Chapter 14 of Jack Myers' book Hooked Up: A New Generation's Surprising Take on Sex, Politics and Saving the World focuses on gaming, its relevance to marketers and its impact on the Hooked Up Generation – the first generation to grow up with the Internet -- born 1991-95 and emerging as the most important generation of this century. Hooked Up was published in 2012 and is winner of the International Book Award for Youth Issues and finalist for the USA Book Award for Pop Culture.
Online games are an awesome phenomenon. From Farmville to World of Warcraft, virtual gaming is an unqualified hit with the Hooked Up audience. Only 17 percent do NOT participate in online or console games. Console games like X Box and Wii are growing in popularity among Internet Pioneers. 68 percent play console games, with half of this group spending more than an hour playing every day. In contrast, virtual gamers spend an average 75 minutes daily playing and console gamers play an average 80 minutes daily. How do we even begin to comprehend the long-term implications?
Ever since Pac Man and Pong, a debate has raged over how such games affect young people. Stakeholders include parents, educators, health professionals and other experts, plus of course the gamers themselves. The answer can never be black and white because the impact depends on many factors, including player age, number of hours spent playing, and the type of game.
Depending on their structure, games can enhance social relationships or they can isolate the player from his or her peers. There's a big difference between a 17-year-old boy who spends 20 hours a week alone playing Call of Duty; an 18-year-old girl who spends a few minutes daily tending her crops in Farmville; and a 20-year-old who occasionally plays Madden Football with his friends.
In 2009, an Iowa State University study reported that one of ten video-gamers demonstrated addictive behaviors, finding that gaming affected school work, social development and family relationships. The study further identified pathological players as those who played around 24 hours a week. (Players in this group also had a much higher rate of ADD and ADHD diagnosis when compared with casual gamer groups.)
"What we mean by pathological use is that something someone is doing––in this case, playing video games––is damaging to their functioning. It's not simply doing it a lot. It has to harm functioning in multiple ways."
Science Daily, 2009
Do Violent Games Beget Violence?
One of the biggest concerns about video games is that some games, particularly realistic warfare games, increase violent behavior. A 2000 study by the American Psychological Association found that violent video games increase aggressive thoughts, feelings and behavior. The study found that the impact of video games on aggression was much higher than the impact of watching violent television and movies because the video games allow the player to interact and become part of the violence.
According to psychologist Wendy Walsh, co-host of the syndicated TV show The Doctors, "[the issue stays in the] public awareness and debate because we keep having new, more violent, more interactive versions of violent video games coming into the marketplace. And the research is pretty conclusive that [violent games] are very dangerous for children and teenagers."
Walsh says some studies show a direct link between violent interactive games and increased aggressive behavior, thought and affect (acting in an intimidating way). Such games also act as a stimulant, increasing physiological arousal. They have also been correlated to a decrease in pro-social behavior, such as empathy and awareness of others' needs.
Assigning Blame for Violence
Other experts caution against blaming video games for violent acts.
"When some tragic event happens or something surprising or important happens, our society's initial reaction is always to find a cause to pin whatever it was that happened on something else. I would say that recently, video games have been a particularly handy punching bag for a lot of that. You could just as easily say, 'Hey this person did the shooting, and he read books, as well'."
College of Computing and Digital Media
Zagal also says it's possible that people who are predisposed to violent behavior seek out violent video games. "If there's someone who's really into gory movies, and happens to also be a psychopathic criminal, the question is whether that person is drawn to gory movies because they are a psychopathic criminal, or are those violent movies somehow strengthening his psychopathy?"
In short, it's important to consider the context in which even violent games are played, and to remember that the spectrum of games ranges from Dora the Explorer to Mortal Kombat. As such, it's impossible to make a blanket statement that all video games increase violence.
Social Impact of Gaming
When people think of kids and video games, they often picture an adolescent boy sitting by himself and playing for hours. Dean Lorraine Branham of the S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University expands that negative image to include interconnected gamers: "active gamers may be connected but disenfranchised. There's something anti-social in the way some of them consume gaming media and the messaging they get from games that espouse violence, misogyny and other anti-social behaviors. I find it troubling."
Social Benefits of Gaming
However, those concerns are becoming less troubling for others. Thanks to skyrocketing popularity, public awareness, and technology, today's game creators offer many opportunities for socialization. Many experts point out that the positive social impact of video gaming should not be ignored.
"People who play a lot of games tend to play them in a social context. They might be playing with friends in the same place, or they're playing alone for an hour or two, and then going to school and talking to their friends about what happened, how to solve a certain problem. Games are a form of culture, and they encourage sharing and communication."
