Obsessive video game play is the most beneficial of all screen time

Obsessive video game play is the most beneficial of all screen time

Today all parents are faced with the choice of how to regulate screen time for their kids. It’s a decision made more difficult because much advice about video games and parenting comes from people who are too scared to question the status quo  or people who are too scared to imagine their kids having a childhood different from their own. 

But just as homeschooling requires a leap of faith from the parents that their kids are capable of self-directed learning, a family video game policy requires a leap of faith that kids are fundamentally able to choose the games that teach them what they enjoy learning.

That said, I’m always looking for research to help me make better choices about my kids having unlimited video game time. Here are a few things I’ve discovered recently:

1. It’s about interactivity.
People confuse the issue by grouping TV and video games into the category of “screen time.” In fact, most arguments against screen time are also arguments against school: Sitting around just watching something is bad for development, makes kids fat, doesn’t grow social skills, and so on. But the benefits of video games come from how kids are making decisions the whole time, working toward a goal, solving problems constantly. Video games are the opposite of passive TV watching and mainstream schooling, in all the best ways.

An incredible number of respected media outlets make the same mistake, lumping TV and video games together, which is a useless way to address how kids spend their time. This article from the BBC about screen time effectively lumps Disney math games with Grand Theft Auto. I have read the article three times and each time I find more inconsistencies and syllogisms.

2. It’s about high stakes where your character could get killed.
The Wall Street Journal summarizes research that shows that games with high stakes—like your character dies, or you lose everything you’ve earned over the course of weeks—are the most educational. And, ironically, far more educational than educational games.

High stakes games also teach soft skills better than educational games. Take for example, self-control. Self-control isn’t about sitting still when you are dying of boredom. That’s just a low-level type of self-control. The next level is learning not to eat a cookie right before dinner. But the highest level of self control is learning to continue trying to solve a problem even when it gets hard. High stakes, very difficult video games teach self-control in a meaningful way.

3. The benefits of playing obsessively for many hours can’t be lumped with benefits of highly regulated gaming time.
This is an incredibly interesting idea: Kids have relatively little access to the feeling of being great at something. It takes a lot of parental intervention to help a kid be great at something—driving all over the place, buying supplies, finding teachers, having vision for a learning curve, etc. Video games are set up so a kid can get that expertise on their own.

If parents don’t want to have a kid addicted to video games then give the kid something else that’s a path to major accomplishment in their life. Then they’ll know they can get that feeling from more than just a single activity.

It’s intoxicating to watch yourself get better and better at something you really care about. Most of the time we give kids opportunities to get better and better at something the parents really care about. If you don’t like video games, be committed to giving your kid the opportunity to spend that much time becoming an expert at something else.

4. Obsessive gaming fundamentally changes how the brain works.
Wired magazine explains why hard-core gamers have better visual skills and are better at filtering out unimportant visual information. The human brain has plasticity that responds to video games. Hard-core gamers are better at multitasking, better at making fast, effective decisions, and women who obsessively play video games develop skills that typically develop better male brains.

But nothing is all good. The video games that help people the most with the intellectual side of their brains include the most violent video games. And the most violent games have an emotionally depressing effect on boys after just one week of play.

My eight-year-old just downloaded World of Warcraft. And I’m going upstairs now to delete it from his computer. Because I can be a proponent of unlimited screen time for my sons but still regulate the level of violence in their games.





29 replies
  1. Katie
    Katie says:

    Very interesting article. I do not believe that all screen time is equal. Growing up, I played video games a little but spent hours upon hours research random things on the Internet (although the Internet was a bit less advanced then … lol). I truly believe that is how I learned to read fluently and for a purpose, and to write and even speak articulately. I would obsessively read articles and blogs because I found the topics interesting. I’d imagine video games would have the same level of impact, albeit on different areas of development. That said, I don’t think it is healthy for kids to play them for hours and hours each day, especially if this takes away from socializing with friends and playing outside. But it’s much better than watching Spongebob!

  2. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    World of Warcraft should be compared with whatever they are playing now. It’s about as realistic as Minecraft — very cartoon level of animation and violence. And it has many other aspects. You can build things with crafting skills, you can trade items on the auction house, and there are weeks of exploration to do there.

    I haven’t played in years, but when I did, I almost never did any combat more intense than “Hit 2 key to kill that spider, collect its legs.” At least watch some of the game play videos before you get too excited.

    On the other hand, I do think games are addictive, and letting your kids get addicted to games is a bit dangerous. Couldn’t you at least encourage them to write about their experiences, or make videos, to add to the intense repetition of games?

