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Are video games a problem for children?

Should you be worried if your son or daughter is glued to their Xbox or PSP? Should you restrict their daily game time, or just the kind of games they play? And, despite their bad press, can video games actually be good for children? Dan Roberts asked one of the UK’s leading video game experts for answers.

If you believed everything you read in the papers, you’d never let your kids play video games again. Every week seems to bring a new story about research linking them with everything from childhood obesity to bullying and ADHD – even American-style campus killings.

But are they really that bad, or do we need to take those stories with a large pinch of salt? And if certain games do have a negative effect on children, what should we do – ban gaming altogether, or just use a little common sense about what we let our kids run on their Wii or PS3?

We spoke to Judith Good, a computer games expert and senior lecturer at the University of Sussex, to try and uncover the truth behind the headlines.

 

Are all video games bad news?

Definitely not. As with everything in life – and certainly in being a parent – a little common sense goes a long way. Most of those sensationalist headlines concern games like Thrill Kill (which was so gratuitously violent that developer EA withdrew it from the market), Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt, which no child should be playing anyway.

Judith admits that games like these are a no-no for youngsters. "Violent games definitely have some effect on people who play them," she says. "Research shows that, like violent movies and TV programmes, violent video games do increase aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviour in the short term - although whether they have any long-term impact is not yet known."

But she insists that it’s up to us, as parents, to monitor the games our kids play. "Violent games are clearly inappropriate for children. So we have to keep an eye on what our kids are playing – we monitor the TV they watch, so we need to monitor the games too."

 

Should I restrict how much they play?

Again, this is about common sense – and knowing what’s best for your own child. Most kids, especially when they’re younger, will play on the PC or PlayStation for a bit and then turn to something else.

And, according to Judith, there’s no harm in a small amount of mindless gaming after a long day at school. "Sometimes kids want to play something mindless to relax, just like we watch a bit of mindless TV to unwind after a stressful day. That’s not so bad in small doses," she says.

If your son or daughter is glued to their Nintendo DS for 12 hours a day, you clearly need to ration their gaming. This is more likely the older they get, so you may need to keep an eye on your preteen or teenage child and make sure they also read, play with friends, get some exercise and fresh air, and so on.

 

Can games be good for kids?

Yes, especially some of the more intelligent games on the market. Playing games can be a great way to teach your child how to use a PC, for example.

 

And Judith insists that the best games offer far more than just superficial fun. "Some video games are really good learning experiences for young people," she says. "We tend to lump all games, like TV programmes, together in one amorphous mass. But, in reality, games range from dross to really interesting.

For example, games like Civilisation 3 have been used in American schools. Although it’s not designed to be educational, kids learned a lot about history because they were checking out historical events in encyclopedias and on the Web to get an edge on their opponents!"

Games have also been proven to improve hand-eye coordination – not to mention being the perfect way to pass those long, dreary car journeys.

So which games are best for youngsters?

The ones that make them think. As they get older, encourage them to play games that involve strategy, problem-solving, planning and having to work out what you might do several steps in advance – like Civilisation.

"The best games to get kids thinking are ones in which they can make or create something, or add something to a world. My kids take digital pictures and upload them into their games, so they’re developing IT and photographic skills, as well as being artistic and creative," says Judith.

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