Little Gamers

Smart phones and tablets have placed gaming at the centre of our society. You don’t need to spend long on public transport to see someone playing ‘angry birds’ or ‘2048’, but what does this mean for our children? Are video games evil or could they help child development? Dr Bex Lewis investigates…

I still remember the excitement of my first go on a very basic game on a BBC computer (the one with the red button) at primary school in the 1980s. Anyone remember those? Looking at pictures of them now - their beige coloured boxy exteriors and small black and white screens – it’s hard to imagine getting excited by them! And yet I did - computers and all things digital have always fascinated me, and studying their impact and significance has been the occupation of most of my adult life.

More recently, my gaze has turned to the realm of gaming. Although I’ve never been much of a gamer myself, ‘Pac-man’, ‘Tetris’, ‘Angry birds’ and ‘Candy crush’ have certainly taken up a decent amount of my time. Millions of people, including large numbers of children, do love gaming however, and there’s an increasing amount of media focus on the topic, accompanied by research. This from Australia in 2013 is fairly typical: ‘For the eight to 11 yearolds we found that the top four sites were YouTube, Moshi monsters, Club penguin and Facebook, with the most popular activities being playing games, private messaging, posting comments and posting their own status updates.’ More recent reports estimate that children aged three to four are spending just over six hours a week playing games, rising to over nine hours for five to 15 year-olds, with games consoles being six times more important to boys than to girls. 

Research shows that children who play games for less than an hour a day are better adjusted than those who had never played, or those who played for over three hours a day 

There’s also been a shift in the way that people access the internet. Over 50 per cent of Brits now access the web via a tablet computer – up from around 30 per cent in 2013. Mobile, accessible, easy to use, with a large range of apps (over 500,000 on the iPad alone), and, these days, affordable - it’s no surprise that a large number of children access games via tablet devices. As children get older, particularly past the age of 12, there is a rise in the use of more dedicated games players and mobile phones. 

The Fear

Many of those I talk to with responsibility for children exhibit a certain amount of fear, because they believe that children ‘know’ how to use the internet, ‘speak a different language’, and therefore that we can’t interfere. Terms have been coined such as ‘digital natives’ or ‘net generation’ to describe this trend, all perpetuating the idea that every child knows what they are doing online because of their age. A more useful concept has developed from a team at Oxford University: that of the ‘digital resident’ and the ‘digital visitor’, defined more by attitude than by age. ‘Visitors’ use the internet as a tool: go in to complete a task, and leave. ‘Residents’ regard themselves as members of communities that exist online, rather than having access to an online toolbox.

I am most definitely a digital resident, though I’m far too old to be a ‘digital native’. The problem for all of us – digital residents or not – is that the digital world is no longer optional; as Martha Lane Fox said in the Dimbleby Lecture, ‘It’s not okay not to understand the Internet anymore.’ The fear around gaming and the digital realm at large is, I believe, misplaced. There are an overwhelming number of positives for children who spend time gaming.

The Positives

Diversity

Going back to those early computer games, they were limited by the capacity of the cassette they were distributed on, and could only be used locally. Contemporary computer games are designed to be limitless, to encourage users to play ‘just one more level’, to purchase ‘just one more add-on’ and intended for global audiences. In the past, adults would have introduced children to the world slowly: family and local neighbours first. With the internet, global connections can be made immediately, but the media, when it represents this as a problem, assumes that children are being thrown online without supervision. The expectation is that, as you would in any other space, you will create a ‘walled garden’ for your children when very young, allowing them to use only the websites and games that you have identified and bookmarked (a whitelist), relaxing this as they get older, and replacing supervision with discussion. Global friendships lead to opportunities to understand different cultures, and, as I can attest to, the possibility of deep, long-term friendships around the world.

In her 2008 report to the government, Professor Tanya Byron identified particular developmental points defined for children. Between the ages of five to 11, children start to develop relationships with those outside of the family, learning right and wrong, and distinguishing reality from fantasy. Children start to develop critical evaluation and self-management skills, seek greater freedoms, but still require boundaries. As the age of 11 hits and puberty makes itself known, the emphasis for children moves from the family to the external world, as they seek to develop independence, and a certain amount of experimentation is to be expected, including a desire to seek out age-restricted material. Research undertaken by Brunel University in 2007, looking at teenagers gaming online, identified opportunities to engage with a diverse range of people, hang out without physical danger, and experiment with their identities in a way that is impossible offline. 

Children can learn more through games as they are enjoying themselves and are engaged in what they are doing 

Education

In education, the term ‘gamification’ has become popular, indicating where game principles are applied to learning. It is recognised that children learn more in this way because they are enjoying themselves, and because they are engaged in what they are doing. ‘Guardians of Ancora’, the new game developed by Scripture Union, offers a virtual world (accessible on tablet devices) designed for eight to 11 yearolds, where they are challenged to find Bible stories that have been lost, deepening their Biblical literacy. There is a danger that ‘Christian’ versions of popular culture (games, books, films etc) can lose something in the desire to get the message across – I can’t be the only one who thinks that Jesus feels a bit ‘shoe-horned’ in sometimes. The team behind ‘Guardians of Ancora’, however, have clearly invested both in the quality of the game, to ensure that it is enjoyable, and the learning objectives, saying that the game allows users to ‘interact with more Bible stories and participate in activities that encourage them to reflect on God’s word, pray and respond’. Parents can play with their children, taking opportunities to discuss the plot, and asking what the children feel about what is happening, about the choices offered to them, and about the offline (real-world) consequences of wrong and illegal actions.

