Video and Computer Games and the Internet

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VIDEO AND COMPUTER GAMES AND THE INTERNET

Since the 1970s, video and computer games have developed into one of the favorite leisure activities among children and adolescents. However, the rapid rise in the popularity of video and computer games went together with a corresponding increase in the debate about their effects. Advocates usually view the games as a benign activity, with great potential to promote children's problem-solving capacities, their eye-hand coordination, and spatial abilities. Opponents are concerned that the games displace other, more valuable activities, such as homework and reading. They argue that the games hinder children's social interactions because they involve a solitary activity. Other critics believe that the games hinder children's creativity because the child player must follow preset rules to succeed. And finally, it is claimed that the games glorify violence and cause callousness and aggression in children.

In academic research, usually no distinction is made between a "video game" and a "computer game." A video game is played on hand-held machines, such as a Game Boy, or on dedicated systems that are plugged into the television, such as Nintendo or Sega. A computer game is played on a personal computer. Since the mid-1980s, however, most games are released for more than one system. Because the content, the quality of graphics, and the degree of realism in video and computer games are comparable, it has become irrelevant to consider them as separate media. In this entry, therefore, the term "computer games" is used to refer to both video and computer games.

Different Types of Computer Games

There are many different types of computer games, each of which may have their own distinctive qualities and effects. Some games have the potential to foster children's creativity and problem-solving skills, whereas other games can be harmful for young children. In order to understand the effects of computer games, it is necessary to have some insight to the different kinds of games that are available. The six most common game types are adventure, role-playing, platform, action, simulation, and puzzle.

Adventure games usually involve an elaborate quest for something valuable, such as a princess or the Holy Grail. The player must solve various riddles and puzzles and overcome many traps in order to reach the final goal. Exploration plays a major role in this category, whereas reaction time is usually less important. Adventures for teenagers and adults may contain a great deal of violence. Some educational adventures aimed at very young children are especially designed to foster creativity.

In role-playing games, the player is required to take on the role of one of the central characters, for example, a wizard or a knight. If the player plays alone, the computer performs the other roles. If the game is played with other children, everyone has his or her own role. Role-playing games usually occur in a fantasy world. Like adventure games, success in role-playing games usually is affected by exploration and problem-solving skills rather than reaction time. Dungeons and Dragons is one example of the games that fall into this category.

Platform games are usually based on the principle of avoiding, chasing, or eliminating characters and objects while jumping onto platforms. Reaction time and eye-hand coordination are important requirements in these games, which usually contain a lot of action. Well-known examples of games in this category are Mario from Nintendo and Sonic, The Hedgehog from Sega.

The main aim of action games is to destroy as many characters and objects as possible. In a so-called beat-'em-up, the player uses his or her fighting skills to kill the enemies who appear on the screen. A well-known example in this category is the one-to-one fighting game Mortal Kombat. In a so-called shoot-'em-up, the player must shoot the characters or objects on the screen (Doom and Wolffenstein are examples of games that fall into this category). A modern beat-'em-up or shoot-'em-up is a journey through a virtual labyrinth with the aim of hitting a maximum number of targets, such as armored cars, dogs, or aliens. The latest generation games are three-dimensional. A player views the game from the viewpoint of the central character, which encourages involvement.

The aim of simulation games is to imitate real-life situations as well as possible while taking into account the problems and pitfalls that can occur in such situations. There are many types of simulations available, some of which involve complex planning and decision making. In flight simulators, the player flies an aircraft or attacks an enemy plane. In sports simulations, such as a soccer game, the player takes on the role of one of the soccer players, while the computer deals with the remaining characters. In a strategic war simulation (e.g., Red Alert), the player is in the military. Finally, in conceptual simulations (e.g., Sim City 2000), the player must build and govern a successful organization, city, or park.

Puzzle games are often quite challenging. In addition to requiring good eye-hand coordination, these games require the player to think quickly and use logic and reasoning to plan future moves. A well-known example in this category is Tetris.

The Macho World in Video and Computer Games

Most video and computer games are obviously made for boys. Mark Griffiths (1997) has pointed out that the majority of computer games are designed by males for males. Virtually all super-heroes in computer games (especially the early ones) are forceful he-men with exaggerated macho characteristics. To the extent that females are present in the games, they consist of sweet princesses or helpless victims who must be protected or rescued from dangerous gorillas or other evil creatures. Females are usually depicted as a caricature: scantily dressed, with big breasts, curvaceous hips, and long legs.

In the more recent generation of games, females are more frequently portrayed in an active role. Some role-playing games for young children feature a female as the central character, for example, Barbie Super Model and Belle and the Beast. In some action games, players can choose a female warrior to act as their character. In the popular game Tomb Raider, for example, the merciless Lara Croft, a female archeologist, is the main character.

Does this shift to female macho fighters mean that girls feel comfortable with action games? There is no reason to believe that this is the case. The review by Griffiths (1997) of the literature on the demographics of video game use reports that males play video games significantly more often than females. According to Steven Schwartz and Janet Schwartz (1997), most games feature women in two extreme roles: victim or killer. Neither of these roles seems to attract girls.

