Menu Close

From placenta to play centre

Do video games corrupt childhood?

Nolan Bushnell was born in 1943, a child of wartime America.

The son of a cement contractor, Bushnell dutifully took over the family concrete business at the age of 15 when his father passed away. But inventing was his first love. Famed in his neighbourhood as a dreamer, Bushnell’s most notorious experiment during his school years was a rollerskate-mounted liquid-fuel rocket, which very nearly burnt down the family garage.

Bushnell attended the University of Utah, where he learnt the basics of computer graphics while working part-time at an amusement park. This appeared to be the perfect mixture of academic experience, real-world knowledge, and ‘right-time, right place’, which led to a game-changing idea in the early 1970s: computers didn’t just have to be the domain of universities and the stock market; they could be used for fun as well.

In 1971, Bushnell teamed with Ted Dabney to create their first video game, “Computer Space”. But the game was too complex and cumbersome for mass production, and proved to be a commercial failure. Unperturbed, Bushnell sought to remedy the shortcomings of “Computer Space, and his ‘aha’ moment came at a computer electronics show in Burlingame, California , where he came across the world’s first commercial video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey, and played its version of ping pong. Immediately, he saw the potential.

After a summer of hard-work, Bushnell, Dabney and engineer Al Acorn had simplified the electronic ping pong game, and had a prototype ready to test in the market.

The market they chose was Andy Capp’s bar in Sunnyvale California – a watering hole elegantly described by Harold Goldberg as "a place where you’d take your girlfriend…but not on a first date”. After wheeling the contraption up next to the pinball machine, there was nothing to do but wait and see whether the barflies played.

And play they did, feeding the machine coin after coin to prove to their own egos (and to the other eyeballs in the room) that no machine could conquer them. In the end, so many quarters were fed into the slot that the machine jammed up, leaving many egos intact, given that they ‘would have beaten the machine next time, if only it hadn’t stopped working’.

The birth of Pong in 1972 heralded the dawn of the video game, and with it came a revolution in how children spent their spare time.

Pong, 1972 version (Atari)

Video Games and children

We may never know whether this folktale is true or not, but it certainly makes for a great story about the birth of phenomenon that has changed childhood forever.

Video games are everywhere. From their birth in the early 1970s, it is now estimated that 88% of households have a ready and accessible means of playing video games. Such astronomical growth of any social phenomena will always raise community concern regarding health effects on children in particular. (Cast your mind back to the hullaballoo when rock-and-roll – or, more accurately, Elvis Presley’s hips – first popped up).

So, how much do we know about how video games affect child development?

Certainly, “gaming” has received its fair share of bad press, having being blamed for any number of events, ranging from the Columbine shooting tragedy, to the epidemic of child obesity and “poor performances” by elite athletes.

But what does the science say?

(My own declaration here is that I have never been much of a “gamer”. In fact, it was a colleague of mine who had the idea for this column, after watching her usually articulate, 30-something fiancé become spellbound by a video game on an otherwise romantic getaway).

The science

The first thing to be made clear is that the question of “whether video games are bad for children” is somewhat of an inappropriate line of enquiry. The effects of video games on children run no more along a dichotomy of good and bad, than the effects of television, sport or parenting. The rather unsatisfying answer to such a broad question is that it depends.

A key researcher in this field is Douglas Gentile, who has suggested that the effects of video games on children – good or bad – vary according to five factors: amount, content, context, structure, and mechanics. So, whereas increased amount of game play can have negative effects such as poorer school performance and risk of obesity, the structure of a game may actually improve cognitive skills, such as visual attention.

Flickr/Sean Dreilinger

Violent video games

Perhaps the greatest area of public concern is the effect that violence in video games may have on gamers. Certainly, one could imagine that obliterating a baddie on a computer screen with a pump-action shotgun, may have greater effects on a child than “shooting” one’s sibling in the backyard with a conveniently-shaped stick during a game of “cops and robbers”. But, again, what does the science say?

To answer this question, I went straight to a recent meta-analysis, which combined the findings of 136 studies (yes, 136!) - including over 130,000 participants – to come to some consensus. To my mind, the meta-analysis revealed four important findings:
1) The playing of violent video games was associated with an increased level of aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviours among gamers.
2) Studies following individuals over time revealed that violent video games appear to be, at least in part, causal of aggression problems in gamers;
3) These same studies found that violent games may also cause a reduction in prosocial behaviours among gamers.
4) Children may be more susceptible to these effects than adults.

This was quite sobering reading, particularly given the clarity of the findings, and how forcefully they were conveyed by the authors, e.g., “The evidence strongly suggests that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behaviour…”. Ouch!

Of course, one play on a violent video game does not a Charlie Sheen make. Far from it! And it is important to remember that there are many factors that can influence this relationship: gender, personality, family background and various aspects of game-play (not least of which is the time spent playing the game). Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that violent video games can promote aggression among players, with children being particularly susceptible.

The third point above gave me particular cause to ponder. Prosocial behaviour – voluntary behaviour intended to help another – is crucial to the functioning of human communities. The findings of this meta-analysis indicate that not only can violent games lead to increased aggression, they can also make us less likely to help one another.

Prosocial video games

But before we get all doom and gloom, I came across a terrifically exciting area of research. It seems that just as playing violent video games can lead to worse behaviour in some people, so can playing prosocial games promote prosocial behaviours!

A nice study here is again by Gentile and colleagues, who asked some students to play violent video games for 20 minutes, and other students to play video games more “prosocial” in nature for the same amount of time. After playing each game, the students were told that they were to choose a range of puzzles for another to solve (the “partner”). Gamers were told that some of the puzzles were easy, some were sort of difficult, and some were difficult, and that if their partner gets a certain number of puzzles correct they (the partner) would get a $10 gift certificate (lucky ducks!).

What did they find?

Yep, you guessed it: gamers who played violent games chose harder puzzles for their partners, while gamers who played a prosocial game tended to choose easier puzzles for their partner.

I hope their partner shared the gift certificate!


So, video games: a force for good or bad?

The answer is a resounding both.

Yes, there is accumulating science showing that video games can have a detrimental effect on gamers. While I focused on evidence that aggression can be a byproduct of playing violent games, there is also considerable research on other potentially negative effects of long-term video game use, such as increased risk for obesity.

But, video games can also provide valuable learning opportunities, both through the content of the games, and also through the social experiences that gaming can foster (playing video games isn’t the socially isolating experience that it once was!). What’s more – and this is no small thing - video games give hundreds of millions of people around the world an enormous amount of joy. It would be a terrible shame, indeed completely ludicrous, to forbid children to undertake an activity that can also have tremendously positive effects.

So, how can parents approach their children’s use of video games? Here are my recommendations (and these have been pulled together with the help of numerous colleagues):
1) Know your child Each child will respond to differently to different situations.
2) Know the game ratings/classifications They are there for a reason.
3) Be mindful of the research and use it as one factor in your decision making.
4) Set time limits Everything in moderation.
5) Talk to other parents There is a wealth of knowledge standing right next to you at the school gates.

I doubt that Nolan Bushnell and other video game pioneers knew the extent to which Pong would change the world. Video games aren’t the root of all evil – far from it - but I do think society would be served well by monitoring game use in children (and 30-something fiancés) with some interest.

Click HERE if you would like to be on the mailing list for this column.
If you would like to receive updates from the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, please click HERE.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 175,100 academics and researchers from 4,818 institutions.

Register now