Development of wider skills

In 2014, Oxford University’s Internet Institute undertook a study of approximately 5,000 ten to 15 year olds and their game-playing habits. Those who play for less than an hour a day were better adjusted than those who had never played, or those who played for over three hours a day. The influence of video games was minimal when compared with more important factors, such as family function, material deprivation, and school experience. Journalist Pamela Whitby discovered that children who play games for an average of two hours per day have a wider circle of friends, do more physical activity, and do more homework than others, although those who spend more time than that demonstrate less fitness and more social isolation.

In playing games, children can also develop their hand-eye co-ordination, or, with logical games, cognitive improvements such as creative or lateral thinking, strategic skills and decision-making, or simply develop new knowledge in reading, writing and arithmetic. Children can learn to solve complex problems, to collaborate, and learn how to customise games, such as by designing new levels. They can learn the benefits of being part of a team, understand the different skills sets required to complete tasks, learn to share and take turns, and experience the fulfillment as they complete levels. They can practice persistence, take  responsibility for their decisions in a game, construct artifacts, as games such as ‘Minecraft’ offer the opportunity to do, or even construct elements of the game through learning programming. This feeling of achievement can translate into higher confidence, and an understanding of progress that can be translated offline.

I hope that these positives excite you. Don’t forget that games can simply be enjoyed, offering ways to unwind and escape in an over-structured world. Not everything has to be educational or developmental: it’s all about ensuring a balance of activities, online and offline.

GUIDELINES FOR CHILDREN GAMING

Age restrictions

The age that children access games is important. In a recent piece of research carried out by the London School of Economics,researchers found that younger children were less likely than older children to encounter online risks, but more likely to be affected by the risks they experience. Children aged nine and ten who access the internet with a smartphone or tablet were more likely to experience online risks than those who don’t.’

In 1998 PEGI was formed as a ratings system for games, ensuring that each are clearly labeled by age according to the content they contain, similar to DVD age-rankings. Most parents seem to use rules or rating systems for guidance rather than as absolutes, saying that the ratings enabled them to make an informed choice. The Byron review (2008) was keen to ensure that parents felt informed and confident about assessing the levels of risk in games for their children. This is something I’m passionate about, as better-informed parents are not only able to give their children a better online experience, but able to drive industry investment and continued innovation in the area of child safety in video games.

Types of games

There are ranges of computer games that players can get involved with, including massively multiplayer online (MMO), simulations, adventure, real-time strategy (RTS), puzzle, action, stealth, shooter, combat, first-person shooters (FPS), sports, role-playing (RPG), and educational games. Different types of games offer different opportunities, some educational, and some just for fun – although it’s possible for the two to exist together! Game-playing simply needs to be offered within a safe environment, observing that nowadays, playing inside the house is often seen as safer than playing out in the streets! If you’re looking for ideas of games, check out commonsensemedia.org/game-reviews, which offers age-appropriate guidelines, as well as reviews of the games themselves.

Game content

Gaming has been tainted by media representations, particularly tied to the perceived ‘dangers’, including violence, addiction, and the ‘unknown out there’. Life, however, is not risk free, and the internet, including games, is part of life for many people. As said earlier, the internet in general offers access to a wide range of viewpoints, with opportunities to learn to distinguish between good and bad content, to make choices about what to engage in and to develop ‘digital literacy’ – a core skill in contemporary life. Peer pressure in particular can be challenged when families or groups use stories raised through digital media – you should see some of the conversations I get involved in! Such conversations allow young people to identify and live out their core values, online and offline.

Addictive behaviour

Playing games is often associated with addiction, but addictive behaviour is typically symptomatic of other problems requiring discussion. Recognising behavioural change is important: gaming has taken over, the child has disconnected from typical family action, has muscle pains, sore eyes, may exhibit aggression – and often poor hygiene! We need to question whether ‘addiction’ is the right term. I grew up with my head in a book, but this was not seen as problematic. What is it about computer games that we see as so very different? Let’s ask ourselves that, and think about what positives they might gain from playing games, and the healthy boundaries we can put in place.

Boundaries

It is particularly important to talk through what is expected of children online, and the boundaries that they need to work within. I would encourage schools, youth groups and families to consider internet safety agreements: these, tied to particular levels of competence, have proven incredibly effective. The things that parents fear, including paedophilia and stranger danger, are more hyped in the media than they are in reality, but should give pause to children in handing out personal information, especially to those they have not met offline. Please don’t assume that children know it all, and if the guidelines for use are fair and clear, then quarrels over staying up late playing games don’t need to become an issue – you are still the responsible adult! Ensure that digital activity is seen as part of a healthy mix, rather than something that needs to be curtailed or feared – there is much to be enjoyed.



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