    Also, if you want something more cerebral, here’s a review of EVE Online. http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=22139

  3. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    Similar to #2, gaming seems to me one of the few areas you can be left to fail and try again, with minimal help and guides. The trial and error is not frustrating, it’s fun…and the fastest way to learn.

  4. neversummer
    neversummer says:

    I am totally not a gamer, my mom would not have Nintendo and the like in the house growing up and I did not miss it. We had horses for me to obsess about and work at improving on. My husband is, was before the child and I came along to take up all his time, an obsessive gamer, World of war craft and LOTRO. He has gotten me, to a limited extent, into playing WOW. It isn’t all that violent, in my limited experience. I play a werewolf that is also a druid, or something, that I would have mocked horribly in my non-gaming days. I gather herbs and yes kill things in a far away, non graphic sort of way. There are cute little festivals and other very nerdy things to do besides killing. My husband would be horrified to hear me call his games cute, poor guy.
    I understand there is player vs. player stuff that is much more war like, again very limited knowledge. Over all though I enjoy the missions and most of it seems to be gathering and traveling through very nice scenery.
    I hate violence and killing and it doesn’t offend my delicate sensibilities. I would recommend trying it out or doing more research before deleting World of Warcraft off hand.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This comment really had impact on me – thanks. I am convinced. I’m not going to ask him to delete World of Warcraft. And this is why I love this blog so much. I get so much intelligent, compassionate, trustworthy advice from you guys. Thank you.


      • Stephanie
        Stephanie says:

        So glad someone raised this issue! There are a laundry list of games that should go before WoW. I completely agree (as a female who can’t make it through an episode of American Horror Story without covering my eyes) that World of Warcraft is a great game and not one of the violent ones you should be concerned about.

      • Joy
        Joy says:

        I thought long and hard about whether to reply to this topic at all. As a former World of Warcraft player I can testify first hand to the addictive properties of this game. During the three years I played it, I spent an average of 40 hours a week (the equivalent of a full-time job) playing. I’m a homeschooling Mom who started playing it at my husband’s invitation. I neglected a lot of stuff in order to play. My husband, similarly, probably spent 80 hours a week playing, and missed out a lot on time with our kids. WOW can be very addictive, in that the game is never finished. There are always more levels, more character classes, more skills, more recipes, more quests, more achievements, etc. I would just caution you to watch for signs of addiction and be prepared to walk away if needed. We did, but it was extremely hard. Also, as a side note, there is a group of players who do role play, and some of them do erotic role play, which is not something you want your kids exposed to.

        • neversummer
          neversummer says:

          I agree completely, when I asked my husband, as the official gamer, if he thought WoW was violent he definitely did not. He also said that our daughter would not be playing it unsupervised at a young age because of the social aspects.
          Can’t anything be addictive though? Angry Birds for example?

  5. djgriffith
    djgriffith says:

    I could not disagree with you more! Long before I had kids, I watched in horror as my pediatric patients turned from articulate, polite children to snarling braindead little monsters right before my eyes when given unlimited access to a video game machine. I was educated about the seizures, etc caused by repetitive light motion seen in most video games and some modern cartoons. So, I said, “My kids are not having video games!” Fast-forward fifteen years. My Mother insisted on giving them a Wii “so they could play sports.” We gave them computers cause that was such a wonderful resource. Every electronic device suddenly became a gaming machine. Previously respectful, smart, inquisitive children lost it, becoming slobbering, vacant faced and unable to use their senses! No interest in books, the outdoors or going anywhere or doing anything. “Adults” I have seen grow up on this aren’t able to pay attention long enough to take your order at McDonalds, but boy can they hack the hell out of a computer! I have DEFINITELY found electronic addiction to be a major obstacle to their learning, as well as a destructive factor in marriages where it is allowed a toehold in every room of the house, to the detriment of human interaction.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      I also limit my son’s screen time. I do this because I see there’s a large opportunity cost in spending hours in front of a computer, ipad, or TV.

      My son needs my help limiting himself so that he can do the many other things he wants to do. We are learning that he has great difficulty resisting the lure of gadgets and games, and this can interfere with his reading, his sleep, his music, studies, exercise, and his other pursuits. An ever-present possibility of gaming or gaming videos distracts him immensely, and too many hours on the keyboard can leave my sweet Buddha boy short-tempered and frazzled. He is aware of the problem and participates in the solution. Sensible choices like leaving his ipad downstairs overnight and never playing on an empty stomach help him keep on track.

