Mak­ing peace with video games

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - DAVID LAZARUS

Ask any par­ent how they feel about their kids’ video gam­ing, and you’ll al­most cer­tainly hear con­cerns about all the hours spent in a vir­tual world and the pos­si­bil­ity of an­ti­so­cial or even vi­o­lent be­hav­ior. But are these con­cerns valid?

My teenage son is a gamer — bigly — and I’ve wres­tled with how proac­tive I should be in mon­i­tor­ing an ac­tiv­ity he’s clearly pas­sion­ate about. Re­search on the sub­ject is all over the map, from those who say gam­ing is a be­nign part of young peo­ple’s life­styles to those who see it as a gate­way to the next Columbine.

The U.S. video game in­dus­try gen­er­ated more than $30 bil­lion in rev­enue last year, ac­cord­ing to the En­ter­tain­ment Soft­ware Assn. and NPD Group. Two-thirds of U.S. house­holds have at least one mem­ber who plays three or more hours a week.

At a re­cent sem­i­nar on video games at UC Irvine, Con­stance Steinkuehler, a pro­fes­sor of in­for­mat­ics at the school and pres­i­dent of the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Video Game Al­liance, em­pha­sized that most re­searchers em­brace the idea that “play is good.”

She also ac­knowl­edged that video games, like smart­phones, so­cial me­dia and other mod­ern tech­nolo­gies, can have ad­dic­tive prop­er­ties.

I spoke with Steinkuehler this week and she said “there’s a lot of con­fu­sion and a lot of fear” among par­ents as to how they should re­spond to an in­ter­est that’s con­sum­ing much of their kids’ lives.

“Our chil­dren’s lives are

struc­tured very dif­fer­ently from how our own were,” Steinkuehler said. “Many kids are spend­ing more time on av­er­age play­ing games than they are on home­work.”

Yes, games can be ad­dic­tive in some cases, she said. But, no, there isn’t any mean­ing­ful ev­i­dence that video games lead to ab­hor­rent or vi­o­lent be­hav­ior.

Kids are just as stressed as adults, Steinkuh­ler ob­served. Their lives are heav­ily struc­tured, and they’re of­ten pushed to suc­ceed.

“Game play is a form of blow­ing off steam,” she said. “It’s a form of leisure. And it’s the one me­dia that turns screen time into ac­tiv­ity time.”

At the be­gin­ning, we tried to ad­dress our son’s emerg­ing in­ter­est in video games by lim­it­ing him to games and game sys­tems that in­cluded an ed­u­ca­tional com­po­nent. LeapFrog was our plat­form of choice.

He quickly out­grew their of­fer­ings, so we tran­si­tioned to Nin­tendo’s Wii, which of­fered more fam­ily-friendly games and a phys­i­cal el­e­ment thanks to its mo­tion­based con­trols. My son and I played vir­tual ping-pong and Fris­bee golf, and flew dig­i­tal planes around the Wii Re­sort is­land.

Even­tu­ally my wife and I no­ticed that he was sched­ul­ing play dates at the homes of friends who had Xboxes and adrenal­in­charged, kill-or-be-killed games such as “Call of Duty.” So we got an Xbox to bring the play dates to us.

Now our son has moved on from con­sole games. He plays on­line, via a lap­top, join­ing friends and strangers from around the world in fast-paced “League of Leg­ends” and “Brawl­halla” matches.

He plays in on­line tour­na­ments. He talks of join­ing a team, be­ing spon­sored or even go­ing pro (top gamers can pull down six fig­ures).

On week­nights, our son plays for maybe a cou­ple of hours af­ter fin­ish­ing his home­work. On week­ends, he may play five, six, seven hours.

It’s very so­cial. He wears a head­set and mi­cro­phone and main­tains run­ning ban­ter with his team­mates. So I’m re­luc­tant to say that just be­cause this isn’t the way I played Dun­geons and Dragons when I was his age — face to face with oth­ers, sit­ting around a table — it’s not healthy be­hav­ior. But is it un­healthy? “Par­ents should al­ways be alert to ob­ses­sive be­hav­ior,” said Scot Oster­weil, cre­ative direc­tor for MIT’s Ed­u­ca­tion Ar­cade, which pro­motes gam­ing in ed­u­ca­tional set­tings. “And too much screen time in gen­eral is bad for all of us.”

How­ever, he agreed with Steinkuehler that there isn’t a lot of ev­i­dence to sup­port the­o­ries that video games, par­tic­u­larly vi­o­lent video games, foster an­ti­so­cial or vi­o­lent ten­den­cies in young peo­ple.

Oster­weil ob­served that vi­o­lent crime in the United States has dropped in the three decades that video games have been around. In 1991, there were al­most 25,000 mur­ders in Amer­ica — an all-time high. Last year, there were 17,250.

“If there was a cor­re­la­tion be­tween video games and vi­o­lence, we should see it,” he said.

Par­ents, he noted, need to look deeper than just the fact that their kid en­joys vir­tual horse­play. Which child is more at risk for an­ti­so­cial be­hav­ior, Oster­weil asked, the one who spends six hours ram­bunc­tiously play­ing video games with friends or the one who spends six hours alone in their room prac­tic­ing the vi­o­lin?

“In most video games, kids are be­ing chal­lenged to do dif­fi­cult things to mas­ter game play,” he said. “That’s not a bad thing and could be de­vel­op­ing skills that will ex­tend beyond the game.”

My wife and I en­cour­age mod­er­a­tion in our son’s gam­ing, al­though we’re not al­ways suc­cess­ful. We watch for signs of trou­ble, but we also want to give our son the free­dom to make — and learn from — his own ac­com­plish­ments and mis­takes.

Magy Seif El-Nasr, direc­tor of the Game De­sign Pro­gram at North­east­ern Uni­ver­sity, said par­ents should make an ef­fort to learn about the games their kids are play­ing and to join them for a match or two.

“Make it a bond­ing ac­tiv­ity,” she said. “It al­lows you to spend time with your kids and talk to them.”

That’s good ad­vice, but it’s not easy. I tried play­ing “Call of Duty” and quickly proved my­self hope­less at nav­i­gat­ing the vir­tual ter­rain and bat­tling oth­ers. Now I stick to watch­ing my son play and dis­cussing the strate­gies he em­ploys.

I still push him to read more, and I try to find books that will catch his fancy (thank you, Ernest Cline, for “Ready Player One”).

I also ask my son to leave the com­puter ev­ery so of­ten and play me in chess (a game I’m fairly good at). He’s an ag­gres­sive player with a great head for spa­tial and tac­ti­cal think­ing — skills that will un­doubt­edly work in his fa­vor in fu­ture years.

It’s not hard to un­der­stand where he gets those skills.

He beats me al­most ev­ery time.

David Lazarus’ col­umn runs Tues­days and Fri­days. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Chan­nel 5 and fol­lowed on Twit­ter @David­laz. Send your tips or feed­back to david.lazarus @la­times.com.

Pa­trik Stol­larz AFP/Getty Im­ages

THE U.S. video game in­dus­try gen­er­ated more than $30 bil­lion in rev­enue last year. Above, gamers at a trade fair in Ger­many in 2015.

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