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Why does the media still think video games are bad for kids?

Scott Steinberg says the media focuses on the negative aspects of video games instead of their redeeming qualities.
Scott Steinberg says the media focuses on the negative aspects of video games instead of their redeeming qualities.
  • Media attention focuses on the negatives of video gaming, author says
  • Gaming expert says video games "entertain and inform" kids
  • Another misconception: That games are only for kids, not adults, too
  • Expert: "Games ... can enhance the relationship between parent and child"
  • Video Games
  • Technology
  • Parenting

Editor's note: Scott Steinberg is the head of technology and video game consulting firm TechSavvy Global, as well as the founder of GameExec magazine and Game Industry TV. He frequently appears as an on-air technology analyst for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN. His most recent book is "Get Rich Playing Games."

(CNN) -- History has a funny way of repeating itself, especially when it comes to concerns over the cultural and psychological impact of video games on children.

In 1993, the Senate's hearings on video game violence gave birth to the Entertainment Software Rating Board and the industry's current rating system: E for everyone, M for mature (17 and older) and so on. Later this year, the U.S. Supreme Court will test the constitutionality of a California law that would make it illegal to sell violent video games to minors.

But what gaming insiders find most surprising isn't that such arguments remain topical. It's that some 30 years after video games became a popular form of mainstream entertainment, we're still liable to hear less about games' positive impact on kids' lives than sensationalistic accounts of their hidden dangers.

"Games are an amazing invention that entertain and inform in ways different than traditional media," says Joseph Olin, president of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. "But many critics have little or any experience with them and therefore don't understand where there could be artistic or educational value. No different than with film and TV, media sensationalism and ignorance can contribute to the fear that games are harmful to children.

"There's absolutely no scientific evidence showing a positive correlation between violence in individuals and the games they play," continues Olin, who points to studies from the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health, The Journal of Adolescent Health and The British Medical Journal.

Also, Olin says, nearly two-thirds of all games sold are rated E or E+, meaning they're found to be appropriate for players of all ages or children over 10 years of age, respectively

Researchers like David Thomas, who teaches critical video game theory at the University of Colorado, say the most curious misconception about the field is that games are strictly for juveniles. Such arguments -- the impetus for countless political battles -- ignore the fact that the average player is 35 years old, and more adult women play than teenage boys, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

Furthermore, according to the software association, 63 percent of parents believe that games positively impact their children's lives.

Games are simply a tool, Thomas argues, which, like any other implement, can be used for good or ill, and require reasonable balance and oversight.

"We live in a media-rich world, and video games are part of that diet," he says. "Kids are incredibly savvy these days. But being children, they still need guidance. Games can be beneficial to children as a modern form of media, albeit one that they need to learn how to use, cope with, contextualize and manage."

All too often overlooked in debates are the sizable educational and social benefits that games offer kids, says Winda Benedetti, who writes the Citizen Gamer column for

"A lot of parents are unfamiliar with gaming and afraid of the unknown," she says. "But games can be a huge positive for children, as long as you set reasonable limits. When my 3-year-old watches TV, he just passively zones out.

"But when he plays games, he's actively engaged, thinks about what's happening, talks to me about what's happening on-screen and takes away so much more from the experience. Games offer parents enormous untapped potential."

Experts say that playing video games helps develop kids' lateral thinking and decision-making skills. Children are also encouraged to discover and experiment at their own pace, failing and trying new approaches to solving virtual problems, which helps build confidence and self-esteem.

"Games aren't solely an entertainment medium anymore. [Many] emphasize cooperation and sharing, and encourage kids to learn economic basics," says Olin, referring to such popular kids' titles as "Animal Crossing" and "Club Penguin."

"Other games like 'LittleBigPlanet' foster creativity, while online games such as 'Toontown' teach lessons on teamwork and community, and the Professor Layton series focuses on critical thinking and puzzle solving," Olin says. "Games illustrate the concept of risk and reward in a manner that's comprehensible and engaging."

Nevertheless, journalists focus mostly on violence in games, says Ariella Lehrer, CEO of software publisher Legacy Interactive.

"Some of the complaints that games destroy a child's ability to concentrate or do harm to the developing brain are silly. The research is not completely clear, but in general, the data paints a very different picture," she says.

Ultimately, gaming experts say, whether games are beneficial or detrimental to kids comes down to fundamental playing habits, exposure to age-appropriate content and, most vitally, active parental involvement.

"Games are a social currency that can enhance the relationship between parent and child -- no different than any other medium," says Olin. Most parents know their kids' friends, the shows they watch and some of the music they listen to. I always recommend that they take the same approach with the games that their children play."

Lehrer, whose titles include sophisticated animal doctoring simulations such as "Pet Pals" and "Zoo Vet," says games for kids can be challenging and don't have to dumb down the experience for them.

Maybe it's time that we held the debate over the impact of video games on children's lives to the same standards.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Scott Steinberg.


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