Reconciling Video Games with Public Education

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I’ll never forget Terry. Terry was a second grader that I had the pleasure of teaching during summer camp this year. He was a nice boy, but for his age a little overweight, which caused the other students to pick on him. Terry and I had a good relationship; I talked to him a great deal over the summer. There was one day where I found him crying in the corner. “What’s wrong?” I asked, concerned. I assumed the other students had teased him at some point, but Terry wouldn’t talk to me. As a teacher, it is very hard to see a student so sad and not know what’s wrong.

On this particular day, I had brought my Nintendo Switch to play on my break and stored it in the classroom closet. We had a little free time before our next lesson, so I asked Terry if he would like to play. To this day I can’t describe how instantly his mood changed from feeling extremely sad to joyful and excited. I let Terry play ARMS, and allowed him to invite another boy over to play with him. Pretty soon the entire class surrounded Terry and the other boy, and they were all having the time of their lives.

As a teacher, and an individual who loves games and the culture that surrounds them, I have been met with great skepticism when I talk about introducing video games as a tool in education. Objections that I have heard include the following: video games make children violent, video games are harmful to a student’s overall grade point average, video games cause obesity, video games isolate students indoors, they cause sleep deprivation, they are addictive, video games minimize women or create an unhealthy image of them, video games cause a lack of empathy, and they desensitize those who play them.

I, like many others, grew up playing video games. Some of the best moments of my life as well as many of my friendships began with bonding over video games. So, for me, it is frustrating that video games have such a bad reputation within the public education system. In this article, I will attempt to address some of the tension between video games and the education system. I will discuss the claims made by researchers and parents, discuss how video games are being used improperly, and how they could benefit child development. It is my belief that most of the tension between education and video games comes not from influence, but rather from misuse.

Violence and Video Games

A study performed back in 2011 by NPD reported that 91% of children between the ages of 2-17 play video games, a number that has only increased in the past 6 years. Out of this 91%, 64% of households have a system that is exclusively used for gaming. Almost every child has had exposure to some type of video game.

Observing video games, almost every game implements some sort of weapon system. Whether that weapon system be guns, magic, or hand to hand combat, there is a violence component to almost every video game on the market. This year,  even Mario himself took up a gun for the first time in Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. It’s true, games will introduce some sort of violence, but it is a hypothetical violence that students can observe through playing the game. And, much like with movies, there are rating systems put in place for video games that reflect what level of violence is acceptable for children of certain age groups to observe. I believe that it is, with no offense intended, the ignorance of the parents who allow their children to play games that are rated much higher on the age appropriate scale than their children are that has caused much of the violent behavior/desensitization that has been observed.

If we are going to make any headway in reconciling video games and education, these rating systems need to be respected. Children should not be allowed to freely play mature games without supervision because they have the potential to have a negative effect on them. Parents need to also take an active role in their children’s video game habits. Parents should not be afraid to sit down with their kids and simply watch what games they play and how they react to what they are playing, especially if parents are allowing their children to play games that are for mature audiences only. Again, it is not that these are bad games, but the content that they contain is only suitable for mature audiences and has been rated so.

The importance of parents monitoring their children’s gameplay can’t be stressed enough in this article.  An article published by the American Psychological Association claims that “Contrary to the claims that violent video games are linked to aggressive assaults and homicides, no evidence was found to suggest that this medium (violent video games) was positively related to real-world violence in the United States[1].” In fact, the article concluded that there was actually a decrease in violent crimes in response to violent video games. If a child is developing violent tendencies while playing video games they will most likely develop over time, which is why parents need to monitor their child’s gameplay and adjust their gameplay accordingly.

It should quickly be mentioned that online gaming is a separate experience and is considered unrated. While a student could be playing a game rated everyone years 10+ (let’s use Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare as an example), there could be other people on that same game using vast amounts of profanity, which could be considered a negative influence on young minds.

An Improper View of Women

Another complaint that educators have had against video games is their negative portrayal of women. Admittedly, women have not been portrayed very well in the history of video games. Many are dressed in provocative outfits, are unrelatable or secondary characters, are always the damsel in distress, or are put into sexist stereotypes. Games such as Soul Caliber and Mortal combat are notorious for placing girls in very revealing armor that are more for show than for actual defense (like seriously, how does their armor provide any defense?)

I will admit that women have not historically been portrayed well in video games. However, I am encouraged by the recent slew of games that have centered on female protagonists who are sensibly dressed, relatable and are the heroes of their stories. Aloy, from Horizon: Zero Dawn and Senua from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice are just two of the women who have received a great deal of attention this year for being inspiring female figures who overcome their struggles. Even those games whose main playable protagonist is male have had amazing primary female characters such as Ciri in Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or Ellie from The Last of Us who are essential to the storyline itself. There are also longstanding female leads such as Laura Croft from Tomb Raider, and Samus from the Metroid series, that have been in video games for decades with far more purpose than simply being eye candy.

