Video Games and Children


Since video games were first introduced in the 1970s they have become a popular pastime for children and teens as well as quite a few adults.  Parents should consider two basic issues when providing guidance to their children and teens regarding the use of video games.  (1) Parents should be aware of the content of the games and question whether it is appropriate for the age and developmental level of their child. (2) Parents should monitor how much time their children spend playing video games as well as other activities.  It is true that you can have "too much of a good thing."


Evaluating the appropriateness of Video Game Content

Parents have the responsibility of helping their children select books, toys, television programs and movies that are appropriate for each particular child.  Entertainment materials should be fun, engaging and spur creative fantasy.  Hopefully, they will not be overly frustrating, and they will not present information or images that could be so overly scary they might spawn excessive worry or anxiety or nightmares or too advanced as to create questions or interests that the child is not intellectually or emotionally ready to handle.


Given what seems to be an increase in violent acts by children, the media and video games have been identified as possible causes for these phenomena.  Research has not fully supported this notion.  It is known that SOME children are more likely to act out what they see than others.  Some children may have a poor understanding of the difference between reality and fantasy.  Others may have poor impulse control and become overly intense in their acting out of violent scenes.  On the other hand, some children may be emotionally disturbed for any number of reasons and may gravitate to this material as a result of the disturbance.  Parents should have a good knowledge and understanding of each child so that they can assist them in selecting appropriate play materials.

Children and adults have always found some amount of violence to be entertaining.  Certainly many stories contained in books have violent themes and depict violent scenes.  Many of the original Grimm Fairytales had some very violent scenes.  Certainly violence in movies has become more graphic.  However, the mind is very capable of creating very vivid violent scenes from reading a book.

Children have always engaged in some form of aggressive play.  Often it involves portraying roles from one form of literature or another.  In the olden days it was "cops and robbers," "cowboys and Indians," "Superman," "Prince Valiant," "Space Patrol," or "Flash Gordon" to name a few.  Much of the action today is the same but with different fictional characters.  Many parents from the "baby boomer" generation decided to not buy guns or war toys for their kids only to find them using tinker toys or other materials to construct guns and other weapons.

Again, parents may want to help their children and teens select play and entertainment materials that are balanced in content.  Some can be educational while others are just plain fun.  By the way, it is thought by some child psychologists that some fantasy video games may help children develop cognitive skills such as the ability to plan ahead as well as develop visual spatial and eye-hand coordination skills.

Parents should spend time playing the games with their children as well as talking with them about the child's thoughts, feelings and perceptions related to playing the game.  They can also engage in a discussion of values that may guide the child down a path that is safe and leads to the development of a sound moral character.

A recent study (Funk, 1993) examined video game playing among 357 seventh and eighth grade students. The adolescents were asked to identify their preference among five categories of video games. The two most preferred categories were games that involved fantasy violence, preferred by almost 32% of subjects; and sports games, some of which contained violent sub themes, which were preferred by more than 29%. Nearly 20% of the students expressed a preference for games with a general entertainment theme, while another 17% favored games that involved human violence. Fewer than 2% of the adolescents preferred games with educational content.


The study found that approximately 36% of male students played video games at home for 1 to 2 hours per week; 29% played 3 to 6 hours; and 12 percent did not play at all. Among female students who played video games at home, approximately 42% played 1 to 2 hours and 15% played 3 to 6 hours per week. Nearly 37% of females did not play any video games. The balance of subjects played more than 6 hours per week. Results also indicated that 38% of males and 16% of females played 1 to 2 hours of video games per week in arcades; and that 53% of males and 81% of females did not play video games in arcades.

Because it is likely that there is some similarity in the effect of viewing violent television programs and playing violent video games on individuals' aggressive behavior, those concerned with the effects of video games on children should take note of television research. The consensus among researchers on television violence is that there is a measurable increase of from 3% to 15% in individuals' aggressive behavior after watching violent television. A recent report of the American Psychological Association claimed that research demonstrates a correlation between viewing and aggressive behavior (Clark, 1993).


Effects of Other Characteristics of Video Games

Some adults believe that video games offer benefits over the passive medium of television. Among mental health professionals, there are those who maintain that in playing video games, certain children can develop a sense of proficiency, which they might not otherwise achieve. However, other authorities speculate that performing violent actions in video games may be more conducive to children's aggression than passively watching violent acts on television. According to this view, the more children practice violence acts, the more likely they are to perform violent acts (Clark, 1993). Some educational professionals, while allowing that video games permit children to engage in a somewhat creative dialogue, maintain that this engagement is highly constrained compared to other activities, such as creative writing (Provenzo, 1992).

Another problem seen by critics of video games is that the games stress autonomous action rather than cooperation. A common game scenario is that of an anonymous character performing an aggressive act against an anonymous enemy. One study (Provenzo, 1992) found that each of the top 10 Nintendo video games was based on a theme of an autonomous individual working alone against an evil force. The world of video games has little sense of community and few team players. Also, most video games do not allow play by more than one player at a time.


The social content of video games may influence children's attitudes toward gender roles. In the Nintendo games, women are usually cast as persons who are acted upon rather than as initiators of action; in extreme cases, they are depicted as victims. One study (Provenzo, 1992) found that the covers of the 47 most popular Nintendo games depicted a total of 115 male and 9 female characters; among these characters, 20 of the males struck a dominant pose while none of the females did. Thirteen of the 47 games were based on a scenario in which a woman is kidnapped or has to be rescued.


Studies have indicated that males play video games more frequently than females. Television program producers and video game manufacturers may produce violent shows and games for this audience. This demand for violence may not arise because of an innate male desire to witness violence, but because males are looking for strong role models, which they find in these shows and games (Clark, 1993).



Given inconclusive research, recommendations concerning video games must be conservative. According to researcher Jeanne Funk (1993), a ban on video games is: probably not ... in the child's best interests. Limiting playing time and monitoring game selection according to developmental level and game content may be as important as similar parental management of television privileges. Parents and professionals should also seek creative ways to increase the acceptance, popularity, and availability of games that are relatively prosocial, educational, and fun. (p.89)