      That said, I don’t disagree with the thesis of PT’s post here, and I don’t know whether you do either. I agree that, given screen time, intensive video game playing is more productive than passive TV watching. Do you really think that all those ‘snarling, braindead little monsters would’ be cheerful, enthusiastic little gentlemen and ladies if they were staring at TV for all those hours instead of playing video games? I very much doubt it.

    • ilona211
      ilona211 says:

      As the mother of an 11 year old who is “addicted” to video games,I am alarmed by the changes in my son.He used to love going to the park and playing sports;he now only wants to play Minecraft.
      I am also a classically trained pianist and teacher;I spent many hours reading,practicing and composing rather than play outside with my friends.
      Are the two fields comparable?
      I believe they are;music is just as addictive as playing video games.However,music has tremendous benefits to health-video game addiction…not so much.
      My son is being home schooled after incessant bullying at our local public school.It has been extremely difficult to teach him-as he is preoccupied with how long it will be until he can get back to video games rather than focusing on learning.He was a “straight A” honor student in public school;I question whether my choice to remove him was the right one.At the time,I felt his psychological and emotional well being were in dire jeopardy;so I made the decision to home school.I did the same thing in Kindergarten and 1st grade-he returned to public school for three years…but it seems the bullying issues grow worse with every passing year.
      On a lighter note,
      There is a wonderful website ,Khan Academy,that teaches kids computer programming;I am learning alongside of him in an effort to mesh both of our passions:music and gaming.

  6. Tony
    Tony says:

    I am a big fan of your concept of unlimited screen time. I give my youngest (who is four) options of watching a “trains only” channel I set up on Youtube, some kid shows on Netflix, or various toys he has around the house with only a few rules about when he cannot watch “the screens” (ie during dinner or when he has chores). Observing him, I see that he moves between “screens” or different real world toys at times of his choosing and doesn’t spend all his time in front of the TV or computer like many parents fear. He even begs to be taken outside when it snows so he can help me shovel.

    However my oldest (who is 7) is autistic and he does spend a large amount of his free time in playing computer games or watching TV and does not rotate between “the screens” and real world toys as much as his brother. He would spend all day playing World of Warcraft if we let him. So my question is should we still keep a policy of unlimited screen time and allow him to focus on video games or should we be adopting some more restriction on him so he doesn’t spend all his time on video games?

  7. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Not all video games are created equal, I’m glad you point out the distinction and how violent video games can affect a child’s personality. Checking the game’s rating is the first step, E for everyone is what we stick with.

    There are several studies about how surgeons that play video games or have used video games make fewer mistakes.

    I’m less worried about my kids becoming addicted to video games than others, for one, they are girls and they get a different satisfaction from gaming, studies show that girls play 8 hours less a week than boys do. Second, neither my husband nor myself have an addictive personality. I’m not foolish enough to believe that they can’t get addicted, but one indicator is bad attitudes after playing, if we get attitudes or snarkiness from them after gaming then there are consequences, like loss of that activity for a certain period of time.

    Talking with your kids about video games is also important. They should know that video games are mostly for entertainment purposes.

  8. Kerry
    Kerry says:

    Our relationship with video games has evolved and continues to do so. We have been homeschooling only since August, when we moved back to the US after 4 years abroad.

    My 8 year old son has since gone down the Minecraft rabbit hole and it has been an interesting experience. My kid is the kind who hangs out on the sidelines for a while to watch and figure things out before he dives in. This translated to hours and hours a day watching YouTube videos made by various Minecraft players. I viewed this as the equivalent to endless TV watching with little stimulation for his brain and was getting very uneasy with our liberal screen time policy.

    But about 3 months ago, he lessened the watching and dived in to the playing and it astonishes me how well he has taught himself the ins and outs of an endlessly evolving game.

    I’ve read that article by Peter Gray in Aeon Magazine that you often link to and it struck me that “free play” can take place in these “sandbox” games such as Minecraft. My son has jumped on to a couple of public servers where the rules were very clearly defined, or in one case the server was so new the admins were still figuring out the rules. From his immersion in Minecraft culture on YouTube my kid has a pretty good idea of what constitutes a “good” server for his preferred style of play. Sometimes he engages in rules creation or asks for clarification in other times he realizes that the game play is established and not to his liking and he takes his ball and finds a different court. He can quit at any time. If he wants to play a specific server, he has to adjust his behavior accordingly or find a new place to play. He is navigating this quite well at age 8, though he can get very frustrated when he thinks someone is picking on him. We talk it through and he is building his coping skill as he goes.

