Kelly Scott Moroz, December 2011The Video Game Debate

I can still remember the first time I laid eyes on a video game. It was in the late 1970s, I was around the age of five, and the game was called Pong. As my father connected the console to the television in my parent’s bedroom and the game appeared on their black and white television, I quickly learned that this game tapped into a level of instantaneous competitiveness that would leave me craving more. Soon thereafter came Atari, a console that came equipped with a single-button joystick and the game Combat, a two-person war game that looked like a couple of squares shooting dots at one another. Yet, even with the gameplay limitations of Atari, I can remember how my friend Antonio's parents used to put a padlock on his television console to limit his access to this addictive game until his school marks were at their desired level. Of course, both Antonio and his younger brother searched every square inch of his basement to find where his father hid the key to this source of competitive happiness, and we still played consistently behind their parent’s backs. Over the next 30 years up to the present, Atari has made way for systems with enhanced graphics and gameplay including ColecoVision , Nintendo, Sega, Sony Playstation, and X-Box, to name a few. One of the more obvious changes to these systems over time is that, more and more often, games do not have an endpoint to them; many of the games allow the users to explore different regions of the game and engage in different battles without ever having a conclusion. The one thing that has not changed since I was a young child, however, is the ongoing debate about whether video games are helpful or hurtful to the growing mind.

Those in favor of video games have argued that these activities enhance eye-hand coordination skills in a fun way. Many of the clients that we see at our office evidence magnificent challenges with team sports and understanding deeper nuances of social interaction; for these individuals, new age video games allow for a greater social aspect, as they permit individuals to team up or play against one another, even as they play in different households and talk through headsets. These parents argue that these gaming devices permit their children at least some aspect of a social life, which could be seen as a relief considering the constant turmoil their son or daughter may have gone through on the playground. For those parents who have a more negative view of video games, they might argue that video games tend to not only desensitize children to violence, but actually glorify such violence. They might also point out that, even though children might be playing these games online with one another, they are too often sacrificing the important social skills they can only develop in face-to-face situations. Whether parents are for or against video games, I have come to terms with the fact that there are certain situations and conditions that are better than others when it comes children and these games. I will first mention the situations that are not handled well.

The worst-case scenario, in my opinion, is one in which children have complete control of their gameplay time. The most significant challenges, as far as conflict between parents and their children, arise when children are permitted to play video games upon waking or shortly after returning home from school each day. For these families, attempting to get their children to do their homework, participate in some chores, or even come to the table for dinner can present as an excruciating battle. I have heard of a multitude of situations whereby parents are constantly reminding their child that their gameplay time is up and, after several requests appear to fall on deaf ears, the parent may eventually turn the console off themselves, which too often results in an unfortunate blowup.

I have also seen video games monitored and utilized much more successfully in other homes. The key to success often resides in parents’ ability to have complete control over when and how long video games are played. With their rewarding quality, it makes absolute sense for parents to treat video games as reward time. At its best, I have seen families rig the video game console to an electronic device that shuts the game off after an agreed amount of time (e.g., 30 minutes) has elapsed; these families often utilize a concrete timer to keep their child abreast of the time remaining. The thing that I notice most in this dynamic is that, rather than parents having to continuously hunt down their children to turn the game off, I find children seeking out their parents to beg them to extend the time limit for a few more minutes (the usual excuse is to give them proper time to save the game that they were playing). Because these games are so animated and immediately gratifying (scores being tallied continuously), there are probably some populations of children, such as those with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), who thrive even more on this form of entertainment. Of course, children with ADHD tend to thrive most in incentive-based systems; therefore, using video game time as a reward can actually enhance performance in other areas where the child is lacking motivation (e.g., chore or homework completion). In the traditional token economy system, for example, points are awarded throughout the day as children complete their required chores and routines. The children build up a bank of points, and each point equates to an agreed-upon amount of minutes playing video games. Between certain time frames (e.g., 6:30 – 8:30 pm nightly), children are allowed to cash in their points for as many minutes as they desire; they must tell their parents at the onset how many minutes they wish to purchase. Other parents have found success in utilizing a modified version of a reward system whereby they reward their children with video game time based on their performance in only one aspect of any given day, such as competing homework or getting through a dinner without conflict. In these situations, an overall rating (e.g., 4 out of 5) translates to various time values (e.g., 0, 5, 10, 15, 20, or 30 minutes). Clearly, these systems only work if parents are able to put the video game systems under lock and key, similar to how my friend’s parents once attempted. It is the parents’ responsibility to lock the game system down again each evening.

As in most reinforcing activities (e.g., young children obtaining treats, pre-teens talking on the phone, teens driving the family car, etc.), videogames can be seen as positive or negative depending on the situation, however, regardless of how they are seen, parents need to have the control over gameplay time. The best type of control is to use it as a reward.

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