5 things parents should know about video games

pongI was in high school when the first arcade style video game came out: Pong.  I had never seen anything like it, and was immediately hooked. Later, in seminary, I spent hours in the arcade, playing Centipede, Tempest, and Galaga. When I became a father, I kept video games out of the house for a long time, because I didn’t want the kids to get sucked into the same black hole.

Compared to what’s available today, those games were primitive and innocuous. Technological advances have created a level of lifelikeness and interactivity that raises the stakes. Should parents be concerned? Here are five basic observations worth mulling over.

Video games can be addictive.

That’s not just a metaphor: even simple video games can stimulate the same pleasure centers of the brain involved in addictive behavior, despite the fact that no “real” rewards are involved. That doesn’t quite make them electronic crack, but it’s prudent to recognize the potential. Remember, video games are a multi-billion dollar industry. Companies want you to keep playing (and paying), and design their games accordingly.

They’re not just for kids.

We may imagine gamers as isolated teenage boys locked away in their bedrooms, and there is some truth to that. But current statistics indicate that the average gamer is a thirty-something adult, and nearly half of gamers are women. And that means that there’s money to be made in games with adult themes, as the next observation suggests.

The themes/images are often violent and/or highly sexualized.

Mario Kart is one thing. But games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto are of another stripe. CoD is one of the most popular “first-person shooter” games, with over a dozen versions to date and millions of users. In games like these, players accomplish their mission by inflicting violence on others; in GTA, that includes the possibility of sexual violence.

Does playing violent games make a person more violent? That’s still a matter of controversy, fueled by news stories profiling mass shooters as addicted loners. Skeptics argue that when the sale of violent games goes up, the rate of violent crime goes down. But other studies link game play to non-criminal aggression. And for Christians, the primary concern should be one of character: what attitude is fostered by playing games in which others are treated as objects of violence or lust?

Multiplayer games add an element of group pressure.

The rise of “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” (MMORPGs) adds a new dimension. Players band together online to defeat other groups (World of Warcraft is probably the best known example). Individual players thus feel pressured not to let the group down, prompting many to spend real money on special objects and abilities that will make their online characters more powerful. And keep in mind that some groups span the globe — meaning that someone, somewhere, will have to be up in the middle of the night.

Game play can substitute fantasy relationships for real ones.

You’ve heard the news stories. Some gamers have virtual affairs and marriages through their online characters. Their real-life spouses are confused: is this adultery or not? Or a young couple becomes so engrossed in a game in which they must raise a virtual “baby” that their real-world baby dies of neglect.

Part of the lure of role-playing games is the ability to create an alter ego that is everything one wishes to be: powerful, respected, attractive. The more immersive the game, the more a player’s real relationships may seem flat and stale by comparison. No doubt, additional social and psychological factors are involved. But there’s no mistaking the pull of fantasy worlds that are more rewarding than messy, real-world interaction.

It’s important to be informed. Parents should educate themselves about the games their kids want to play, and should be good models of responsible play themselves. Another strategy is to play the game with them, and discuss the pros and cons. Be aware that games are available on multiple platforms, including cell phones, making it possible to be up all night playing unless there is some clear and enforceable policy about media use.

Video games can be entertaining distractions, and can even serve educational purposes. But we need to be wise in our choices.