The videogame discourse: Default to open-mindedness!

My heart sinks when I see uncritical thinking in commentaries from Internet safety advocates about the media young people love – thinking that defaults (and contributes to a society-level default) to fear that new media’s harmful and young users are either potential victims or up to no good. Take videogames, for example. We know that…

“Videogame play is pervasive throughout our society,” as brain scientist Daphne Bavelier said in a TEDx Talk in Lausanne that has been translated into 27 languages and viewed nearly 1.8 million times (Pew Internet found that digital game play is part of 97% of US 12-to-17-year-olds’ lives, and that was back in 2008). “It is clearly here to stay. It has an amazing impact on our everyday life.” Dr. Bavelier cited game maker Activision’s statistics showing that, within a month of its release, Call of Duty: Black Ops had been played for 68,000 years worldwide. “Would any of you complain if this was the case with linear algebra?” she asked her audience.

So the scientists in her lab are asking what all parents, educators and youth advocates should be asking: “How can we leverage that power?” It’s obvious that the question can no longer be “How can we keep kids away?” or even just how can we regulate game play, right? Because only asking the latter sends the message that play is a negative in our children’s lives, when play is something that helps them navigate rapid change and complexity (see this).

Shooter games’ positive effects

But why did Bavelier mention a shooter game like Call of Duty? a parent might ask. Because, she says, even “those action-packed shooter games … have a number of ingredients that are actually really powerful for brain plasticity, learning, attention, vision, etc.” In her lab, she tested shooter game players who played 5, 10 and 15 hours a week (not surprisingly, she says that in no way does she support excessive play) both through observation and through brain imaging. She and her colleagues found that videogame play decidedly does not harm vision or lead to greater distraction or “attention problems.” In fact, by presenting things on a screen and tracking eye movement, they found that “your typical normal young adult can have a span of about three or four objects of attention…. Your action videogame player has a span of about six to seven objects of attention.”

As for what brain imaging turned up, Bavelier said that her lab looked at the “brain networks that control attention”: the parietal cortex (“well known to control the orientation of attention”), the frontal lobe (“which controls how we sustain attention”), and the anterior cingulate (“which controls how we allocate and regulate attention and resolve conflict”). What she found was that “all three of these networks are actually much more efficient in people that play action games.” [Bavelier also says that different games have different effects on the brain, and different media – from videogames to Web search to social networking, and simultaneous use of them – have different impacts, so generalizations about all new media or even an entire medium are problematic; and there’s much more research to be done.]

‘Game addiction?’

The other day I read an article by an Internet safety advocate stating without evidence that videogame addiction is one of the fastest-growing forms of addiction. So I asked psychologist Christopher Ferguson at Stetson University, a leading expert on videogames and mental health, if that’s true. First of all, he emailed me, neither videogame nor Internet addiction can be diagnosed because they’re not in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Although “Internet gaming disorder” is under consideration for future research, “most scholars in the field consider this an area ripe for moral panic,” he wrote. Do advocates for children really want to contribute to a moral panic about videogames and other new media? Media panics are about banning and avoidance, not learning literacy in and with the media. Literacy – digital, social and media literacy – is what affords competency and safety in today’s very social digital media. [See The New Yorker on the comic book panic of the 1950s and my 2009 post about why media panics are bad on many levels.]

But one more thing on the addiction question that might be helpful to parents: Dr. Ferguson told me that “the best data we have now suggest that perhaps 1-3% of gamers of all ages will start to exhibit problematic behaviors – but these tend to result from underlying mental health problems, not the games themselves. And they are not comparable to addictions to substances like cocaine or heroin. So I’m not saying the issue doesn’t exist at all. Rather – like a lot of things involving new technology – it is often blown way out of proportion by folks with various vested interests (whether moral or, in some cases financial, such as offering ‘therapy’ for these ‘disorders’).”

Videogames are also a very new medium that’s changing fast, both as an industry and an art form – another reason why once-and-for-all pronouncements about them are not helpful. In an article about how games and the business of games are changing, the Wall Street Journal reported that, even as there are more and more indie games exploring all kinds of new subjects, “mainstream games are … pushing into deeper emotional territory, playing with new kinds of story telling that go beyond fights and races.” They’re no longer just games. They’re “interactive narratives using a combination of game play and cinematic techniques to tell layered stories that are rich with fear, surprise and sadness, according to the Journal.” [Last fall Gartner projected that the global videogame market will reach $111 billion by 2015, USA TODAY reported.]

What about violence in videogames?

Richer storytelling and character development are signs of the growing sophistication of videogames as an art form. Knowing this might help parents concerned by all the references to “violent videogames” in the news media….

“Every storytelling medium throughout the history of the world involves violence – the paintings in art museums, Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible – have images of violence,” said University of Southern California media professor Henry Jenkins at a media literacy conference at MIT. “The question isn’t ‘Can we get rid of violence’” in videogames and other art forms. “We can’t,” said Jenkins, who has traveled around the US talking to students, parents, educators and lawmakers about videogame violence.

“What we need is for this storytelling medium to make sense of our aggression, trauma, loss, and violence in the way that art does. We have to create a climate where the images of violence are not trivialized, where violence has an impact.”

Creating that climate, and discussions in it, where we can together make sense of what happens in a story or in life – whether in a classroom, home or digital environment – is literacy training. When digital media, such as videogames, are discussed, digital and media literacy as well as social-emotional literacy can be fostered in guided discussions by a teacher or facilitator trained in SEL (and we know and SEL experts tell us that parents are their children’s first social-emotional teachers). How much more do these digital age literacies help our children deal with whatever might confront them in media – whether in content or in interaction with peers – than vilifying or restricting it?

Instead of modeling suspicion and control, we need to help open thought up to the full range of practices and impacts of games and other digital media, by talking with young users as well as following emerging research, in order to help our kids navigate this networked world. That way, we’re walking the talk – we’re modeling media literacy.

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