( High-tech parenting writer Scott Steinberg, a professional keynote speaker and business consultant, is launching a new book series, "The Modern Parent's Guide," and a companion video show, "Family Tech: Technology for Parents and Kids." The following is excerpted from "The Modern Parent's Guide to Kids and Video Games," which will be free to download at www.ParentsGuideBooks.com in February 2012.)
Opinion by Scott Steinberg:
In addition to understanding the many real concerns that today's parents have with video games, it's also worth considering the benefits and positive aspects that contemporary interactive entertainment choices provide.
Certainly, many popular titles today are M-rated and intended for discerning adults, given the average age of today's gaming audience. But the vast majority of games can be played by a broad range of ages and still manage to be fun and engaging without resorting to foul language or violence.
"Games can definitely be good for the family," says the ESRB's Patricia Vance. "There's plenty of selection. Oftentimes I think parents feel that they're not because video games in the media are portrayed as violent, and hardcore games tend to get the lion's share of publicity. But parents also need to be comforted knowing that E for Everyone is by far largest category [of software]. Nearly 60 percent of the almost 1,700 ratings we assigned last year were E for Everyone, which means there's a huge selection of games available that are appropriate for all ages."
In fact, most video games do have quite a few redeeming qualities - even those with violent content. All games can and do have benefits for players, and in a number of different and sometimes surprising ways.
Educational Benefits for Students
A recent study from the Education Development Center and the U.S. Congress-supported Ready To Learn (RTL) Initiative found that a curriculum that involved digital media such as video games could improve early literacy skills when coupled with strong parental and teacher involvement. Interestingly, the study focused on young children, and 4- and 5-year-olds who participated showed increases in letter recognition, sounds association with letters, and understanding basic concepts about stories and print.
The key for this study was having high-quality educational titles, along with parents and teachers who were equally invested in the subject matter. That way kids could discuss and examine the concepts that they were exposed to in the games. Also interesting is the value that video games are proven to have even for very young players. A study by the Education Department Center further found that low-income children are "better prepared for success in kindergarten when their preschool teachers incorporate educational video and games from the Ready to Learn Initiative."
Older children such as teens and tweens can benefit from gameplay as well. Even traditional games teach kids basic everyday skills, according to Ian Bogost, associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founder of software maker Persuasive Games. "Look at 'World of Warcraft': You've got 11-year-olds who are learning to delegate responsibility, promote teamwork and steer groups of people toward a common goal."
Games that are designed to help teach are having an impact on college-age pupils as well. Following a recent 3D virtual simulation of a US/Canadian border crossing, wherein students assumed the role of guards, Loyalist College in Ontario reported that the number of successful test scores increased from 56 percent to 95 percent.
Educational Benefits for Adults
Surprise: Adults can learn something and benefit from video games, too.
As mentioned earlier, research underway by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) indicates that video games can help adults process information much faster and improve their fundamental abilities to reason and solve problems in novel contexts. In fact, results from the ONR study show that video game players perform 10 percent to 20 percent higher in terms of perceptual and cognitive ability than non-game players.
As Dr. Ezriel Kornel explains on WebMD.com, playing certain video games (e.g. Brain Age or Guitar Hero) can also improve hand-eye coordination, enhance split-second decision making and even, potentially, boost auditory perception. Just playing isn't enough, though, says Dr. Kornel. The key is that you have to be improving each time you play, because in order to improve you have to be learning.
"Anytime the brain is in learning mode," Kornel says, "there are new synapses forming between the neurons. So you're creating thousands of connections that can then be applied to other tasks as well."
Someday, a video game might even save your life, as games are already benefiting students and practitioners in the medical field too. A study published in the February edition of Archives of Surgery says that surgeons who regularly play video games are generally more skilled at performing laparoscopic surgery. In addition, according to Dr. Jeffrey Taekman, the director of Duke University's Human Simulation and Patient Safety Center, "serious games and virtual environments are the future of education."
