Video games are good for children, no matter what Trump says! Or are they?

Video games are good for children, no matter what Trump says! Or are they?
Do video games cause violence?

President Trump has insisted that there is a firm link between video game violence and the increase in school shootings in the USA in recent years. But more than 40 years after interactive video gaming entertainment entered our homes, this theory has yet to be proven. Moreover, with entire generations of healthy, well-adjusted kids having grown up alongside interactive entertainment, we must wonder... Why are we still debating if video games are safe for children — and why must we continually revisit this subject over and over?

At a glance, the facts would seem rather troubling. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), research has suggested tjat a “consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior” — and implies that playing them desensitizes kids to violent acts. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) additionally cites “exposure to violence in media" as "a significant risk to the health of children.” Parents of course will be understandably shocked to learn that around 85% of video games contain some form of violence. That's why representatives of the video game industry met with Trump at the White House.

It’s also rather important to remember that this "in-game" violence, which is often animated or comedic in nature, is frequently sensationalized in popular media. Precious few games merit the Entertainment Software Rating Board’s “Mature” (17 and up) age rating too. Expert opinion on game-related research is further split, with hundreds of academics calling findings linking playing video games to violence flawed, while others argue that studies show “either no relationship between playing video games and violent behavior, or an ‘insignificant’ link between the two.”

Perhaps the most significant clue we have as to video games’ actual impact on kids lies in a recent study conducted by the Southern Economic Journal. The report, which tracks both crime rates and game sales, notes that violent criminal offenses actually decreased in the weeks following many popular video games’ release. (Presumably as kids’ more negative impulses were constructively channeled into virtual worlds instead.)

Additionally, as the American Academy of Pediatrics also points out, “media violence is woven into the fabric of American children’s lives … as recently as the year 2000, every G-rated movie contained violence, as did 60% of primetime TV shows.” In fact, most children will have seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of screen violence before ever reaching middle school. Considering these facts, and the ready availability of guns and growing rise in mental illness in America, it’s grossly unfair to label video games as drivers of growing real-world violence.

Nor is it accurate to paint countless games which promote teamwork (World of Warcraft), strategy (Stardew Valley), socialization (Words with Friends 2) and critical thinking (Minecraft), or interest in STEAM (Niche) and historical subjects (Civilization VI) — far more representative of the hobby — with the same brush. And that’s before you consider the countless games today that are actually aimed at children and promoting family fun, i.e. Animal Jam and Just Dance 2018.

Arguably more troubling than violent games themselves is the fact that our perceptions of gaming refuse to grow up. While gamers are now 35 years old on average (and most over age 18), our view of the medium remains largely juvenile. Books, movies, and comics have all been allowed to come of age culturally, and we accept that gore-drenched box office smashes from Saw to Scarface and graphic novels like Preacher are examples of escapist entertainment designed for mature audiences that don’t turn children into criminals and killers. But old stereotypes of games as childish artifacts designed for childish audiences still linger.

Certainly, some games are designed to polarize and provoke, e.g. Grand Theft Auto V (featuring scenes of graphic torture) and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (which contains an interactive terrorist-themed mission). But more troubling than these industry outliers are our own misperceptions that a medium which actively champions uplifting and social play is an active threat to our children.

Worth recalling: 7 in 10 parents say that games have been a positive part of their children’s lives. And as research from Duke University to Harvard Medical School reminds us, many games offer hugely positive benefits to players, including:

  • Promoting health, including exercise and physical activity.
  • Enhancing education and learning recall.
  • Teaching valuable career skills from resource management to leading teams.
  • Helping young kids develop in positive social and physical ways.
  • Prompting us to communicate and address conflict more constructively.
  • Improving our memory, attention and ability to multitask.
  • Providing ways for children to build confidence and boost self-esteem.

Sadly, the debate over violent video games’ influence rages on year after year. But more than the actual games themselves, we really should be more worried about pigeonholing and demonizing one of the most engaging and uplifting art forms of the 21st century — one kids happen to adore.

Happily, millions of happy and healthy children, many of whom have grown up with controllers in hand over the years and are now becoming parents themselves, promise an impending end to the ongoing debate. Sick of hearing about video game violence? Don’t quit this raging multiplayer battle early: It’s only a matter of time before calmer heads (and thumbs) prevail.