Q: Many of the kids I know have been playing video games from a very young age. For the most part, as these children have grown up, they have become anti-social and easily frustrated. Are there any studies showing that these games, where the player is always in control, affect behavior and the ability to live in the real world?
—Kids in Control? in Santa Monica, CA
A: Dear Kids in Control,
If the kids you are talking about are now teenagers, then their anti-social qualities may just be part of their current stage of life! However, it may be that they seem more withdrawn than other kids their age, or that they are past adolescence and still seem anti-social. Looking at the scientific research, there are a number of studies about the effects of violent video games on behavior. One author actually compared all of these studies to each other and concluded: The evidence strongly suggests that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for…decreased empathy and prosocial behavior. So it is possible that kids who play a lot of violent video games will grow up to be less social. However, the study does not examine why that is.
You mention that it might be because gamers can control their virtual environment, whereas they can't control a real-world environment. In thinking about it, it may seem that the player can control everything, but in fact, they can only do things that the game allows them to do. This is part of why video games are good for skills and drills learning. Players can practice the same sorts of tasks over and over again, within set boundaries that keep them focused on the very particular skill they're learning. But it's also why video games are not as good for teaching creative problem solving.
For example, say that in the game you are playing, you need to get out of a room, and you need a key to unlock the door. You can’t find the key, but you do see a window you’d like to climb through. You can only use that window if the game will allow you to open it, and that may not be possible. In the real world, where creative, out-of-the-box solutions are possible and often necessary, you could probably either open the window or break it with your hand. So in some ways, you can control more things in the real world than in a video game.
On the other hand, when you are frustrated with a video game, you can always go online and find a workaround or cheat code, or you can simply stop playing the game and turn off that virtual world. But real life often presents problems to which there are no obvious or predetermined solutions—and they don’t go away just because you’d prefer to ignore them. Therefore, as with all media, take advantage of video games for what they do well–like teaching skills and drills–and provide lots of opportunities for free play to encourage creative problem solving. Keeping a balance between different kinds of activities should help children develop the range of skills they need to engage successfully in the offline world.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,