Study – games aren’t bad for you

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One of the concerns people still sometimes have about using games in schools is “aren’t games bad for you?” And of course the answer is, “it depends”. Like all media, there are times when the story or setting is something that adults will appreciate more than young people, and there are certainly instances where creators have taken the lazy option, focussing on crude shocks over meaningful content. But there are a growing number of games aimed at families, at casual gamers, and at adults who don’t necessarily identify with hardcore gamer culture. And, of course, if you’re reading this the chances are good that you’re well aware of the number of titles released for schools, and the increasing number of games designed to support education.

Still, though, even with the right content, there’s something about games as a medium that makes even techies wonder whether or not games are totally harmless. Many developers have strict no-screen policies for their very young offspring. And research seems to indicate that having digital media in your bedroom as a child leads to disordered sleep, with consequences for later development. So it’s hard, sometimes, not to feel a little defensive when faced with people’s questions about whether games, even the good ones, aren’t all that healthy for our children.

Well, now I guess we can relax. A new study from researchers at the University of Glasgow suggests that there is no association between playing digital games and negative behaviour in young children. Using data from the UK’s Millenium Cohort Study, a longitudinal research project tracking the lives of 19,000 children born in the UK in the year 2000, the research team investigated the connections between children’s TV and games use at 5 years old and their psychosocial adjustment at 7 (their conduct, emotional management, capacity for attention, peer relationships and prosocial behaviour). They found that neither passive screen time (TV/DVD) nor interactive screen time (games) were associated with emotional problems, hyperactivity or inattention, peer relationship problems or prosocial behaviour. They did, however, find that watching TV or DVDs for more than 3 hours a day was linked to conduct problems — unlike games, for which they found no effect.

So what can we take away from this? The researchers point out that, although they were able to control for more confounding factors (like parenting) than many previous studies, their results don’t show any causal links between behaviour and media use. The fact that games aren’t linked to conduct issues in the same way that television is might simply be a result of parents’ awareness of age restrictions around games, they suggest. And they point out that simply reducing screen time won’t by itself address negative behavioural issues. Still, I think there are some important things for developers to take away from this research:

  • Games aren’t likely to lead to negative effects in children.
  • The social and personal context in which games are played are huge factors in the impact a game might have.
  • Children are not all playing with in the same family environments.
  • Children are not all the same: they bring different social and cognitive capacities to the experience of playing a game.

Those might sound like obvious points to make. But they have huge implications for designers who want their games to have a positive effect on the children who play them. How you design for diverse social contexts? How much parental involvement can you assume? And how do you evaluate your game in a range of contexts?

Working on these issues is what makes research in games interesting: they’re the kind of questions you can address best by building games and trying things out. For now, though, I’m just pleased to see some evidence that supports my instinct that time spent on interactive pursuits is better than watching television.

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