Kids and Video Games: Beneficial or Mind-Sucking Babysitter?

I have been a gamer my whole life, having first grasped the stick of an Atari 2600 as a toddler and declared Nintendo to be the one true god in 1985. If I were to add up all the hours I've spent battling pixilated evil, it would be a very large and probably embarrassing number. Of course, I get paid to tell you all about it now, so I consider it time well spent.

The question remains, though: How exactly do video games affect the minds and development of the children who play them their whole adolescence? I'm not just talking about technological quirks like the damage a 3DS can do to the eye muscles of a child under the age of six. I mean, what effect is modern gaming having on the behavior and psyches of children?

The pro side of the argument is always quick to hold up the Wii as a shining example of the benefits gaming can give children. After all, the entire system is based on the idea of movement, with sports games, adventure games and even side-scrollers like Donkey Kong Country Returns requiring at least a little bit of muscular exertion to play correctly. Surely, by encouraging motion during video game play, it would set a child on a path to physical fitness as a norm.

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A study from the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston earlier this year, though, debunks that myth pretty thoroughly. It turns out that children who played heavy physical exertion games on the Wii didn't automatically become more active in other areas as a result. In general, they maintained the same level of physical activity by reducing it in other areas of their lives. Besides, have you ever played Punch-Out on the Wii? It's impossible to do it standing up and punching.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that playing video games does in fact foster critical thinking and creativity...Something anyone who has obsessed on a Professor Layton title can attest to. Michigan State psychology professor Linda Jackson administered the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking to almost 500 preteens in one experiment, and isolated significantly higher scores for regular video game players.

It makes a lot of sense...playing most modern games requires the fast-paced processing of several different streams of information, online play encourages quick cooperation between compatriots, and of course there's always thinking with portals. Then again, what of the oft-repeated idea that violent video games are doing permanent, desensitizing damage to children?

With a few notable exceptions such as Chiller and Loaded from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, it's indisputable that video games have become more gory than ever before. God of War features the up-close brutal, torturous murders of dozens of people, Silent Hill had rape scenes and the last Mortal Kombat had fatalities that Eli Roth wouldn't be able to get away with. Are these games a danger to young minds?

Well, first of all, if you're letting a 12-year-old play God of War, then you are kind of a crappy parent. Metroid: Other M and the new Ninja Gaidens are damn near the same game with a lot less horrific maiming and godless boning. But let's say they're playing the games at someone else's house for the sake of argument.

Macquarie University Children and Families Research Centre deputy director Dr. Wayne Warburton, who authored the book Growing Up Fast and Furious: Reviewing the Impacts of Violent and Sexualised Media on Children, found that children exposed to violent media, including video games, often exhibited marked higher aggression for around 15 minutes after the cessation of exposure.

Warburton compared violent video games to fatty foods, saying that occasional exposure is fine, but repeated and regular use was unhealthy. The problem is, there is a big difference between breaking down and getting a Big Mac and buying a violent video game. One is out of your system within 24 hours. The other may require days of dedicated playing to finish.

Still, despite many rumors to the contrary, no real-life violence has been definitively linked to violent game playing. None.

At least one group of children is benefitting from new video game technology like the Xbox equipped with Kinect, the autistic. Special education teachers in Washington D.C. started using a $10 copy of Double Fine Happy Action Theater to help autistic students move on-screen avatars in ways they weren't able to do in real life. Typically they found the video game world less threatening and easier to deal with, and they translated their experiences into real-life social interactions.

In the end, video games remain simply an entertainment medium and nothing more. There's no real evidence that the specifics of the medium itself affect children in any negative way, though obviously the content should be monitored for age-appropriateness. Feel free to let your rugrats plug in, but make sure you encourage a few E-rated puzzlers in between killing murder mutants.

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