    As for socialization, my son’s favorite time to play Minecraft is at his homeschool community center, when all the kids link up to a local server and do their thing. They are playing on the computers but there is plenty of kid-only chat going back and forth in the group. My son also works out “playdates” with his friends back in South Africa so they can meet up on certain public servers at specific times to play together.

    My son is now asking for help to figure out how he can make his own Minecraft YouTube videos. (We’re still working this one out and would love to hear how Yefet makes his videos.)

    Yes, my son suffers from “device addiction”. We will go somewhere truly amazing, and at some point he wants to know when we are leaving, specifically so he can get back home and get back online. We discuss it in a straightforward way and highlight that the inexorable “pull” is something that will lesson with time and there are other things in life worth his attention. I try to honor his desire while not limiting our outdoor and out of the house activities. If he throws a fit about our leaving the house or gets really whiny while we’re gone, he loses access to his various devices. This is now more an ongoing conversation than a major source of friction. But the “pull” is there.

    And for those concerned about long term consequences, my anecdotal evidence is my husband who was a huge computer and gaming nerd through high school, college, grad school, career and pretty much up until those first few years of parenthood. He and his grad school buddies would have big LAN parties to play Quake and Doom that occasionally went on for days. All of those geeky gamers from his grad school now have PhDs in Astrophysics as well as successful careers with lots of options.

    When my son was younger, I definitely limited screen time but this blog had me reconsider as we moved in to homeschooling and so far it has been a success. The level of immersion and engagement I witness when my son plays makes me trust this path more and more.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      My husband still plays world of Warcraft, he’s a very successful engineering manger, gives presentations to executives and generals, and it doesn’t affect his work at all. Video games are a better form of entertainment for him than watching golden girls reruns with me.

      All his engineer friends play it, but I think little kids should wait to play till they are older, there is some very powerful imagery in it that I personally feel requires a certain level of maturity to process what they are viewing.

    • rachael
      rachael says:

      If you’re using a mac or PC you can use Quicktime to record Minecraft play. My boys also watch youtube videos of Minecraft gaming & the parody songs.

  9. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    I experimented with this over the summer and determined that there is always some degree of regulation needed with regards to my son and gaming–at least within our experience. If not reminded to stop and take care of chores, get ready for this or that, he would play from dawn to dusk; I’m not exaggerating this point; he proved it this summer.

    HE LOVES THEM and loves talking about them, telling us his strategy to get to the next checkpoint, etc…, and he’s skilled at the games he plays the most.

    However, if he has been playing for hours–whether a game like Minecraft or COD, his choleric side is more prevalent (he’s choleric/sanguine). He interrupts his sisters & sisters while they are talking; he is short-tempered, and he is discontent when off the game.

    Following a week of ridiculously defiant behavior we “grounded” him from Xbox for a week, and the first 3 days were akin to a smoker coming off nicotine. Day 4 or so he was significantly less volatile, and we started seeing his more relaxed humor and calm side coming through.

    I know the value of research, but I think a parent or caregiver’s heart for their child, and the changes we witness as those who want the best for our kids “know” our children.

    Regulation is the only way we can allow gaming in our home without witnessing addictive behavior, regardless of what research says. My husband is a gamer and has been since we met in college; he knows all too well how easily it is to be consumed with them.

    There is the accumulation of knowledge (from research, experience, etc…), and then, there is wisdom (the application of that knowledge given a specific environment, set of circumstances, individual); I believe wisdom is integral in deciding about gaming and kids, not research alone.

    • Barbara
      Barbara says:

      “I know the value of research, but I think a parent or caregiver’s heart for their child, and the changes we witness as those who want the best for our kids “know” our children. ”

      One of the fundamental things we know as parents and as homeschoolers is that our kids are not all the same. We need to trust what we see in our own children and make decisions accordingly. Neurologically we are not all exactly the same and it makes sense that we would see some differences in the we are affected by different kinds of stimuli.

  10. CLM
    CLM says:

    I like this and certainly don’t dispute the sound logic. Game time is much different than soak up television show time. I’d argue that television and video games get bad reputations out of superstition more than sound reasoning. I like to think of anti-TV/Gaming arguments based on a theoretical ‘worker’ mold (i.e. engineers, healthcare workers) some group of people believe everyone should roughly fit into which video games or TV time aren’t factored into. Never mind what aptitudes children actually possess, what new careers pop up ever half-decade we never considered or what an individual actually might enjoy doing for a living.

    I think the unmentioned factor in all this is DNA. It’s touched upon in the ‘self-directed learning’ phrase, but where does self-directed learning stem from? Perhaps our educational fears are based on things we can’t control. We can’t make everyone equally gifted, we can’t give everyone true equal opportunities and we can’t give everyone equal outcomes- a goal traditional schools seem to try and work toward.

