|The Many Benefits for Children of
Playing Video Games
|by Peter Gray, Ph.D.
Published on January 7, 2012 by Peter Gray in Freedom to
Quite a few parents have asked me about the advisability of limiting their
children's computer play. Others have told me that they do limit computer play or
total daily "screen time," in a tone that seemed to suggest that any
reasonable parent would do that.
People who have been reading my articles can probably guess my reaction. I have a
very high opinion of children's abilities to make good choices about how to use their
free time, as long as they really have choices. Some children go through long periods
of doing what seems like just one thing, and then some adults think there's something
wrong, because they (the adults) would not make that choice. But in my experience, if
kids are really free to play and explore in lots of different ways, and they end up
playing or exploring in what seems to be just one way, then they are doing that
because they are getting something really meaningful out of it. For a nice example of
this, you might watch the film on the home page of the Sudbury Valley School website, where a young man describes
his year of doing almost nothing but computer play.
It is always a mistake, I think, to tell children what they should or should not
do, except in those cases where you are telling them that they should do their share
of the chores around the house or should not do things that hurt you or other people.
Whenever we prevent our kids from playing or exploring in the ways they prefer, we
place another brick in a barrier between them and us. We are saying, in essence,
"I don't trust you to control your own life." Children are suffering today
not from too much computer play or too much screen time. They are suffering from too
much adult control over their lives and not enough freedom (see essay on rise of depression and anxiety).
|Children who are really free know what is best for them, especially
concerning how they should spend their free time. Every child is different, just as
every adult is, and we can't get into their heads and find out just what they are
getting out of something that we don't understand. I know well a child who, for years,
spent hours per day watching television shows that I thought were really disgustingly
dumb; but, over time, I discovered that she was getting a lot out of them. They were
making her think in new ways. She understood all the ways in which the shows were
dumb, at least as well as I did; but she also saw ways in which they were smart, and
she analyzed them and learned from them. They contributed greatly to her abilities as
an actress (she eventually had major parts in high-school plays), because she acted
out the parts vicariously, in her mind, as she watched. They also contributed to her
fascination with certain aspects of human psychology. She now wants to go into
clinical psychology as a career.
I've also known kids who spent huge amounts of time reading - just sitting and
reading, "doing nothing!" for maybe 10 hours a day. There were always some
kids like that, even when I was a kid. I could never understand why they would want to
just sit and read when they could go fishing with me instead. What a waste of time.
However, I've never known a parent to limit their child's reading time. Why is it any
better to limit TV or computer time than to limit book-reading time? Why do we worry
about a child spending maybe 4 or 5 hours a day at a computer screen, doing what he
wants to do, but don't worry about the same child sitting at school for 6 hours a day
and then doing homework for another couple of hours - doing what others are forcing
him to do? I ask you to consider the possibility that the child is learning more
valuable lessons at the computer than at school, in part because the computer activity
is self-chosen and the school activity is not.
Computers are the most important tools of modern society. Why would we limit a
child's opportunities to play with them?
Why would we want to limit a child's computer time? The computer is, without
question, the single most important tool of modern society. Our limiting children's
computer time would be like hunter-gatherer adults limiting their children's
bow-and-arrow time. Children come into the world designed to look around and figure
out what they need to know in order to make it in the culture into which they are
born. They are much better at that than adults are. That's why they learn language so
quickly and learn about the real world around them so much faster than adults do.
That's why children of immigrant families pay more attention to the language spoken by
their new peers, in the new culture, than to the old language spoken by their parents.
That's also why, whenever there's a new technological innovation, kids learn how to
use it more quickly than their parents do. They know, instinctively, what they must
learn in order to succeed.
Why do we keep hearing warnings from "authorities" - including the
American Academy of Pediatricians - that we must limit children's computer play? Some
of the fear mongering comes, I think, from a general tendency on the part of us older
folks to distrust any new media. Plato, in The Republic, argued that plays and
poetry should be banned because of their harmful effects on the young. When writing
came about and became technically easier, and was enthusiastically seized upon by the
young, some of their elders warned that this would rot their minds; they would no
longer have to exercise their memories. When printed novels became available to the
masses, many warned that these would lead the young, especially girls and young women,
to moral degeneracy. When televisions began to appear in people's homes, all sorts of
dire warnings were sounded about the physical, psychological, and social damage they
Video games have been under attack by the fear-mongers ever since they first
appeared, and the attacks have not diminished. If you Google around the Internet using
harmful effects of video games as a search phrase, you will find all sorts of
frightening claims. One site warns that video games can cause depression, physical
aggression, poor sleep, somatic complaints, obesity, attention disorders, and ... the
list went on. The only malady they seemed to have left out was housemaid's knee.
