Hardcore video-gaming: is it saving kids from violent street life, or ruining a generation?

In Somalia, boys face more danger out on the streets than they do in front of the game console. Is that true elsewhere? Photo by Flickr user tkru.

Somalia has been known for years as a place of extreme violence and lawlessness. Since civil war broke out in 1991, all people were at risk, but particularly young people, who faced either being recruited to fight or being caught in the crossfire.

Now that some cultural sanctions have lifted, Somali boys are playing video games — and many adults are glad. Well, kind of:

Some parents say the video games are helping to keep teens off the street, which in turn lowers the chances they might be recruited by al-Shabab. But many teens admit to skipping class to practice their gaming skills.

Although there are downsides to skipping school, of course, there’s one major upside: schools are where kids are most likely to be recruited into the al-Shabab militia, where they would be required to fight.

Mohamed Deq Abdullahi, a father of two teens, watched his boys play a soccer video game in a sweltering parlor on a recent sunny day. He sees the boys’ new hobby as a beneficial development.

“This is his daylong activity because I don’t want him get bored and go to war,” Abdullahi said. “The busier they stay the more tired they get and the more they ignore violence.”

The article doesn’t say so, but I suspect there’s another benefit to these kids’ gameplay: it allows them to process the violence of the past 20 years, all they’ve ever known, in a safe way, without real-life consequences. That’s much healthier for them than getting behind a real machine-gun and being told to fight their countrymen.

In that light, what can we make of a recent CNN article blaming video games (and porn) for “ruining a generation of young men?” It claims that too much gaming sets up players (only male players, for some reason) for addiction — specifically, “arousal addiction,” where gamers need more video games to reach the same “high.”

Oddly, the article cites Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik as a prime example of this phenomenon, even though he doesn’t exemplify the average gamer at all:

Norwegian mass murder suspect Anders Behring Breivik reported during his trial that he prepared his mind and body for his marksman-focused shooting of 77 people by playing “World of Warcraft” for a year and then “Call of Duty” for 16 hours a day.

… Except that it’s not clear whether Breivik was telling the truth. After all, in his manifesto he advised people who were training for similar terrorist attacks to claim they were keeping themselves busy with video games, when in fact they were planning things out. It’s also worth noting, in light of the Somalia piece, that if Breivik had been playing video games all day on July 22, 2011, 77 people might still be alive.

It’s true that playing hours upon hours of video games is likely to have some consequences. Kids who play this much miss out on other things. But it’s important to remember that they’re also getting many important things — positive things — out of that gameplay, and that the things they’re missing out on might be much, much worse. Somalia isn’t the only place where kids can get caught in the crossfire. In inner-city areas where gangs hold power, the risks for kids are quite similar. Research shows there’s less youth violence and crime in places where video games are easy to come by.

What “ruins” kids more: playing video games until their arms are sore, or jailtime and violence?


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