Is your child a gamer? Would you like to know more about what your children are playing?
In this special feature, we look at the research and offer some guidance on things to be aware of when it comes to your children’s gaming.
Playing video games has been a popular form of entertainment since the 1970’s. However, has technology has developed and advanced so too has the impact and influence of video games.
Video games can address and explore a wide range of issues just as other forms of media like books, television and films do. But parents are rightly concerned when the content of games like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto include theft, terrorism and murder. Additionally, there are new and emergent problems such as simulated and real gambling and online gaming with strangers.
“Do video games have a negative impact and should I stop my child from playing them?”
There have been a wide range of studies on video game content, however as technology moves at breakneck speed it is easy to get left behind when it comes to advice and guidance. This puts parents in a difficult situation when weighing up protecting their children from potentially harmful content or inhibiting on their children’s social life.
There is no absolute consensus regarding the impact of video games on children’s health and development. Some studies suggest that children who are exposed to violence in media may become numb to it and show more aggressive behaviour. They also say that younger children and those with emotional, behavioural or learning difficulties may be more influenced by violent images.
On the other hand, many researchers dispute this idea that there is a link between violence in video games and violent behaviour in children. Instead, they suggest that the link between violent content and aggressive behaviour is reliant upon the child’s character. Author and clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore noted:
“People with a personality constellation of being 1) easily upset (high neuroticism), 2) showing little concern for other people’s feelings (low agreeableness), and 3) having a tendency to break rules or act without thinking (low conscientiousness) are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of violent video games”
Additionally, a 2017 study in the Netherlands found that:
“Exposure to ‘violent’ video games at age 9 was not predictive of aggression or reduced prosocial behaviors one year later. Overall gaming, likewise, was unrelated to most mental health issues including attention problems or reduced social functioning, or total mental health difficulties”
It is difficult for parents who are not gamers or have little understanding of it to know whether the games their children ask for are age appropriate from the titles alone. With names that only make sens in context, such as “Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” or “Mario & Rabbids: Kingdom Battle”, it is unreasonable to expect parents to know if the content contained in these titles would be suitable for a 7, 10 or 15 year old child. Additionally, every child is different which therefore makes it even more challenging to decide on suitability. Just as with films, what one 12 year old might find exciting or funny may make another anxious or frightened. Truthfully, with regards to violent content in video games only the parent themselves knows their child well enough to make a choice.
While the majority of concern regarding video games relates to violent imagery, as games have matured the problems they present have developed as well. Recently, there has been a great deal of concern regarding the use of real money in video games to simulate gambling. The most recent example of this was exhibited in “Star Wars Battlefront II”, while Star Wars has a PEGI rating of 16, the use of Star Wars characters makes it popular and much desired by very young children. While the content of the game is fairly tame (mild fantasy violence), worries have been raised regarding “lootboxes” in game.
The concept of “lootboxes”, or extra paid content in games is a difficult subject for parents to understand, even when they have some experience of video games themselves. Lootboxes are a form of “Downloadable Content”, or “DLC”. DLC can take the form of major changes or additions to games, or minor cosmetic upgrades, and is released separately from the core game. It must be paid for separately, and is designed to prolong the life cycle of the game.
The issue with DLC like lootboxes is the manner in which it simulates gambling, in particular slot machines. A player pays real-money for a lootbox (in the case of children, this is typically parents money) and receives a number of randomised items. The issue is that the item which the player wishes to get – a character or weapon, for example – is not guaranteed to be in the box. An example is shown below:
The problems with this system can be seen for adults, but the effect of promoting such pseudo-gambling behaviour to children is potentially dangerous. The addition of popular children’s characters such as Luke Skywalker or Yoda to the mix only increases the issue. The game’s publisher, Electronic Arts has vigorously denied that these mechanics are gambling, stating:
“Creating a fair and fun game experience is of critical importance to EA. The crate mechanics of Star Wars Battlefront 2 are not gambling”
However, this has been contested by a number of jurisdictions. In Belgium, The Netherlands and the US State of Hawaii, formal investigations have opened into whether these mechanics are gambling.
Regardless of the exact legal nature of specific mechanics, the simple existence of the potential to spend vast sums of money (Star Wars Battlefront II, for example, could potential cost a whopping £1,600 to unlock every aspect of the game) is deeply worrying for parents. Whereas in the 80’s and 90’s, a child might at worst ask for a £60 or £70 game, today’s children potentially could end up spending much larger sums. This concern is particularly acute for children or young people who have their own money (such as teenagers).
Much like the internet at large, video games which are played online offer a number of exciting opportunities. Children could benefit from playing with friends, especially when they are far away geographically. Team-building and co-working can help to foster good behaviours and strategies in children. A report by RMIT University in Australia found that children who played online games every day score 15 points above the average in maths and 17 points above the average in science.