Research on the playing of computer games suggests that until the age of eight years, boys and girls are equally attracted to computer games. This is understandable because many educational adventure games for young children are still "gender neutral." According to Jeanne Funk and her colleagues (1997), both boys and girls, as they mature, lose interest in these educational games. Boys then become interested in violent action games, and a much smaller number of girls start to play popular platform games and cartoon-like fantasy games. In fact, the time boys who are older than twelve years of age spend playing computer games is two to three times that spent by girls of the same age. Market research confirms these academic statistics. According to survey results published by Nintendo in 1992, 88 percent of the Super Nintendo players were males.

The considerable difference between boys and girls in their use of computer games has led to concerns among some researchers and educators. Patricia Greenfield (1984) has argued that, for most children, computer games are the entry point into the world of computers and technology. If children's computer literacy begins with playing computer games, it is a serious problem if girls get less opportunity to become familiar with these games. Therefore, Greenfield pointed out, there is an urgent need for computer games especially designed for girls. What kind of computer games would be appealing to girls? Research suggests that girls are less interested than boys in killing enemies. Girls are also less object oriented. They are less interested in devices, such as lasers, buttons, and futuristic weapons, which are common in computer games. According to Jack Sanger and his colleagues (1997), girls like real-life situations, and they are particularly interested in the development of relationships between characters. Girls are most interested in realistic, attractive characters, such as actresses, movie stars, male and female sports and music celebrities, and models. Games that take into account these preferences could stimulate girls to spend more time playing computer games.

The Effects of Video Games

Although there is still no consensus about the potential effects of computer games, many observers agree that the games might have both positive consequences (e.g., spatial ability, eye-hand coordination; creativity) and negative consequences (e.g., addiction, aggression).

Spatial ability refers to a child's competence in remembering the form of objects and understanding how these objects match with other objects or spatial positions. In virtually every intelligence test, a measure of spatial ability is included. Several studies have demonstrated that children who often play computer games perform better on tests of spatial ability. In a study by Lynn Okagaki and Peter Frensch (1994), a group of teenagers played the puzzle game Tetris for a total of six hours (in twelve separate sessions). None of the teenagers had had any prior experience with Tetris. After six hours of playing, the spatial ability of both boys and girls had improved. This benefit is not unique to puzzle games. Greenfield and her colleagues (1994) have demonstrated that other types of games also stimulate the spatial skills of the player.

Eye-hand coordination is the ability to execute rapidly with the hands what the eyes see. Eye-hand coordination is important for typewriting, but it is also important for operating a machine or navigating a plane. Some types of computer games, such as platform games and action games, require high levels of eye-hand coordination. The timing of the action is often a matter of split seconds. It is no surprise, therefore, that several studies have demonstrated that playing computer games improves children's eye-hand coordination.

Some parents and educators believe that computer games impair children's creativity because the games are played according to preset rules. They argue that children, who predominantly play rule games, do not get sufficient practice in "divergent" and "as if" experiences and that, as a result, their development of creative skills is impaired. Although it is important that children get the opportunity to practice divergent-thinking skills, it is wrong to suppose that all video and computer games have preset rules. In some computer games, children are given the opportunity to give free reign to their fantasies and ideas. They can draw, compose music, and create stories, and although nobody would recommend that parents should replace all real-life drawings and stories with computer-generated ones, there is little reason to assume that these computer games hinder children's creativity through lack of practice in divergent-thinking tasks. Many educational adventures or fantasy role-playing games are designed to foster imagination, and this is exactly what many game producers tell parents in their product information. Although no academic research has tested whether such computer games actually do what their producers claim, it is possible that educational computer games designed to foster imagination have a potential to encourage children's creative capacities.

A common argument against the playing of computer games is that it is addictive. Computer game addiction consists of a compulsive involvement in the game, a lack of interest in other activities, and physical or mental symptoms when attempting to stop playing (e.g., restlessness or aggression). There is some evidence that computer games displace other activities, such as television viewing and reading. However, for the majority of children, these effects are short-lived. A study by Gary Creasey and Barbara Myers (1986), in which computer game users were compared with nonusers, demonstrated that a newly introduced video game computer in the home mainly displaced television viewing and movie attendance. The study also found that early decreases in other activities, such as television viewing, started to disappear after several weeks when the games were no longer new. However, for a small group of children, interest in computer games does not wane after a few weeks. According to Griffiths (1997), there is no doubt that a small minority of children becomes addicted to computer games. For these children, playing computer games can take up considerable time that would otherwise be used for all kinds of valuable activities. Although many researchers have observed computer addiction, there is as yet no consensus about the prevalence of such addiction among children and adolescents.

