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Video Games & Your Kids

Book Review | Video Games & Your Kids

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Hey all,

It’s true: the only thing that makes me feel more manly than going to the gym and lifting heavy objects repeatedly is writing blog entries focused on gaming.

EDIT: Sarcasm.

The topic of the hour is Video Games & Your Kids: How Parents Stay in Control, written by Hilarie Cash and Kim McDaniel and published in 2008 by Issues Press. The book was written as a guide to parents concerned that their children may be too involved in gaming. The core of the book is broken up into 9 chapters, 5 of which focus on parental tactics & recommendations for children of specific age groups. The remaining chapters discuss game addiction, the [negative] effects of gaming on the body and on the brain, and option of direct intervention into a child’s life. There is also a gaming glossary with a few pages of terms to help parents better understand the jargon that their children may be using.

Why should you care that your child is spending 5 hours a day in front of a computer screen? The authors argue that there are some serious dangers when gaming: not only are there health risks, obesity, eye strain, and carpel tunnel syndrome to name a few; but also psychological risks as well, such as exposure to pornography, unwanted sexual advances, swearing, racism, sexism, and other anti-social behaviors. Plus, there is the retardation of social development: for every hour that your child is playing a game that is an hour that they aren’t socializing with other children around the block. Evidence for these points is given in the form of references to a few psychological studies, as well as short case studies which the authors use to more vividly illustrate their points and personalize the details.

I have to say that I agree with these points, at least to a degree. However, many of these problems are computer/Internet-use related, rather than specifically game related. Still, I know that I picked up a number of four-letter words from my gamer buddies. In addition, the rampant sexism, cultural insensitivity, racism, and homophobia prevalent in gamer culture is shameful; it is not uncommon to hear “fag”, “gay” or “rape” while playing games with voice over IP (VoIP). It needs to stop.

How should parents control their children’s time in game? According to the authors it depends on the child’s age. The aforementioned chapters each focus on a different age group with, in my opinion, fairly reasonable time restrictions and steps to take when children violate the restrictions.

In addition to a “general guideline” about how many hours a child should spend in front a screen a day, there are also two checklists to test for addiction, one of which is a Self Assessment to be taken by the gamer, and the second is a Parental Assessment, to be filled out by the parents (obviously).

Whenever I come across one of these checklists, as a bit of a test of reasonableness for the test, I replace the item in question with something else. Unsurprisingly, when using the default test, I checked off 7 of the 15 items, a score which put me in the “Addictive” zone. However, by replacing “gaming” with “exercise” (8 points) and “going to work” (9), it turns out that I was also addicted to those as well. The checklist provided isn’t terrible, but the authors missed the boat on this one. I feel like the problem of too much gaming can be addressed thus: “Is gaming consuming your child’s life to the point where they will sacrifice their relationships, their health, their other hobbies, and their happiness to continue playing a game?

One thing which bothers me about this book is that the authors don’t quite get what games are often about or how games work. For instance, during the discussion of the psychological damage that games can do to a child’s brain, the authors argue that gaming does not reward for persistence and that games are always about immediate gratification; gamers are junkies who need a fix.

But that’s an overly simplistic view of games. While it may be true in some circumstances, kill monster: get loot is immediate gratification, but what is more compelling, and, in my humble opinion, why gamers continue to play games, are the long term and player-created goals. It’s starting in Starcraft 2 as a Bronze League player, and making a point to get better and make your way to Silver, then Gold, then Platinum. It’s starting as a level 1 in World of Warcraft and wanting to be level 60 (or 70… or 85). It’s going through Dragon Age: Origins on Nightmare difficulty, or getting every last nook and cranny of lore out of Mass Effect. These kinds of things don’t happen overnight, and certainly doesn’t happen immediately.

Along those same lines, there is a point that mentions that video games don’t make your children smarter:

“Recent research using technology that takes images of the brain at work demonstrates that far more of the brain is involved in the simple task of adding numbers than in playing a popular video game.”

What the authors fail to recognize is that most popular games are math problems. Playing World of Warcraft [well] requires a keen understanding of math, to calculate everything from whether an item is an upgrade or not, or what spell rotation will do the most damage, etc. While playing StarCraft 2, the player is constantly thinking about the amount of resources I have and doing small math problems to decide what to build. And if a gamer isn’t playing, they may be researching or doing other math problems related to the game. However, thinking about a game while not playing it is one of the signs of addiction from the checklist, so I can understand why the authors ignored this key component of gaming culture.

In addition to the thinking and logic aspect overlooked here, there is little mention of the amazing potential games offer for technical literacy. I highly doubt that I would be a web developer or run my own blog if it hadn’t been for games, even if I had a passion for something else to the same degree. Games gave me a reason to get on the computer, to mess around in the old DOS command line, to play with graphics editing, ray tracing, sound editing, and HTML. The first website that I ever remember building was a strategy guide for Command & Conquer.

The misunderstandings about gaming I can get; it is clear that the authors are far removed from gaming culture. However, the most egregious offense in the book is its moralizing voice and the assumption that games aren’t worth playing. There is always this underlying tone of, “Why aren’t you playing baseball with the other kids?” throughout. For instance, one of the authors describes her son’s recovery from game addiction (p.9):

“He does play other video games with his friends at their homes. He would say that these are a hobby of his, but if you asked him about his true hobbies, the first thing he would tell you about is his guitar.”

Apparently gaming cannot be a hobby.

There is virtually no mention of accepting video games as a legitimate interest of the person or the possibility that games are good: throughout the book gaming is seen as a disease that must be cured. The “cured” individuals in the case studies often mention playing games, but only when they have “nothing better to do” (p. 129). The authors discuss [briefly] the possibility of gaming being advantageous to personal development in the “Effects of Gaming on the Body and Brain” chapter, but come to the conclusion that any advantage is “debatable” (p. 77).

Similarly, there is one paragraph in the book which mentions the possibility of taking an interest in gaming and turning it into a career, and the authors suggest giving a child the opportunity to speak with a game designer, but as a means of discouraging them and turning them away from the industry (p. 151). What?! It is an absolutely horrid recommendation to discourage someone from pursuing something that they love, particularly when so many people in the world are unhappy with their jobs.

In addition to killing the option of a gaming career, there is no mention of harnessing a gamer’s enthusiasm for enrichment of other hobbies, such as creating one’s own music inspired by a game, or perhaps drawing characters from a game, or perhaps writing a blog about games (a glog); all of which things could evolve into a career indirectly connected to gaming. No, these things are viewed by the authors as signs of addictive behavior, because a game is only supposed to be a game and the player should only think about it while playing.

It’s frustrating to me as a gamer to read this book, not because I don’t agree with a lot of what the author’s have to say about limiting game time and the problems with gaming and Internet use, but because the authors’ tone is so condescending and blatantly anti-game, obviously colored by the author’s continued exposure to the worst-case scenarios of game addiction. They just don’t get what it means to be a gamer and how powerful that enthusiasm can be, and how that enthusiasm can be a force for creation and excitement about the world, not just needless clicking.

Till next time,


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