The most common complaints about video games are that they (1) are socially
isolating, (2) reduce opportunities for outdoor activities and thereby lead to obesity
and poor physical health, and (3) promote violence in children, if the games have
violent content. On the face of it, of course, the first two of these claims should be
truer of book reading than of video gaming. Concerning the third claim, I don't see
any obvious reason why pretend murder of animated characters in video games should be
any more likely to provoke real murder than, say, reading Shakespeare's account of
Hamlet's murder of his stepfather. Yet we make kids read Hamlet in school.
Research refutes the frightening myths about harmful effects of computer games.
|If you look into the actual research literature, you find very little
if any evidence supporting the fear-mongers claims, and considerable evidence against
those claims. In fact, systematic surveys have shown that regular video-game players
are, if anything, more physically fit, less likely to be obese, more likely to also
enjoy outdoor play, more socially engaged, more socially well-adjusted, and more civic
minded than are their non-gaming peers.1 A large-scale study in four cities
in Holland showed - contrary to what I assume was the initial hypothesis - that
children who had a computer and/or a television set in their own room were
significantly more likely to play outside than were otherwise similar children who
didn't have such easy and private access to screen play.2 A study by the
Pew Research Center concluded that video games, far from being socially isolating,
serve to connect young people with their peers and to society at large.3
Other research has documented, qualitatively, the many ways that video games promote
social interactions and friendships.4 Kids make friends with other gamers,
both in person and online. They talk about their games with one another, teach one
another strategies, and often play together, either in the same room or online.
Concerning violence, meta-analyses of the many studies designed to find effects of
violent video games on real-world violence have concluded that, taken as a whole,
there is precious little or no evidence at all of such effects.5 It's
interesting, also, to note that over the decades in which violent video gaming has
been steadily rising, there has been a steady and large decline in real-world violence
by youth.6 I'm not about to claim that the decline in real-world violence
is in any significant way caused by the rise in violent video games, but, there is
some evidence that playing such games helps people learn how to control their
hostility. In one experiment, college students were presented with a frustrating
mental task and then were assessed for their feelings both of depression and
hostility. The significant finding was that regular players of violent video games
felt less depressed and less hostile 45 minutes after the frustrating experience than
did otherwise similar students who didn't play such games.7
I have to admit that I personally hate graphic depictions of violence, in games or
anywhere else, but I claim no moral virtue in that. I'm just squeamish. My wife and
step-kids, who are every bit as nonviolent in real life as I am, tease me about it.
They talk about screening movies for me, and they have gotten used to going to certain
movies without me.
Video games have been shown to have many positive effects on brainpower.
Quite a few well-controlled research studies have documented positive effects of
video games on mental development. 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.8 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.9
In addition, there is growing evidence that children 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.10
When children are asked, in focus groups and surveys, what they like about video
games, they generally talk about freedom, self-direction, and competence.11
In the game, they make their own decisions and strive to meet challenges that they
themselves have chosen. At school and in other adult-dominated contexts they may be
treated as idiots who need constant direction, but in the game they are in charge and
can solve difficult problems and exhibit extraordinary skills. In the game, age does
not matter, but skill does. In these ways, video games are like all other forms of
The special benefits of MMORPGs
Over time, video games have become increasingly complex and multifaceted. Perhaps
the most interesting games today are the so-called Massively Multiplayer Online Role
Playing Games (MMORPGs), such as World of Warcraft, which are even more social
than were previous video games and offer endless opportunities for creativity and
In these online games, players create a character (an avatar), which has unique
physical and psychological traits and assets, and, with that character, enter a
complex and exciting virtual world that is simultaneously occupied by countless other
players, who in their real-life forms may be sitting anywhere on the planet. Players
go on quests within this virtual world, and along the way they meet other players, who
might become friends or foes. Players may start off playing solo, avoiding others, but
to advance to the higher levels they have to make friends and join with others in
mutual quests. Making friends within the game requires essentially the same skills as
making friends in the real world. You can't be rude. You have to understand the
etiquette of the culture you are in and abide by that etiquette. You have to learn
about the goals of a potential friend and help that individual to achieve those goals.
Depending on how you behave, players may put you on their friends list or their ignore
list, and they may communicate positive or negative information about you to other
players. The games offer players endless opportunities to experiment with different
personalities and ways of behaving, in a fantasy world where there are no real-life
consequences for failing.