Violence is a common theme in most computer games. According to Eugene Provenzo (1991), more than 85 percent of the leading Nintendo games has violence as a main theme. Since the mid-1980s, increasingly more computer games contain realistic and explicit violence aimed at humans. In a game such as Night Trap, for example, it is the goal to hang female characters on a meat hook. In Carmageddon, the player must run over and kill as many pedestrians as possible to earn points and credits. Because the new generation of computer games uses more explicit representations of extreme violence, the issue of whether playing violent games leads to aggressive behavior is ever more important. In the past, media effects researchers have progressively reached the consensus that exposure to television violence can result in aggressive behavior. Although there are some obvious differences between television viewing and the playing of computer games, the violence portrayed in both media contains similar characteristics. For example, both television programs and computer games often portray violence that is rewarded, justified, and realistic. It is no surprise, therefore, that a meta-analysis by John Sherry (1997) has demonstrated that playing violent computer games indeed encourages aggressiveness among players. According to Sherry's results, the effect of violent computer games on aggressiveness is dependent on the type of violence portrayed. Violence directed at humans leads to a greater effect than fantasy or sports violence.

The Internet

The Internet is the fastest-growing medium among both children and adolescents. According to online industry research, 54 percent of teenagers were expected to be online by the end of the year 2000, and this percentage is expected to grow rapidly in subsequent years. In North America, more than 13.7 million children and teenagers were expected to be online by 2001, with an increase to 36.9 million by 2005 (Nua, 2000).

The arrival of each new medium has brought public concern about its influence on children. The debate about whether the Internet is beneficial or dangerous for children is a controversial topic, and it is not guided by any academic research. Many teachers and educators agree that the Internet can offer children many educational opportunities. Children can learn about virtually any topic. In a survey study among nine-to twelve-year-olds that Patti Valkenburg and Karen Soeters (2000) conducted, information-seeking proved to be the second most important reason for using the Internet. One hundred and ninety-four children who were already online were asked why they used the Internet. Children reported that they often use the Internet to learn something, or to search for information related to their homework, hobbies, and idols.

Unlike television and computer games, which only involve the risk of exposure to inappropriate material, the Internet has two additional risks: harassment online and harassment offline. Harassment online refers to frightening or demeaning messages directed at the child. Harassment offline can occur when children give out their telephone numbers, addresses, or credit card numbers. In the above-mentioned survey, children were asked how frequently they had been confronted with unpleasant situations on the Internet. Approximately 14 percent of the children responded that they had experienced something unpleasant while using the Internet; 8 percent mentioned that they had been confronted with shocking websites, including horror and pornography; 3 percent mentioned that they had been threatened online by other children or adults; but none of the Internet users in this sample had experienced offline harassment.

Conclusion

It is evident that computer games and the Internet have positive and negative consequences for children. Whether or not children will benefit from computer games and the Internet depends to a large extent on how they use these media and what type of content is involved. When used improperly, computer games and the Internet can be problematic. When used in the right way, both computer games and the Internet can have a great potential for entertainment and education.

See also:Children's Creativity and Television Use; Computer Literacy; Computer Software, Educational; Dependence on Media; Gender and the Media; Internet and the World Wide Web; Ratings for Video Games, Software, and the Internet; Violence In the Media, Attraction to; Violence In the Media, History of Research On.

Bibliography

Greasey, Gary L., and Myers, Barbara, J. (1986). "Video Games and Children: Effects on Leisure Activities, Schoolwork, and Peer Involvement." Merill Palmer Quarterly 32:251-262.

Greenfield, Patricia M. (1984). Mind and Media: The Effects of Television, Computers and Video Games. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Greenfield, Patricia M.; Brannon, Craig; and Lohr, David. (1994). "Two-Dimensional Representation of Movement through Three-Dimensional Space: The Role of Video Game Expertise." Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 15:87-103.

Griffiths, Mark D. (1997). "Video Games and Children's Behaviour." In Elusive Links: Television, Video Games, Cinema, and Children's Behaviour, eds. Tony Charlton and Kenneth David.Gloucester, Eng.: GCED/Park Publishers.

Funk, Jeanne B.; Germann, July N.; and Buchman, Debra D. (1997). "Children and Electronic Games in the United States." Trends in Communication 2:111-127.

Nua. (2000). "Internet Surveys." <http://www.nua.net/surveys>.

Okagaki, Lynn, and Frensch, Peter A. (1994). "Effects of Video Game Playing on Measures of Spatial Performance: Gender Effects in Late Adolescents." Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 15:33-58.

Provenzo, Eugene, Jr. (1991). Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sanger, Jack; Willson, Jane; Davies, Bryn; and Whittaker, Roger. (1997). Young Children, Videos and Computer Games: Issues for Teachers and Parents. London: Falmer Press.

Schwartz, Steven A., and Schwartz, Janet. (1994). Parent's Guide to Video Games. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing.

Sherry, John. (1997). "Do Violent Video Games Cause Aggression? A Meta-Analytic Review." Paper presented at the International Communication Association, Montreal, Canada.

Valkenburg, Patti M., and Soeters, Karen E. (2000). Children's Positive and Negative Experiences with the Internet. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam, Department of Communication.

Patti M. Valkenburg

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