Probing Question: Is playing video games detrimental?

Since their conception in the late 1970s, video games have steadily increased in popularity. In 2004, the video-game industry raked in 10 billion dollars worldwide, generating more revenues than Hollywood. Polls indicate that today's children play anywhere from 9 to 20 hours of video games per week.

Parents may fret over these figures, but Edward Downs believes that video games can be a positive experience for kids, though pitfalls do exist.

child playing video game
iStockphoto

"Violent games tend to get the most attention," says Downs, a graduate student and researcher at Penn State's Media Effects Research Lab. "Investigations have even linked the popular game Doom with the tragic shootings at Columbine high school." Doom, where players roam around a 3-D environment with an arsenal of guns to kill alien invaders, was reportedly the favorite game of one of the teenaged assailants.

Parents and others also worry about sexual content. Downs himself researched depictions of women in video games while working on his Master's degree. He found that there were few female characters depicted in games and that many were portrayed as partially nude or scantily clad. "While people are still researching the exact effects this has on children, I believe the overtly sexual depictions run the risk of stereotyping certain negative gender roles," says Downs.

Still Downs is not ready to write off the potential positives of games.

"Video games—specifically, multiplayer games—can help with team-building and social development," states Downs. "They can also help younger children develop spatial-rotation skills, and facilitate the ability to imagine a situation from multiple perspectives. Also, empirical tests have shown that playing these games is positively related to increased hand-eye coordination and the ability to multi-task."

Even some of the more controversial games have proven useful in the proper setting, Downs argues. He explains how modified versions of Doom are used by the U.S. military to help train soldiers in teamwork and decision-making under fire. The military also spends millions every year developing its own training programs and simulators. Notes Downs, "It's a lot cheaper to crash a hundred-million dollar plane in a simulator than in real life."

The military also uses networked game scenarios to help bolster teamwork. "If you have several people secluded in different rooms with only a headset to converse and a common goal to accomplish," explains Downs, "it helps to develop strategic communication and social skills."

Online gaming also allows ordinary civilian gamers to play with counterparts around the world. These "real time" games are increasingly popular: Six million users worldwide are registered to play the online game World of Warcraft.

Is there a danger in virtual-reality escapism? "I believe there is definitely a risk of getting lost in these online worlds," Downs concedes. "The more time a player puts into developing his or her online persona, the harder it is to walk away sometimes. On the flipside of that, these games have the potential to develop one-on-one communication skills and provide opportunities to practice them." Moderation is key, Downs suggests, although how much is too much will vary from player to player, depending on age, maturity, job, responsibilities, and a number of other factors.

What about parents who worry that video gaming trains kids to be couch potatoes? Some new video games actually offer opportunities to get kids up and moving, Downs says. In 2001, he notes, Konami released Dance Dance Revolution, the first in a popular series that has gamers boogying their way to victory through use of a dance pad. "It even includes a calorie burner and a workout routine." A new Nintendo system named Wii (pronounced "we"), he adds, incorporates motion sensors, allowing players to simulate swinging a tennis racket or a baseball bat.

With video games constantly evolving Downs says there is still work to be done in understanding all of their effects. At the Media Effects Research Lab, he reports, "this year we have tests lined up to measure responses to video games in different competitive situations, to explore the links between video games and cognition, and to measure responses to customized game content."

Whether or not video games can be a positive recreational activity comes down to how—and how much—they are used, he suggests. "Sure there are dangers, but with careful monitoring of game content and a child's activity level there is also a lot of potential."

Edward Downs, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in the College of Communications. He can be reached at epd121@psu.edu. The Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State, co-directed by S. Shyam Sundar, Ph.D., and Mary Beth Oliver, Ph.D., investigates psychological and physiological responses to both traditional and emerging media.

Last Updated September 11, 2006