Players in these games can also join special-interest groups called guilds. To join
a guild, a player (or, more accurately, the player's avatar) must fill out an
application form, much like a job application, explaining why he or she would be a
valuable member. Guilds generally have structures that are similar to companies in the
real world, with leaders, executive boards, and even recruitment personnel. Such games
are, in many ways, like the imaginative sociodramatic games of young children, but
played in a virtual world, with communication by online text, and raised up many
notches in sophistication to fit the interests and abilities of the older children,
teenagers, and adults who play them. Like all sociodramatic games, they are very much
anchored in an understanding of the real world, and they exercise concepts and social
skills that are quite relevant to that world. In fact, a study commissioned by the IBM
Corporation concluded that the leadership skills exercised within MMORPGs are
essentially the same as those required to run a modern company.13
So, to those who want my opinion about whether they should or shouldn't limit their
kids' computer play, my answer is shouldn't.
Note to readers: What is your opinion? What experiences have you or your kids had
with such play? Do you know of any good research that would justify a decision to prevent
kids from playing video games to their hearts' content?
Post comments and questions on this article at Dr. Gray's blog.
1 See: (a) Wack & Trantleff-Dunn (2009), "relationship between
electronic game play, obesity, and psychosocial functioning in young men; CyberPsychology
& Behavior, 12, 241-244; (b) Williams et al (2008), "Who plays, how much, and why?
Debunking the stereotypical gamer profile; Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 13,
993-1018; (c) Durkin & Barber (2002); "Not so doomed: Computer game play and
positive adolescent development," Applied Developmental Psychology, 23, 373-392.
2 Aarts et al. (2010). "Environmental determinants of outdoor play in
children: A large-scale cross-sectional study." American Journal of Preventive
Medicine, 39, 212-219.
3 Lenhart et al. (2008). "Teens, video games and civics: Teens gaming
experiences are diverse and include significant social interactions and civic
engagements," report of the Pew Research Center. Published online.
4 (a) Olson, C. K. (2010). Children's motivation for video game play in the
context of normal development. Review of General Psychology, 14, 180-187; (b) Stevens et al.
(2008). "In-game, in-room, in-world: reconnecting video game play to the rest of kids'
lives." pp 41-66 in K. Salen (Ed.), The ecology of games: Connecting youth, games, and
learning. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation series on digital media and
learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
5 Ferguson, C. (2010). Blazing angels or resident evil? Can violent video
games be a force for good? Review of General Psychology, 14, 68-81.
6 Ferguson (2010).
7 Ferguson, C., & Rueda, S. M. (2010). The Hitman study: Violent video
game exposure effects on aggressive behavior, hostile feelings, and depression. European
Psychologist, 15, 99-108.
8 (a) Green, C. S., & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video game modifies
visual selective attention. Nature, 423, 534-537; (b) Spence, I., & Feng, J. (2010).
Video games and spatial cognition. Review of General Psychology, 14, 92-104.
9 Akilli, G. K. (2007) Games and simulations: A new approach in education? In
D. Gibson, C. Aldrich, & M. Prensky (Eds.), Games and simulations in online learning:
Research and development frameworks (pp. 1-20). Hershey, PA: Information Science.
10 Black, R. W., & Steinkuehler, C. (2009). Literacy in virtual worlds. In
L. Christenbury, R. Bomer, & P. Smargorinsky (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent literacy
research (pp. 271-286). New York: Guilford.
11 (a) McLoed, L., & Lin, L. (2010). A child' power in game-play.
Computers & Education, 54, 517-527; (b) Olson, C. K. (2010). Children's motivation for
video game play in the context of normal development. Review of General Psychology, 14,
180-187; (c) Przybylski, A. K., Weinstein, N., Ryan, R. M., & Rigby, C. S. (2009).
Having versus wanting to play: Background and consequences of harmonious versus obsessive
engagement in video games. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12, 485-492.; (d) Yee, N. (2006).
Motivations for play in online games. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 9, 772-775.
12 Barnett, J., & Coulson, M. (2010). Virtually real: A psychological
perspective on massively multiplayer online games. Review of General Psychology, 14,
13 Reaves, B., & Malone, T. W. (2007). Leadership in games and work:
Implications for the enterprise of massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
Seriosity, Inc. Published online.
Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research
professor of psychology at Boston College, is a specialist in developmental and evolutionary
psychology. He is the author of an introductory textbook, Psychology,
and Free to Learn, a book
about children's natural ways of educating themselves, and how adults can help (Basic Books,
2013). For more information and articles, visit his blog Freedom to Learn.
© Peter Gray, Reprinted with permission of the author.
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