College of Computing and Digital Media
In his PBS article Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked, MIT Professor Henry Jenkins writes that 60 percent of gamers play with friends and 33 percent play with siblings. Because today's game creators design many games for multiple players online, the opportunities for socialization have increased. Additionally, Jenkins writes that even when people take turns as single players within larger groups, the time spent cheering each other on and talking about the game is socially enhancing.
The popularity of Zynga games, such as Words with Friends, Farmville and Mafia Wars, has added another dimension to the social aspect of playing video games, because the focus is interacting with other people virtually through the game.
For example, in Words with Friends (estimated downloads: ten million plus) players increase their vocabularies while competing with friends through Facebook, tablets, computers and smart phones. One unexpected benefit of Zynga games and Angry Birds is that they appeal to all ages, from teens to seniors. Many parents and children enjoy playing the games together.
Games for Fun and Exercise
Another concern about video gaming is that children and teens may not get enough physical exercise because of the time they spend online. A June 2004 study published in Obesity Research showed a strong link between use of electronic games and obesity. According to a WebMD article about the study, every hour spent gaming doubled the risk of obesity for children.
Other people argue that the advent of active games, such as the X-Box and Nintendo Wii, decreases the risk of obesity associated with video gaming. When playing active Wii and Xbox games such as bowling and golf, players move their bodies as they would if they were playing the actual game. Other games, such as the Wii Fit system, are specifically for exercising. Occupational therapists use Wii for patients of all ages. And like some other games, the Wii and similar active games can help improve eye-hand coordination.
Realistically, however, the fitness benefits aren't equal to playing basketball all afternoon or running around a soccer field or a tennis court. There is still valid concern about video games taking the place of outdoor activities.
Brain Drain or Brain Booster?
Early video games may have been "brain drains," but today's market includes many educational games such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Big Brain Academy and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?
An interesting study published in Computers and Human Behavior (2011) found that playing video games increased children's creativity––even when the games weren't specifically marketed as educational. Other studies tout the benefits of games that teach perseverance and problem solving.
Where Does the Time Go?
As mentioned earlier, a key concern is the amount of time children spend playing games and how it affects their time for other activities. In 2008, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released guidelines stating that children should have no more than two hours total of screen time per day, i.e., total combined time spent on video games, computers and television.
A recent AAP press release states that screen time––including television and child games––has no benefits whatsoever for infants and toddlers
This seems doubtful.
Any parent with an iPad or iPhone and a toddler can tell you how quickly the child learns to navigate a television screen or even an app or two. Trying to eliminate or restrict access to screens seems pointless and perhaps even likely to hamper a child's development and ability to adapt to the Internet Age.
The argument that any screen time does children no good at all is not only moot, but absurd. Computers, online games, social media and television are advancing children's learning and creativity in unprecedented ways.
Conclusion: Gaming at a Crossroads
Despite the many studies and opinions on the impact of video games on young people, there are too many variables to make a definitive statement about whether the impact of video games is good or bad. Internet Natives are likely to spend more and more time engaged with gaming media. As interactive television takes off, with two and even three linked screens, interest in interactive games will increase.
Virtual gaming activities will also become a norm for Internet Natives. 43 percent of Hooked Up Gen gamers purchase game-related virtual goods using virtual currencies. In 2011 the global virtual gaming goods and currencies business was valued at 13 billion dollars. Facebook is discovering that one of its primary growth businesses is running a virtual gaming economy: controlling, managing (and hopefully not manipulating) the value of multiple virtual currencies.
Currently males are far more likely to purchase virtual goods, but females are catching up quickly. An interesting side-note: among those Hooked Up Gen gamers who do not currently purchase virtual goods, 80 percent say they would do so if it were possible to earn virtual currencies by watching commercials during online games.
Educators and psychologists can and will debate the merits and problems related to gaming, but it's more valuable to focus on the reality. Gaming is already part of young people's lifestyles. Censorship and aggressive content controls, whether they be parental or governmental, will be a misdirected effort.
To put this in perspective, many arguments against gaming could be applied to any activity that becomes addictive for a small segment of the population. A passionate stamp collector who spends hours with a magnifying glass, stamp books and searching on eBay could be described as anti-social.
Growing pains are inevitable as Internet Generations integrate their native games into their culture. Internet Pioneers are active gamers. They are also the most socialized and possibly the most well-adjusted generation in history. They are the best educated and, according to several studies, the least violent in history. They are prepared for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.