To game or not to game, that is the question

Having been a parent for the last 9 years, I have become used to worrying about virtually everything concerning my kids. Their physical development, their mental well-being, their social skills, you name it and I’ve probably worried about it. This might sound ridiculous to some people but for many of us, this is an inevitable part of parenting. Nobody wants to spend their time worrying but what can you do? We only want our kids to be healthy and happy…and (I must add) safe and sometimes there is nothing a parent can do except well, worry.  As my children grow older and become more IT-savvy, I’ve added one more thing to my list of worries: online games. I have to say that being a non-gamer, I just don’t get this obsession with video games. If I had my way, my kids would only play board games like Scrabble and do sports like football (with real people, in a real field, not any of that Wii stuff!). Somehow, these seem to be more wholesome and for want of a better word, normal. They do to me, anyway. Online creeps, violence, addiction, anti-social behaviour….these are the things that come to my mind when I think of such games. Can you blame me? Just the other day, I found my son playing a game with a random opponent who called himself “Guy in Panties.” I think I might have stopped breathing for a few seconds. He was only playing “Words with Friends, mind you, not some complicated game for mature players and still he was within reach of some dubious character. There is certainly enough evidence out there to suggest that people, especially children, can be adversely affected by games. So, does this mean we should stop our children from playing altogether? Surely games have some redeeming qualities? Michael D.Gallagher, President and CEO of the US Entertainment Software Association says, “Computer and video games have reached a critical mass. Today, nearly every device with a screen plays games.” Clearly, whatever your view on games, we have to accept that they are here to stay and the quicker we non-gaming parents understand this whole business, the better for everyone.

The addictive, all-consuming nature of computer games is a cause of concern for many parents today. Yes, yes, we’ve heard proponents of gaming tell us that this is no different from watching TV for earlier generations of children. To some extent this is true- TV can be addictive. I, for one, used to spend hours as a child in front of the TV watching completely age-inappropriate drama serials like “The Young and the Restless” (!). I got through it relatively unscathed but you know what, I don’t believe that there is basis for any real comparison between the two. With games, the level of involvement of the player, the ability to interact with other players, the lack of time and space constraints, the competition element and more all serve to make the possibility of addiction very likely. I see this in my own children. Their reactions to TV and games are starkly different. TV doesn’t get under their skins the way that games do, if you know what I mean. Even the worst couch potato can extricate himself from TV and carry on with his life. With games, my sons can be glued to the point that no matter how many times the phone rings or how many people walk in and out of the house, they simply wouldn’t notice. We have a running joke at home that even if the roof were to cave in, the boys would continue playing their games, not batting an eyelid. At that moment, they seem to be living only in their virtual worlds. And my boys only play casual games like Tiny Towers and Angry Birds! I dread to think what they will be like once they start on more complex games. It will probably be too much to expect them to abandon some earth-shattering mission to kill a bunch of zombies just because their mum is being attacked by a burglar in the house. When fantasy overtakes reality, the consequences can be dire. Surely you can recall the 2010 case of the Korean couple who let their baby starve to death because they couldn’t tear themselves away from a game. Ironically, they were too busy raising a virtual child in the game Prius online. Go figure!

Over the last few decades, much has been said about the effects of violent games on people. From the 1999 Columbine High School massacre to last year’s shooting spree in Norway, video games are often blamed for instilling violence and hatred in the players. In fact, Anders Behring Breivik, the man behind the Oslo murders, wrote about how he used the games Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and World of Warcraft to help him prepare for the attacks. Admittedly, research on the link between gaming and real-life violence is still inconclusive. In fact, there are studies that indicate that the opposite is true. Henry Jenkins from MIT claims that juvenile crime has gone down as games such as Death Race, Mortal Kombat, Doom and Grand Theft Auto have gained popularity. His thesis is that games can act as an outlet to relieve stress and pent-up frustration, thus reducing a person’s desire to commit acts of violence.

I am no researcher but I can tell you from my own experience with screen violence (from any media) that it does have a profound effect on children. My younger son was banned from watching “Tom and Jerry” after I noticed that at age 3, he was hitting his older brother more while yelling “I’ll die you!” ( he meant “I’ll kill you”, of course, bless him). In fact, when asked why he was doing that, he innocently replied “It’s like Tom and Jerry!” No prizes for guessing what this child might be like once he starts playing video games available on the market today that are becoming increasingly violent and graphic.

