President Obama asked Congress for $10 million to fund research into what causes gun violence, including possible links to violence in the media.
"Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds," he said. "We don’t benefit from ignorance. We don’t benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic."
Surveys find that nearly all American children play some sort of digital games, whether it’s "Fruit Ninja" on a phone or "Halo 4" on an Xbox. They’re growing up at a time when games out-earn movies and television. "Clearly games are the 21st century’s most important form of media," says MIT professor Eric Klopfer. So what does it mean to grow up gaming?
Sharply Divided Research
Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, says it’s hard to get definitive about games when they’re evolving so quickly. They are, he says, "a rapidly moving, morphing and diversifying target. And second, the concerns people have are usually ones of long-term outcomes, so while the research can look at short-term outcomes, we need to have decades of time between when the 4-year-old plays the game and the 24-year-old is out in the world, to see if there are any long-term changes in brain development, in learning and in behavioral expectations."
At this point, the field of video game research is sharply divided between two opposing camps.
There’s a whole book that has alternating chapters with names like “Violent video games cause aggression” and “Violent video games do not cause aggression.” Or, “Video games help children learn” and then “Playing video games causes poor grades.” Or, “Video game addiction is a legitimate addiction” versus “Video game addiction is not a true addiction.”
On the one hand are findings that fuel parents’ concerns. Dr. Rich, who says he sees young patients every week for game addiction problems, lists a few: Violent games may increase some children’s fear and anxiety, desensitize them to violence, and, in some cases, may lead to aggression; some early research even implies that games may make kids worse at contemplative reflection. He says he hears from some teachers that they can identify which kids are the big video gamers.
“They’re not as socially comfortable interacting with real people, they don’t look you in the eye, they’re not able to read cues," Rich says. "They are not as able to take in information, synthesize it and bring it back. They’re more involved in reflexive responses to things — they are looking for the trigger."
On the other hand, some researchers point out that over the last generation, gaming has gone from fringe to almost universal and yet violent crime among youth has gone down.
"Often you think a kid is repeating some violent act over and over in the game and they’re learning to do bad things, they're trying, they're processing that into their brains," says Dr. Cheryl Olson, a public health researcher and co-author of the book “Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games.” "But really, when you think about what’s happening, they’re often learning how to solve problems. 'Hmmm, what happens if I open this chest here? What if I go into that room there?' "
She continues: "What are video games doing? If you have an age-appropriate game that's not too easy or too hard, a video game is teaching a child how to cope with failure, deal with frustration, delay gratification, and often doing it in a social context, where they’re learning to negotiate with their friends, working as a team, or 'OK, I beat you, you beat me, how do I handle all of these things?' "
That teaching can be so powerful, Olson says, that "One thing people are looking at now is, can schools use video game methods to teach better?"
The research by Olson's Harvard-based team, carried out under a $1.5 million grant from the federal Department of Justice, is the biggest study yet to directly address the question of whether video games cause violence.
Her work isn’t perfectly reassuring. It initially found a correlation between heavy playing of games rated "M for mature" and involvement in real-life fighting and bullying. But, she says, further analysis showed that aggressive personality traits and high stress levels in this subset of children accounted for the apparent link.
"You can say ‘Oh my gosh,’ but you have to unpack it further," she says. "That's why research doesn't lend itself well to soundbites."
Harvard psychiatry professor Eugene Beresin wrote last month about that research:
Is the tail wagging the dog, in other words? Are the children who are thought to wander towards aggression as a result of playing video games in fact attracted to video games because they are already prone to aggression in the first place?
On the other hand, the researcher found that parent involvement and parent/peer support seemed to be protective of these negative behaviors. The study did in fact find that aggressive kids seem to be drawn to these games, and that these games might have affected them differently compared to the other kids who are not angry or aggressive.
However, there seems to be a relationship between about 5-6% of kids who get into trouble, sometimes violent, and the amount of time playing violent games. It must be emphasized that there were no CAUSAL relationships found between violent games and violent behavior, just CORRELATIONS, and this could mean there are other things in life that may be involved.
My son Tully and his friends do act out computer game battles in real-life play sometimes, but it’s no more or less violent than when kids of my generation played cops and robbers, or acted out cowboy movies.
What I do see that’s different — and fascinating to me — is a style of play in which kids take on the role of the computer game itself, and offer each other choices and plot lines just as a game's creators do. In this imaginary game, which he calls "Mage," Tully’s giving me a mission from an alchemist:
Go to the money market and steal back my recipe, defeat the guards, and then I want you to sabotage the production field on the way out. Oh, by the way, this is a very advanced quest, so I wouldn’t do it until much later, or at least some later when you have better equipment and more life and stuff.