Nonetheless, there is danger of so-called “grooming” by adults of children playing online games. This process operates similar to groom on social media platforms. Children are connected to strangers and adults online via video games, and this allows a potential for abuse. In January 2017, Adam Isaac was convicted of a range of criminal activities involving children he met through popular online game “Minecraft”.
The Good News…
Despite the concerns regarding video games, it is important for parents to recognise that there are distinct and unique benefits for children of playing video games. These are especially pronounced in games that have an educational aspect to them. Research professor Peter Gray Ph.D wrote that:
“Repeated experiments have shown that playing fast-paced action video games can quite markedly increase players’ scores on tests of visuospatial ability, including tests that are used as components of standard IQ tests. Other studies suggest that, depending on the type of game, video games can also increase scores on measures of working memory (the ability to hold several items of information in mind at once), critical thinking, and problem solving. In addition, there is growing evidence that kids who previously showed little interest in reading and writing are now acquiring advanced literacy skills through the text-based communication in on-line video games.”
The American Psychological Association published an extensive report in 2013 which identified a litany of potential benefits for children associated with the playing of video games. Video games were linked to improvements in spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and perception in children.
Additionally, video games can help children socially, as up to 70% of gamers play with friends in the same room and this co-play activity helps to improve prosocial activities that help with social development. In an increasingly isolated and anti-social environment that children operate in, video gaming often provides an outlet for social play.
Help is at hand
Thankfully, parents are not alone in this. In addition to voluntary services (such as the Parenting NI helpline), video games in Europe are rated by PEGI. This rating, which must be listed on the box of a game, or on the store page if the game is listed online, gives an idea of what sort of content is included. The criteria are listed below:
PEGI 3: The content of games given this rating is considered suitable for all age groups. Some violence in a comical context (typically Bugs Bunny or Tom & Jerry cartoon-like forms of violence) is acceptable. The child should not be able to associate the character on the screen with real life characters, they should be totally fantasy. The game should not contain any sounds or pictures that are likely to scare or frighten young children. No bad language should be heard.
PEGI 7: Any game that would normally be rated at 3 but contains some possibly frightening scenes or sounds may be considered suitable in this category.
PEGI 12: Videogames that show violence of a slightly more graphic nature towards fantasy character and/or non graphic violence towards human-looking characters or recognisable animals, as well as videogames that show nudity of a slightly more graphic nature would fall in this age category. Any bad language in this category must be mild and fall short of sexual expletives.
PEGI 16: This rating is applied once the depiction of violence (or sexual activity) reaches a stage that looks the same as would be expected in real life. More extreme bad language, the concept of the use of tobacco and drugs and the depiction of criminal activities can be content of games that are rated 16.
PEGI 18: The adult classification is applied when the level of violence reaches a stage where it becomes a depiction of gross violence and/or includes elements of specific types of violence. Gross violence is the most difficult to define since it can be very subjective in many cases, but in general terms it can be classed as the depictions of violence that would make the viewer feel a sense of revulsion.
PEGI also lists a number of reasons for their rating, including drug use, discrimination or violence. Reading and understanding the ratings for the games your children are playing is highly recommended. PEGI is a legal mechanism, which is backed up by the government. This means that retailers must make every attempt to prevent children under the suggested age from buying the games – however, it is not illegal for children to play a game they are underage for.
In addition to regulation and ratings, many game companies and publishers have installed parental settings and controls built into games consoles or games themselves. The best example recently is the parental control on the Nintendo Switch. The Switch has a sophisticated array of controls, including:
- Control of total play times;
- Deciding which games to allow, and which are blocked entirely;
- Which online features are allowed
You can control this via an app installed on a tablet or phone. While Nintendo has been particularly proactive in this regard, most games consoles have at least some level of parental controls.
However, these features are almost never on by default. As such, it is essential that parents seek advice and familiarise themselves with parental controls before giving the console to the child.
As with almost every parenting issue, the single most effective tool to combat the negatives of video games is good parent to child communication. Particularly with older children, it is important that parents take the time to talk about the games their children are playing. Talking to your child about games can help you understand more about their content and voicing your concerns ensures that your child understands the risks.
It is important that your child feels that they can come to you if something happens that worries or frightens them. They are less likely to do so if they think that you will not “get it”. By chatting about what they are doing before something happens a parent can build their child’s resilience and ensure that they talk to you when things go wrong.
In conclusion, there is no settled opinion regarding the risks versus benefits of children playing games. There are certainly issues, relating to the appropriateness of content for children, potential spending of money and online activity. However, there are equal and opposite suggestions that playing of video games can be highly beneficial for children.
Like many parenting problems, there is no simple one-size fits all solution to video games. The best and only manner in which parents can take a level of control is by taking a proactive interest in the games that their children play. While the world of video games can be particularly opaque and difficult for parents to access, particularly if they are not tech-savvy themselves, taking a level of interest is the best way to protect children.