Besides offering medical students the ability to practice on patients (which is much safer in the digital world), simulations offer health care providers several upsides. Chief among them, Taekman says, are the abilities to make choices, see results and apply information immediately.
Beyond allowing for greater scalability and group collaboration than traditional classrooms, every decision made in a virtual world, he continues, can be tracked and benchmarked against best practices, then standardized or archived for others' review. "The traditional textbook will soon become passé," he suggests. "Gaming platforms will offer an interactive way for students to learn and apply information in context."
Other carefully-designed studies have also shown that action video games can improve several aspects of brain activity, including multitasking. According to studies by Daphne Bavelier, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, video gamers show real-world improvements on tests of attention, accuracy, vision and multitasking after playing certain titles.
"If you think about it, the attentional and working memory demands of video games can be much greater than other tasks," says Michael Stroud, a professor of psychology at Merrimack College. "Consider Pac-Man as an example. In Pac-Man, you must navigate your character through a spatial layout while monitoring the separate paths of four additional objects (the ghosts), while keeping the overall goal of clearing the small pellets in memory, as well as keeping track of the remaining large pellets."
"Think about how this may apply to skills such as driving," he continues. "When you drive your car, you are faced with a constantly changing environment in the road, not to mention several other distractions that compete for attention that reside in the car. At the same time, you are attempting to navigate through the environment to reach a goal."
Games with broad appeal that are easy to grasp can additionally help many families play together, and better bridge the gap between generations. Consider a title like hip-wiggling simulation Just Dance, which can have young kids dancing alongside their grandparents.
There are also many games that have positive social messages that encourage families to be a force for good. In a series of experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that participants who had just played a "pro-social" game in which characters must work together to help each other out as compared to those who had just played a "neutral" game (e.g. Tetris) were more likely to engage in helpful behaviors. Examples included assisting in a situation involving an abusive boyfriend, picking up a box of pencils or even volunteering to participate in more research.
So-called "serious games," specifically designed to teach and inform, are also having an impact on the world. Titles like the United Nations' Food Force teach kids about real-life issues, humanitarianism and the practical challenges facing governments and private organizations today. In the game, children must complete six different missions that reflect the real-life obstacles faced by the World Food Programme in its emergency responses. Other games, like Nourish Interactive's online Chef Solus and the Food Pyramid Adventure, teach kids about the benefits of healthy eating habits, while still more highlight pressing geopolitical and social issues, e.g. the Global Conflicts series.
Upsides can even extend into the physical world. Consider Facebook game Ecotopia. In summer 2011, players of the popular social game met a challenge from its creators and planted 25,000 trees in the game world in 25 days, leading the game's developer to plant 25,000 trees in real life.
Future career choices for today's tots will no doubt be influenced by technology in a way that is difficult for many parents to imagine too. Skills learned and honed playing home console and video games, as well as mobile gaming apps, will undoubtedly be very valuable to students in the workforce of 2025.
As mentioned earlier, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) has proclaimed that kids need more, not less, video game play. They argue that video games hold the potential to help address one of America's most pressing problems - preparing students for an increasingly competitive global market.
"The success of complex video games demonstrates that games can teach higher-order thinking skills such as strategic thinking, interpretative analysis, problem solving, plan formulation and execution, and adaptation to rapid change," the Federation announced in a 2010 report. "These are the skills U.S. employers increasingly seek in workers and new workforce entrants."
Games are increasingly being used to educate and instruct workers around the globe by governments, trade bodies and the world's largest corporations as well. From Cisco Systems' The Cisco Mind Share Game, which facilitates network certification, to the US Department of Justice's Incident Commander, in which emergency responders practice coordinating disaster relief efforts, the number of practical examples continues to grow. In fact, a recent study by the Entertainment Software Association found that 70 percent of major domestic employers have utilized interactive software and games for training purposes, and nearly eight out of 10 plan on doing so by 2013.
Going forward, in addition to polishing your resume and interview skills, who knows? You may even want to brush up on your button-mashing abilities.