I do concede that not everyone will become violent because of games. Some kids might be more predisposed to violent behaviour than others which means that they would be violent even if they didn’t play games. But according to researcher Associate Professor Angeline Khoo of the National Institute of Education,  prolonged exposure to violent games will lead to a person becoming more aggressive not violent. I take this to mean that they become angrier and have greater feelings of antipathy. Her research indicates that they are likely to be desensitized to violence and have less empathy for others. This doesn’t bode well for our future generations, now does it? This, coupled with the fact that they pick up bad language (because of the excessive use of expletives in some games), is enough to convince me that my kids are going to turn into little “pai kia”s (Hokkien for “gangster”) in the foreseeable future. Oh dear.

Another reason why parents like me are hesitant to wholeheartedly embrace games is the whole “win-good-don’t win-very, very bad” element in games. The high-stakes involved in winning the game takes on epic proportions when a person’s self-esteem becomes tied to his performance in the game. Hallo?? It’s just a game….right? Prof Khoo, herself a gamer, describes how terrible she felt when she committed a grave mistake in a game which caused her team (or to use the right terminology, her “guild”) to lose. A player who doesn’t perform well might experience higher stress levels, anxiety, depression and even have suicidal thoughts. The situation becomes all the more worrying if it is teens or children we are talking about. I shudder to think of the kind of adults these young people will grow up to be.

So, now what? Do I protect my children from the terrible world of online games till they are 21? Naysayers will convince you that you should with their endless list of doomsday predictions. Then what should we make of people who actually encourage their children to play games? Apparently, adults who grew up playing computer games in the 80s, are still continuing to play today, many with their kids in tow. It is no surprise then that, according to the American Entertainment Software Association, the average age of people who play games today is 30. This group of people want their children to enjoy playing video games like they do. And if the research is to be believed, kids can indeed benefit a great deal from doing just that.

Apparently, playing games can help kids become smart. It develops their ability to problem-solve, multi-task, reason, take risks, make sound decisions and a whole host of other things. Studies have shown that young people who are gamers make better pilots and even surgeons. Their hand-eye coordination and focus, among other things, are better than non-gamers. Scientists at an American university found that high school students who were gamers outperformed medical students in various replicated virtual surgery tasks. An avid gamer I know insists that his 7-year old daughter play Brain Age every day, a game designed to enhance thinking and memory skills. And in case you think he’s a geek who isn’t interested in physical activity, they play Kinect’s Just Dance regularly to keep fit. Imagine a parent forcing a kid to play games. Now, I can’t help but wonder if my parenting methods are a tad outdated. I mean, I spend my time nagging my sons to stop playing games and finish their homework….using pencil and paper. How passé is that!

I’ve heard of another important aspect of games – that it actually promotes bonding. A mum I spoke to says that games helped her son make friends. An introvert by nature, he started making friends in the neighbourhood through playing games. Other kids would come over to his house to play together and discuss game strategies and outcomes. Besides this, friends tell me how they have become closer to their children since they started playing games together. In this day and age when parents work all day, time spent with their kids is precious. How wonderful to be able to spend time doing what everyone enjoys. This becomes all the more important as children grow older. Finding common ground with your teenager might not be such a struggle after all.

I must admit that all this has left me somewhat confused. For all the evidence that suggests gaming is harmful for our children, there are an equal number of studies showing how beneficial it is. Many of us might find ourselves facing a  conundrum: how can something potentially dangerous for our kids also be good for them? I guess like a lot of other things in life, video games are a double-edged sword, a paradox if you will.

So, what’s a non-gamer parent to do? Clearly, there is no escaping from games. The gaming industry is one of the biggest in the world today and our children are going to want to play games whether we like it or not. The experts suggest following a few simple rules of thumb as a good place to start. First, parents must monitor what their children are playing and ensure they play games suitable for their age and level of maturity. There are games aplenty out there which can help our kids develop skill sets we want them to have in a fun, safe and healthy environment. Setting clear time limits is also a must. Excessive gaming should be controlled. It is important to bear in mind that, at the end of the day, there is no right or wrong in this. It is just a matter of finding the right balance for your family. It is a judgement call that parents must make.

As for me, I think I will always be a little suspicious of games. Maybe I’m just too old to completely change my mindset about it. But I do realise that whatever is important to my children will have to be important to me. You know the old saying about joining those you can’t beat, right? Actually, come to think of it, losing yourself in a fantasy world now and then might not be such a bad thing.  It could be fun and who knows, I might start….dare I say it… worrying a little less. So, how about it? Mortal Kombat, anyone?

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