Video Games and Kids – Negative Influence or Educational Tool?

[Image - Pawel Kadysz]
Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Are games a dangerous influence or an incredible platform for learning at the forefront of a tech invasion?

Blood, Violence and Gaming

Growing up, my favourite game was Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. For those who are not aware of the Mortal Kombat franchise, it’s an arcade-style fighting game where the player has to choose a character with special powers and fight other characters in one-on-one matches. They can do this against the computer-controlled opponents, defeating each one to move on to a round of greater difficulty, until they meet the “boss” in the final stages, which was either Shang Tsung, Shao Kahn or Shinok, depending on which game in the series they were playing.

What made Mortal Kombat stand out was the sheer amount of blood and violence it portrayed. Blood would spill with almost every attack, flooding the floor; characters would scream horrifically in pain; and at the end of each match, a deep voice would say, “Finish Him!” or “Finish Her!”, allowing the player to literally do just that, using savagely choreographed finishing moves such as Fatalities and Brutalities. In fact, these “Fatalities” were so violent, that it led to the creation of the ESRB, the main governing rating board for video games in the US and Canada.

Horrified parents may ask: how old was I? I was five when I first saw it, six when I got my hands on it myself. I grew up in a household which was more conservative towards sex than violence, so my parents had no problem with it – and my dad has never been the overprotective type. So did I, as a result of UMK3 and the countless other brutally violent games I played subsequently, turn out to be a physically aggressive, gore-obsessed adult? I did not.

However, I am one individual and do not claim to be the argument against video game’s effects on children.

A Confusing Tale

Research on the effects of violent video games aren’t conclusive either though: one study carried out by Craig Anderson claims that there are “links between aggression and gaming” while another one, led by Christopher Ferguson says the exact opposite. Other research claims that violence in players does not result from the violence in the game, but rather, frustration at how difficult the game can be. So it is no wonder that parents are not only scared, but confused, not knowing what to believe, or whose opinion to rely on.

On the other hand, the positive effects of gaming cannot be denied either. They are great agents for learning, getting information to kids and others in a fun and interactive manner, and they “improve hand-eye co-ordination (surgeons who play video games are faster and more accurate in laparoscopic surgeries), stimulate imagination and cognitive thinking”.

The seemingly clear answer then would be to then introduce games to kids that have no violence in them whatsoever, just to be safe, but this presents several problems: research has shown time and again that overprotectiveness causes higher rates of depression, stunts growth and confidence, and even inhibits learning. The more a subject is hidden from children, the more mysterious it becomes and the more curious they are towards it. The other problem is finding a game without violence. After all, can a story be interesting without conflict? Games are in the end physical manifestations of what we want to be, where we want to be, and what we can do, but without any of the consequences and as a result, physical conflict is prevalent in almost every game.

The Tech Revolution

Writing for Forbes, Jordan Shapiro argues that video games have become so ingrained in our lives, that whether or not your kids should be playing them at all is not a viable question anymore. “Technology is here to stay,” he says, and with the average gaming age being 33 and more and more parents being gamers themselves, there is no reason for us not to embrace it. Playing with your kids has tremendous potential for positive development, not just for them, but for your relationship. It creates “possibilities for teaching moments” and gives you a chance to do something together. How you react to different outcomes in the game is a great way for your kids to learn, to grow empathy and to learn how to behave

“All video games are like scripture for a new generation: part entertainment, part interactive experience, part persuasive storytelling… in the act of solving a game’s problems, the player engages and internalises particular ways of experiencing the world,” says Ian Bogost. Which is why it’s also important for kids to play by themselves, to explore the worlds, to make their own decisions and their own mistakes. Always supervised, of course.

Like most things, gaming can be an incredibly useful tool for parents, but one that perhaps should be enjoyed in moderation.