    I suspect we (society) know less than we should about education than we wish but the world keeps turning just fine.

  11. CLM
    CLM says:

    A note I haven’t touched is the lash against television time. While I strongly feel the quality of entertainment has been lowered by ‘reality’ shows, I have to defend the value one gains from so much exposure to screenwriting, blocking and acting- even bad acting. If one intends to become an author of any sort, television time DOES have value. Of course, most people don’t become writers/author’s and to that I say, is it any worse than learning the limit of x as it approaches a constant when you never intend to go into the sciences?

  12. Sam
    Sam says:

    I wish I could further limit my boyfriend’s video game screen time. While he does have highly developed visual and problem-solving skills, he also seems to have weaker than average conversational skills, a short attention span, absolutely zero interest in reading, less empathy than average… He used to be addicted to video games and had to cut himself off completely. Now he limits his time to a couple to a few hours a day. Probably because I would break up with him otherwise. I actually think he wishes he felt the urge to play less even more than I do. Compulsions are difficult regardless of the activity.

  13. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    I would echo others in saying that World of Warcraft is not a violent game by many standards. It’s highly stylized, cartoon-like, and if you want to encourage obsessive gaming, WoW pretty much wrote the book on long-term gaming investment.

    It’s also one of the most socially oriented games out there (and yes, because it’s so deeply immersive, it also has a reputation for completely overpowering everything else in your life). It has the opportunity for your son to build businesses, work with dynamic teams, and foster long-term (game-related) relationships. I haven’t played the game in quite some time, but when I was in highschool, it was awesome (and I know the core game mechanics haven’t changed at all since then).



  14. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Obsessive, addictive, time-consuming, etc. are common adjectives used to describe video games. I think that’s a fair assessment. However, as many other people have noted here, there’s many different types of learning being developed while the game is being played. It makes me wonder if video games can be directly or indirectly attributed to a child (or adult) finding other passions or pursuits that take them away from video gaming when viewed over a long term perspective. It’s research that I haven’t come across but may be present.

  15. Dan
    Dan says:

    I respectfully disagree and strongly feel that TV and video games are THE biggest risk to homeschooling families. At a minimum, all that free time that was clawed back by opting out of the system….poof, gone.

    My home educated kids are on a diet of less than an hour of incidental TV/video games PER MONTH.

    We do use the computer a lot – but for chess, math, watching piano lessons, computer programming, Googling facts, etc.

    I also teach accelerated math to (supposedly) really smart school kids. I’ve noticed that every single one of my students who is performing far below their potential has a video game addiction problem which is almost always coupled with an attitude problem. And some of these kids are potentially brilliant too. So to the people saying “So-and-so played a lot of video games when he was young…..and now he’s a PhD,” I say – How do you know they wouldn’t have 4 Phd’s? How do you know they wouldn’t be a better husband/father/friend???….if they hadn’t been obsessively playing video games???

    The deadweight loss of time is enough of a deterrent – nevermind the eyesight strain, bad posture, shortened attention span, and all the other obvious negative side effects.

  16. Karen
    Karen says:

    For YEARS I have read your blog and recommended it so many times to others. This is the first comment I have left and I am late to the party. :)

    As a female gamer who played Beta [which means you are invited to ‘test’ the game before it is available for purchase] of the first online game and still play World of Warcraft I would have to say it isn’t violent either. Yes you ‘kill’ things but it is a storyline. It isn’t like you kill your neighbor or class mates. There are quests to figure out and a progression of things to accomplish. My daughter, who is 14 had her first WOW character at age 4. To be honest all she did is run around in the city and collect pets that my friends would send her. I stopped playing for years because I am a single Mom and computer games take up WAY too much time. However about 4 months ago my daughter and I both started back playing WOW together. We have a blast! We run around crazy and laugh our heads off. It is as much of ‘together’ time as anything we could do. I love video games and I am proud to be a gamer girl. ;)
    Now all that being said I do agree that some video games are TOO violent. I have been watching “Alias” when I walk on the treadmill. After watching hours and hours of it I feel like I could kick the crap out of someone. So it stands to reason that violent games would make you feel like that and some kids would maybe act on that feeling.

  17. rachael
    rachael says:

    My two (home educated) boys would probably play Minecraft all day if I let them. I might see what happens if I do… I have wondered whether I’m too restrictive with it. I bought it because it seemed to have educational value & after playing it myself, I couldn’t wait to show it to them. Now it’s all they talk about! Really love your blog, btw – only just discovered it.

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