Gentile: video games aren’t all good or all bad for kids. It’s much more complicated.


Douglas Gentile, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, has focused his research on the influence of violent media, including video games.

This week, Iowa State University researcher Douglas Gentile — who has focused much of his effort on the influence of video games — unveiled perhaps the most nuanced take on video games to date. His paper (PDF), published in the journal Child Development Perspectives, discusses five aspects of gaming that he says must be considered when deciding whether a game is “good” or “bad.” In fact, he says, most video games aren’t all-good or all-bad; they’re somewhere in between.

This new article comes on the heels of work he released in January studying the relationship between game “addiction” and depression.

When assessing your child’s video-game situation, consider the amount of time spent playing, the game’s content, the context in which the content is presented, the way the game is structured, and the way the game is played mechanically (mouse, joystick, simulator, etc.), Gentile says.

Here’s his example:

Consider a hypothetical situation where a 12-year-old boy spends a lot of time playing the violent game Grand Theft Auto:
* Because he spends a lot of time playing, we might predict poorer school performance.
* Because of the violent content, we might predict increased aggressive thoughts, feelings, and, ultimately, behaviors.
* If he plays with other friends online, this might enhance (or mitigate) the violence effect and could train teamwork skills.
* Because it is both a shooting and driving game, we might predict improved 2D to 3D transfer skills and improved visual attention skills.
* If he plays with a joystick, we might predict improved joystick skills (and perhaps improved hand–eye coordination)

Unfortunately, Gentile’s article relies on a less-than-nuanced interpretation of existing research. For example, he is working from the understanding that too many hours of gameplay are bad, and that violent games produce aggressive kids. However, even those who have conducted such research have argued that these may be correlated factors, rather than causative ones.

He writes:

It is likely that children who perform more poorly at school are likely to spend more time playing games, where they may feel a sense of mastery that eludes them at school. Nevertheless, each hour a child spends playing entertainment games is an hour not spent on homework, reading, exploring, creating, or other things that might have more educational benefit.

On the one hand, he seems to get what kids are looking for in the gameworld. On the other, he’s saying that games are universally less educational. What could be more educational than feeling a sense of mastery?

By contrast, author Jane McGonigal argues that the hours spent gaming are nothing but beneficial:

Gamers want to know: Where in the real world is the gamer’s
sense of being fully alive, focused and engaged in every moment? The real world just doesn’t offer up the same sort of carefully designed pleasures, thrilling challenges and powerful social bonding that the gamer finds in virtual environments. Reality doesn’t motivate us as effectively. Reality isn’t engineered to maximize our potential or to make us happy.

When it comes to game content — and he focuses especially on violent games — he cites the existing lengthy roster of research tolling the “violent games make kids aggressive” bell. Fortunately, even that can be wiped out if you’re playing with a friend, he says:

Conversely, if games include prosocial content where characters help each other in nonviolent ways, then this should predict prosocial behavior in both the short term and the long term, which studies have also demonstrated (Gentile et al., 2009). … Similarly, the social context in games might moderate the effects. For example, in massively multiplayer online (MMO) games such as World of Warcraft, one can play with thousands of other players. In these games, cliques form, either informally or formally within the game (sometimes called joining a ‘‘guild’’). Many of the game goals require multiple people to complete. This provides a social context for the game content. Therefore, if one is playing a game segment that requires violence to complete, the social context could moderate the effect.

However, he says this hasn’t adequately been studied. Sounds like he knows where his research is headed next.

Parents, Do you think about all these aspects when thinking about whether your child should play a certain video game? Have you noticed any positive aspects of your child’s gameplay? Share your stories in the comments.

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4 responses to “Gentile: video games aren’t all good or all bad for kids. It’s much more complicated.

  1. Hans Andersen

    “What could be more educational than feeling a sense of mastery?”

    How about *actual* mastery?

    The problem with the sense of mastery that comes from a video game is that you’re mastering something that was designed to be masterable, with a specific learning-curve and difficulty-curve that has been fine-tuned to give you a sense of accomplishment and reward in pursuit of a business model. They’re games, they’re designed to be fun so you will buy them. The mastery you achieve is wholly synthetic – constrained by the design-choices made by the video game’s authors. Can this kind of mastery translate into other contexts that aren’t themselves games? Maybe. Bad analogy time: Chess is a game, but it can teach patience, decisivness, and deep strategic thinking. But Chess isn’t a slickly-packaged Entertainment Product like most video games are.

    Time spent on the other activities that Gentile recommends can lead to a different kind of “sense of mastery”, one that is founded on overcoming unpredictable real-world problems. (When I say “real world” here I include writing imaginitive fiction, participating in dramatic performance, and learning computer programming. These are all creative acts that don’t deal so much with tangible objects, but are plenty “real world” compared to the synthetic world of a game.)

    • These are fair (and excellent) points. My thinking is this: take a kid (or adult for that matter) who is feeling hopeless or out of touch in the real world. Apply video games to build a sense of confidence and, yes, mastery. Then take that confidence back out into the real world. I think games can be “training” for just the kinds of things you’re talking about, and I know many gamers who went on to write books and programs and games because of their experience in gameworlds.

      My argument is less that the real world doesn’t hold its share of great and educational experience, more that I disagree with Gentile’s argument that games are somehow less educational or less worthy of our time. Particularly in light of McGonigal’s argument (which should be read in full to get the deeper sense of what she’s saying).

      • Hans Andersen

        I’m perfectly happy with the statement that games are less educational, and compared to many other activities I’ll also concede they are “less worthy”. I’m also happy with the statement that ice cream is less nutritious than spinach. That’s fine, I’ll have a spinach salad and then a root beer float for desert.

        I don’t really see a contradiction between McGonigal and Gentile here; I think that games are a fabulous way to spend your leisure time, as long as your life contains a balance of self-enrichment activities. For a school-age kid, the sense-of-mastery from a game can help you get through a rough patch at school… but if the time spent pursuing the joy of games gets to the point where it actively detracts from school work, well, in that case the games are clearly less worthy and must be dialed back. Relative worthiness only matters when the activities are in direct conflict.

      • I agree that balance of activities is a good idea. I don’t agree with the idea that games are, as a rule, less educational than other activities. 🙂

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