Saturday, 26 March 2011

Parents should be told to support gaming, not oppose it.

I recently watched an episode of Jo Frost's extreme parenting advice because I had seen it mentioned as 'proof' that violent video games affect children's behaviour, so I wanted to see that for myself. The research experiment shown was anything but conclusive and hardly scientifically relevant. Some commenters on the Channel 4 site put it rather well:
Alice: I'm most annoyed, however, at the implicit assumptions she makes about gaming. Violence in a game is not 'real violence' but violence on the news is? Sure, it actually happened, but the immediacy is reduced by the fact that these appear to be compiled clips with no underlying story or point of empathy. And what exactly does a lower heart rate mean? What does desensitising mean? That people are less likely to become irrational and over-emotional when viewing ... hammed-up reporting with a clear agenda. Why shouldn't children learn to become more rational when faced with violence? I'm hoping against hope that instead of demonising computer games, this show will suggest that parents monitor and suggest games for their kids.
Martin: The test in the programme to see if viloent games can make children less helpful was not a fair test. The viloent gamers were playing a single player game which involves being independent ... Those who played the non viloent games were more helpful because ... they played as a member of a team, being helped and helping other players to get a goal. If they were playing tetris which is also not a viloent game they would probably not have helped. 
Abe: They missed the most important question of all. What were the individual characteristics of the players? research in to radio, film and television have all concluded that effects from media differ depending on the previous influences on the subject such as previous experience, home environment, cultural background etc. 
Leoni: There was a clear difference between the way that the man reacted to the pens falling over! The children were far more likely to be taking their cues as to how to react from him than anything to do with the games they were playing.

The test was the following: 40 random 12 year old boys were put in a room and given videogames to play on laptops. They played for 20 minutes. Afterwards, they were shown news footage of real-world violence while their heart rates were monitored. The ones who had played a 'violent war game' had a lower heart rate than the ones who had played a 'non-violent football game'. The lower heart rate was interpreted as de-sensitisation to violence. Out of the same sample of boys about four were randomly selected out of each group to be interviewed. During the interview, the researcher pretended to accidentally drop some pens. The stated results were that all the non-violent gamers helped to pick up the pens and the violent ones didn't.

What was being measured had little to do with 'violence' or 'behaviour problems'. What does a heart rate mean? As Alice rightly pointed out, the lowered heart rate of the 'violent' children might mean that they felt less distressed by the violence because they felt more empowered by having played a game in which they could control and influence the level of violence occurring. Similarly, I've noticed that my son, who played Lego Star Wars before watching the films, was less distressed by the tense and scary scenes because he had 'played' them, i.e. he had experienced these scenes from a position of empowerment. And why should we not help our children deal with real-world violence in a rational and empowered way?

Was the variable between the non-violent game and the violent game really the violence? The games were not named but the violent game was described as a single-player 'war' game or 'shooter' game and the non-violent game was a football game. Besides being violent versus non-violent, the games were also differentiated by the perspective (first person vs third person), by the level of collaboration required to complete the objective (single player vs team player), by the type of skills needed to win the game (quick responses vs strategy) etc... Martin is on to something when he suggests Tetris might have made children unhelpful as well.

Not to mention that it appeared the children mostly took their cues from the interviewer, who's body language solicited help from the 'non-violent' gamers and ignored the fallen pens when dealing with 'violent' gamers. There seemed very little evidence that the children's reactions were due to anything else than their previous upbringing and the cues given by the interviewer, as Abe and Leoni point out.

What I find most disturbing about shows and research like this, is that it is not giving parents the right kind of advice. Video games are presented as evil and dangerous and parents are advised to monitor closely which games their children play and how much they are playing them. The result is that parents will stay as far away from videogames as possible. Parents lie to others about how much they let their child play. Parents feel guilty letting their child play. They only get involved in a restrictive and authoritarian way, and end up being alienated from their child's life.

I was surprised to find that the researcher from the show, Dr Douglas Gentile, has actually conducted research into the positive effects of pro-social games. In fact, the experiment on the show may have served to 'prove' the point that the collaborative nature of the football games made those gamers more likely to help. Why didn't they advise parents to invest in more pro-social games? In other areas, parents are regularly advised to take an interest in their child's activities and feelings, even on this very same show. I myself don't care much for baking, but I am encouraged to engage in this activity with my children because it is good for developing numeracy (measuring), knowledge of the world (cooking/chemistry), motor skills (stirring, mixing, cutting), social skills (working together), healthy habits (knowing about ingredients), and more.

I believe we should encourage parents to take an active interest in the games their children play, and preferably engage in gaming themselves. When they do so, they will be able to distinguish between good games and bad games, and not only monitor and select appropriate games for their children, but also model good game choices for their kids. Parents and children who game together can use this time to bond, communicate, and socialize. Instead of telling parents the negatives about gaming and admonishing them to limit their children's gaming to 1 hour a day, tell them the positives! Instead of making them feel like gaming is evil and a waste of time, present that time as useful and constructive parenting. 

Jane McGonigal has done extensive research into the positive effects of gaming and advises playing 7-21 hours a week, i.e. about 1 hour a day is a good start. So the pro and the contra camp are saying the same, but the pro-gaming message supports parents in a positive way. Gaming fulfils real-world needs. Find out why your children game. Enjoy it with them. Model responsible gaming for them and with them. Have fun.

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