Gaming's Effects On 20-Somethings
How might all this translate into real life when Tully’s grown up, one of those “24-year-olds out in the world” that Rich mentioned? At Intrepid Labs — a co-working center for tech start-ups, particularly game companies, in Cambridge — 20-something gamers abound, including Alex Boerstler, the 25-year-old creative director of a company called Joust.
"Gaming has affected my life in a huge way," he says. The effects have been "overwhelmingly positive, though I will admit there are a lot of dark spots where gaming gets out of balance."
Boerstler says he spent a good five years of his youth playing "World of Warcraft" very heavily, and though he acknowledges that it got obsessive, he says it also brought him myriad benefits, including friendships that pointed him to art school and into Web design. And some of the skills honed by gaming have proven surprisingly relevant in the workplace.
For example, he once helped orchestrate 120 other "World of Warcraft" players in a mass attack on enemy cities.
"Whether you're leading people to create a new [user interface] or leading people to fight a big troll, it's fairly similar principles."Alex Boerstler, 25
"I had to command them, I had to make sure they were strategically in the right place -- basic squad leadership-type stuff," Boerstler says. "Well, I just got into project management earlier this year, and that experience actually applied fairly directly."
Boerstler’s team has been working on a new user interface, or UI.
"Whether you’re leading people to create a new UI or leading people to fight a big troll, it’s fairly similar principles," he says.
Not far away, in Cambridgeport, 24-year-old Spencer Cook recently unwound from his job in advertising by playing "Counterstrike" with his roommate. They play in different rooms, but they’ve got each other’s backs.
"I blew it! I panicked," he berates himself, laughing. "Ugh, if only I was a second later. Coming in to you with a shotgun..."
Cook says he plays games because they’re more active, more mentally challenging than movies or TV — and though some are violent, their appeal centers on the strategy they require: "It almost becomes a game of chess instead of a game of 'Shoot somebody's head off,' " he says.
Like Boerstler, Cook says games have benefited him in many ways, from a sharpened ability to find his way around a new city to practice at setting his sights on major goals.
"In college and even in work a lot, we’ll have smaller projects along the way and then there’s kind of the big project right at the end, where it’s pulling together all the skills you’ve learned through each project," he says. "And it’s something that’s very similar in a video game. You’re going around a world and you need to get the key from this person and a sword from this person and a map from that person, and use those all together in the end of the video game.
"Video games do kind of help you see the bigger picture," he says.
Does The Game Itself Matter?
MIT's Klopfer, who researches educational games and has a son about the same age as mine, sums up: "Not all games are created equal, and not all kids are playing the same games."
"My son is an avid fan of 'Minecraft,' " he says, "and it’s a super-creative game, all sorts of complex things you can build in the world and systems that you need to understand, and I think kids who play that game are gaining a lot from it. I think there’s other games you can play that are not particularly deep thoughtful games."
Because video games are such a powerful teaching tool, Rich, of Children’s Hospital, warns parents to be mindful of which games their children play, because they will learn from what they play.
"The simple approach is: Give your kids games that teach them what you want them to learn," he suggests. "If you want them to learn how to kill terrorists effectively, then there are some great games out there..."
I asked Tully what he thinks he’s getting from games.
"They’re fun. And they’re kind of educational, and they require me to think, unlike some homework..."
And how do you think that games help or don’t help kids?
"Well it kind of depends on the kid," he says. "Like some kids get so addicted that they play games games games games games games games nonstop and they don’t do other things. Most games have hidden education and they’re so addicted to it and they want to play it so much they miss the education, so games only hurt. Luckily I’m not one of those kids..."
(Parental note: Many games are designed to be addictive. We've been very happy with the time-limit software we long ago installed on the computer. Dr. Rich favors teaching kids time management over using time-limit software. My response: I vote for the "choose your battles" school of parenting.)
Olson was part of a group of researchers and video game makers who met with Vice President Joe Biden last week to help the White House develop its strategies against gun violence, including the call for more video game research.
"We’re really in a golden age of video game research," she says, "in the sense that a lot of people are looking at it from more perspectives with a lot fewer assumptions."
Olson particularly recommends more research focusing on kids who are at high risk for violent behavior, but she says parent need to know much more, to figure out how to supervise their kids so that they get the least harm, and the greatest benefit, from games.
So, are children being harmed by playing these games? Olson says that at this point there is no research to show that game playing causes violent behavior, but some games might frighten or psychologically harm children of certain ages, or those with preexisting problems.
I think I speak for many parents when I say yes, we need to be vigilant, and yes yes yes, we could really use more good data to base our decisions on. A lot more.
This program aired on January 24, 2013.