Encouraging Cooperation and Teamwork
Many games today also emphasize the cooperative aspects of game play, in which two or more players need to work together in order to reach a common goal. For instance, games like Lego Star Wars or Kirby's Epic Yarn are enhanced by having players cooperate to solve in-game puzzles.
Massively multiplayer games such as LEGO Universe and Lord of the Rings Online further offer added depth, atmosphere and enjoyment by allowing players to band together and work as a team in order to complete certain quests or defeat especially tricky opponents. Game industry analysts such as DFC Intelligence actually predict that video game revenue will reach nearly $70 billion by 2015, thanks in large part to these online, cooperative, subscription-based games that can be played together. Small wonder top titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Titan (the next MMO from Blizzard, the company that created World of Warcraft) continue to resonate so strongly with millions worldwide.
Even the way that games are made can encourage teamwork. At Washburn University in Kansas, students study the game development process as a way to build teamwork and collaborative skills.
"It taught me to work in a group," said Washburn student Adam Bideau of the program in a recent interview with the Washburn Review. "Video games are not created by just one person and they require you to work well with others. You have to pool everyone's talents together in order to produce the required product."
Researchers from McGill University's Department of Psychology have created and tested computer games that are specifically designed to help people enhance their self-acceptance. The researchers drew on their experience playing repetitive computer games and devised novel counterparts that would help people feel more positive about themselves.
Even games that aren't specifically designed to do so can still help kids feel a sense of achievement, based simply on the basic principles involved in what makes a good game. Through puzzles, exploration and discovery, players learn to succeed in ways that some researchers say our brains actually prefer. Most games are designed to introduce a concept, such as jumping, and then provide players with an opportunity to master it. Players are then free to explore and utilize and achieve success with this new skill, growing in self-confidence all the while.
All parents know that kids need a healthy combination of physical and mental exercise. Happily, today's motion-controlled games for Microsoft's Xbox 360 Kinect, Nintendo's Wii and Wii U, and Sony's PlayStation Move help kids get both kinds of workouts at the same time.
Better yet, people of all ages are finding them a more approachable way to stay physically fit. While many shy away from exercise because they see it as an activity that isn't enjoyable, organizations like the American Heart Association now cite, and even recommend, video games as a fun and entertaining way to enjoy physical activity.
Upsides of active play are considerable too. A study reported in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine of 39 Boston middle-school children who played with six different interactive gaming systems found that the games "compared favorably with walking on a treadmill at three miles per hour, with four out of the six activities resulting in higher energy expenditure."
Organizations supporting individuals of all ages and interests are additionally using active games to help get people up and moving. Nursing homes, cruise ships and even after-school programs all now employ active video games in some form to help stimulate both the mind and body.
The good news: People seem to be enjoying active play more than ever. Healthy diversions such as Wii Fit and Zumba Fitness continue to be some of the most popular and best-selling games year in and out.
Group and Social Play
Video games can also have some very important effects on family relationships, and deserve to be thought of as something that can - and should - be played together.
It's always seemed obvious to families that activities like playing board games, make-believe, or even making music together could strengthen the family bond. But many parents view video games as a solitary, sedentary, time-wasting activity, when the truth is that video games have in fact emerged as a viable option for family game time that can potentially offer great benefits to families who are willing to enjoy them together. You won't be alone if you do decide to take the plunge either. According to the ESA, 45 percent of parents play computer and video games with their children at least weekly, an increase from 36 percent in 2007.
Families that embrace playing video games as part of their everyday life are likely to find themselves enjoying a greater sense of cohesion and communication than families who still view video games as an idle, meaningless and solitary pursuit. As a result, it's small wonder that so many in this day and age are putting away the cards and dice and turning to high-tech alternatives for modern family game nights.
Moving, thinking, cooperating, helping, learning, empathizing, growing, seeing the world from other perspectives… video games can help kids and families do all these things and more. So talk to your friends, do the research and seek out games that your family likes to play and that you as parents are comfortable with, then consider making play a part of your regular routine. Chances are, you won't just have a great time - you'll also make lasting memories and connections with your kids while doing so.