But, for those games that will continue to portray women in a more “adult” way, the rating systems are in place and describe whether a game contains nudity or is appropriate for a younger audience. The games that choose to present women in a more scandalous way are far more often intended for mature audiences than not.

Everything in Moderation

Several of the complaints surrounding video games affect on students are the result of poor time management, as well as a structured time to play video games. I will admit, most of my summers were spent at a friend’s house playing games for 5-6 hours a day, and I was immersed for days with games such as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. As a result, my grades did drop when I played video games, but only when made them a priority over my school work. It wasn’t the video games themselves that caused my GPA to decrease, it was my inability to prioritize my responsibilities that led to my grades decreasing.

Many of the studies that have been performed on the relationship between academic excellence and video games have been skewed toward showing results rather than providing facts. In reality, there have been no clear studies that have proven that playing video games is harmful for academics. On the contrary, there have been several showing a strong connection between academic excellence and strategy games such as League of Legends, or puzzle/strategy games. This is within reason, of course; if a student neglects their studies to play games all day, their grades will decline.

Prioritizing video games over other responsibilities is what is harmful, not the video games themselves. The same thing can be said about the relationship between video games and physical fitness. A child is not going to become obese playing video games for an hour a day. A child will become obese if he is left to play video games for 3-4 hours a day while eating junk food and drinking soda because he is abusing his time and eating fatty foods. While I love video games, I can admit that they are a form of entertainment, or something to be enjoyed as a leisure activity, and they must be enjoyed responsibly. And if the occasional video game binge does come around, children (and adults) should opt for healthy snacks and water over the Mountain Dew and Doritos.

The Benefits of Gaming

Finally, I want to briefly touch on the benefits of introducing video games into the education system. We’ve talked about this before, but as a teacher, I would simply like to reiterate some of the benefits that I have seen by introducing video games into the education system.

One of the major social benefits to introducing gaming into the education system is that video games break down social barriers. When students are given the opportunity to play games together, they are given a commonality. What this means is that two students, who could have nothing alike, now have a common interest that they can talk about. Remember Terry from earlier? Here was a boy that had trouble making friends, but when they were allowed to play video games for a short period of time, Terry and the other student now had a common interest that allowed them to spend time together.

Our own Obilisk team is also an example how video games help to break down social and cultural barriers. Obilisk is comprised of contributors from around the globe. We may not play video games together, and we all have our own lives, but through social media outlets, we are able to connect and discuss various aspects of video games and gaming culture with one another.

There are also various other benefits to playing video games that have been published in several psychiatric journals. A study published by the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance holds that “extensive experience playing action video games yields a myriad of perceptual and attentional benefits, including a strong influence on an individuals visual working memory[2].” A study published by American Psychologist suggests that those who participate in “shooter” video games (also considered “action” video games) display “faster and more accurate attention allocation, higher spatial resolution in visual processing and enhanced mental rotation abilities.” The effects of video games on these mental abilities is comparable to formal high school/university level courses that attempt to teach the same abilities.

The last benefit I would like to discuss in creativity. New evidence has been emerging associated with creativity that suggests games can enhance a child’s creative capacity. While there is no definite scientific explanation as to why video games increase creativity, for gamers it is easy to see. Video games utilize various forms of artwork and artistic styles. Whether that be the beautiful watercolors of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the traditional Japanese style of Okami, or the photo-realism of more mainstream games such as Call of Duty: WW2. In addition to the various artistic styles that players are introduced to, they are also introduced to a vast amount of different narratives. Similar to a good novel, video game storylines can be a wonderful journey. Some of the greatest stories ever told were told through video games, and they should be enjoyed regardless of the medium.

In truth, I could write about this topic endlessly. For the longest time, video games and education have been at odds with one another. If you are reading this, chances are you love games as much as I do. So I ask you to take responsibility for how you play video games and how your children play games. Do you part to help show the world that video games aren’t the real issue, and that being intentional about gaming is the remedy for these tensions. Play responsibly and play proudly, because there are few greater joys in life than enjoying a good game with a good friend.

[1] Markey, P. M., Markey, C. N., & French, J. E. (2015). Violent video games and real-world violence: Rhetoric versus data. Psychology Of Popular Media Culture, 4(4), 277-295

[2] Blacker, K. J., Curby, K. M., Klobusicky, E., & Chein, J. M. (2014). Effects of action video game training on visual working memory. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception And Performance, 40(5), 1992-2004. doi:10.1037/a0037556

26, happily married, avid video game collector, enthusiast, and advocate, as well as an aspiring author.

I love all things Mega Man and Nintendo. Console gamer. RPGs are my favorite!

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