We spend 3 billion hours a week as a planet playing videogames. Is it worth it? How could it be MORE worth it?
Currently there are more than half a billion people worldwide playing computer and videogames at least an hour a day — and 183 million in the U.S. alone. The younger you are, the more likely you are to be a gamer — 99% of boys under 18 and 94% of girls under 18 report playing videogames regularly. The average young person racks up 10,000 hours of gaming by the age of 21 — or 24 hours less than they spend in a classroom for all of middle and high school if they have perfect attendance. It’s a remarkable amount of time we’re investing in games. 5 million gamers in the U.S., in fact, are spending more than 40 hours a week playing games — the equivalent of a full time job!
What accounts for the lure of games – and are we getting as much from our games as we’re giving them?
I believe that, for most gamers, playing games is, surprisingly not a waste of time — but rather quite productive. Gameplay may not contribute to the Gross Domestic Product, but scientific research shows that gameplay does contribute to our quality of life, by producing positive emotions (such as optimism, curiosity and determination) and stronger social relationships (when we play with real-life friends and family – especially if the game is co-operative). And for gamers who prefer tough, challenging games, they can build up our problem-solving resilience — so we learn faster from our mistakes, and become resilient in the face of failure.
Players who delve too deeply into their electronic worlds can face various health risks, ranging from deep vein thrombosis, or blood clots, to severe dehydration.
For instance, in July, a Taiwanese teenager was found dead after sitting for 40 hours in an Internet cafe playing “Diablo 3.” At the time, doctors speculated he died from a heart attack caused by a blood clot that formed during the long session.
And last summer, a 20-year-old man from the U.K. died from a blood clot after spending 12-hour sessions on his Xbox. His father told “The Sun” newspaper, “He lived for his Xbox. I never dreamed he was in any danger.”
While these are extreme cases, they are a reminder that sitting at a computer or console for days, whether it’s for “World of Warcraft” or for work, isn’t healthy for anyone. But psychologists who study video games and kids say parents needn’t worry about the amount of time spent gaming, unless screen time starts to affect school, health or social life. (And, of course, a stint of tens of hours gaming is likely to negatively affect schoolwork and lead to social woes.) That said, researchers remain concerned about the effects of violent content in video games, which have been linked by many studies to aggressive behavior.
These days, screens of one kind or another occupy youth for 50 hours a week, a 2010 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation reports. “It’s a full-time job plus 10 hours of overtime, and that’s the average,” said Douglas Gentile, a psychologist and director of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University.
Video-gaming consumed nine weekly hours for teens, the Kaiser survey found, while a Harris Poll conducted for Gentile during the same period reported 13 hours a week spent gaming on computers and consoles.
While some kids can shoot ’em up for hours, for others, too much time gaming leads to poor school performance. Recent studies have finally linked the cause and effect, showing that gaming displaces after-school academic activities such as homework and reading. A 2010 study from researchers at Denison University in Ohio, published in the journal Psychological Science, compared two groups of boys that had never owned gaming systems. They gave one group a system right away, but withheld games from the other group for four months. Boys who received the video-game system first had more teacher-reported learning problems and significantly lower reading and writing scores than the other boys.
Problems in school are relatively easy for parents to fix: Limit screen time — of course, if you can get the controller out of his or her hands. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours per day in front of any electronics.
What’s harder to control is violent content in video games. The Pew Research Center reported in 2008 that more than 90 percent of games rated as appropriate for children 10 years or older contained violence, including games rated “E” for everyone. (Most researchers define violence as the ability of a player to intentionally harm others in a game.)
Now most researchers will agree that video games can help as well as harm. For example, educational games boost learning, and action games can improve vision and spatial skills. Video games have also been used successfully to teach children self-care skills for asthma and diabetes.
And then there’s the primary reason people play video games: They’re relaxing. Gentile thinks the flickering screen and varying sound levels trigger a primitive brain response. “One of the reasons I think we find television and video games so relaxing is they provide the attention for you. It forces you to orient to the media. You don’t have to work to pay attention like you do in [a] classroom lecture,” said Gentile.
But a preponderance of evidence links violent video games to an increase in aggressive behavior in teens. The behavior wasn’t violent crime, like school shootings, but small yet hurtful offenses like teasing, name-calling, rumor-spreading and fist fights. In a review of 130 studies of kids and teens, Iowa State University researchers found that violent video games increased the likelihood of aggression and decreased empathy. The meta-analysis appeared in 2010 in the journal Psychological Bulletin.