It was said about the television and, despite the fact that my parents were gamers, it was said even more emphatically about video games. “Those things are going to rot your mind.” Well, I played a lot of them and if I have a rotted mind, I’m blissfully unaware of it. Of course, there wasn’t much basis for those claims back then. These days, all sorts of studies have been done on the effects of games on development and, as with most things, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. So, what can we say the next time someone cautions us about the impending brain rot of developing minds? Here are some ideas.
For starters, making a case for video games is going to have to be grounded in the idea that they are enjoyed in moderation. Excessive play can indicate addiction and too much time playing will come at the expense of healthy things like exercise. Obviously, video games, television, and even reading can lead to obesity if consumed in excess. But that’s not unique to video games, so let’s take that argument off the table. Just don’t do too much of anything. The onus is on parents to monitor their kid’s activity levels.
The type of video game that is being played and the age of the gamer are also going to be factors. A pediatrician and epidemiologist named Dimitri Christakis gave a TED Talk in 2015 detailing some findings on the effects of screen time on developing children. He opens the talk by mentioning that different kinds of music elicit different physiological responses in babies, with regards to respiratory rate and breathing patterns.
Taking it one step further, he reveals that slow paced shows like Mr. Rogers had no notable effect on the risk of attention issues for children while exposure to shows with rapid, flashy sequences like The Powerpuff Girls increased the risk by 60%. Violent program increased the risk even more. It seems plausible that the same idea would translate to the action on a video game screen. In a world where iPads are frequently used to babysit children in grocery carts and waiting rooms, age and content are worth considering.
With those considerations in mind, it’s time to look at the benefits. In a different TED Talk, cognitive researcher, Daphne Bavalier, spoke about the developmental benefits games can offer. The things she states are largely consistent with the same rhetoric a lot of us gamers have been repeating over and over in defense of our hobby. Bavalier states that, in the studies that have been done, gamers who have played a lot of action games tend to be better at switching between tasks and can manage more objects of attention than your average person. She also says that gamers tend to have better eyesight, which dispels another myth about the dangers of video games.
Video games also provide and avenue for practicing some critical life skills. Games are built around systems and mechanics, which means there are a wealth of consistent actions and responses. By playing virtually any game, players are practicing pattern recognition and the better they get at this, the better they get at the game. In the fighting game genre, this pattern recognition is taken a step further as players compete with one another by reading and predicting their opponent’s behavior. To excel, they have to be astute observers who are both critical and flexible in their thinking. They take action and see consequence. And the more they play, the better they get. It isn’t hard to see how these skills can transfer to real life.
Beyond that, games are an opportunity to learn discipline. They can pose incredible challenges and, through tenacity, players can accomplish their goals. Discipline is one of the more important traits we can learn as people and the evident rewards for hard work contained within games is a great way of instilling that idea.
The Army also uses video games to train soldiers in situational awareness. Simulation games can give pilots a safe way of practicing their skills. Rhythm games are relaxing and can enrich a gamers engagement with music. Games can be stressful, and learning to learn to act under pressure is another useful trait. Some studies show that games can have a positive effect on reaction time. With so many genres and platforms, the benefits of games are boundless. This isn’t something that can be said about all media.
What is abundantly apparent is that media has a myriad of effects on us. Some of these effects can be bad while others can be good. When it comes to games, I would say the good largely outweighs the bad and, so long as we use discretion, we can feel good about their presence in our society. If we’re reasonable about how they are used by developing children, avoid addiction, monitor predatory microtransaction practices, and stay informed then there is no reason for people to generalize and condemn them. Yes, there are detriments but it is never wise to throw the baby out with the bathwater.