Dr. Kourosh Dini is a Chicago-based adolescent and adult psychiatrist who has just published a new book entitled, Video Game Play and Addiction: A Guide for Parents. [You can learn more about him and his many talents and interests at his blog, "Mind, Music and Technology."] Dini's book arrives fresh on the heels of the fine book, "Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do," by Drs. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson. [See my review of that book here.]
Like Kutner & Olson's book, Dini's provides a refreshingly balanced and open-minded look at the impact of video games on our kids. One of the things I liked about it is how Dr. Dini tells us right up front that he has been a gamer his entire life and explains how that has helped him frame the issues he discusses in his book. "I have played games both online and off since I was about six years of age, and I have also been involved in child psychiatry, so I felt that I would be in a good position to discuss some inherent positives and negatives associated with playing games," he says. Dini goes into greater detail about his gaming habits later in the book and it makes it clear that he still enjoys games very much.
Some may find Dini's gaming background less relevant than his academic credentials, but I think it is important if for no other reason than it shows how we are seeing more and more life-long gamers attain positions of prominence in various professions and writing about these issues using a sensible frame of reference that begins with their own personal experiences. For far too long now, nearly every book and article I have read about video games and their impact on society at some point includes a line like, "I've never really played many games" or even "I don't much care for video games," but then--without missing a breath--the author or analyst goes on to tell us how imminently qualified they are to be discussing the impact of video games on kids or culture. Whenever I read or hear things like that, I'm reminded of the famous line from an old TV commercial: "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV." Seriously, why is it that we should continue to listen to those critics who denounce video games but who have never picked up a controller in their lives? It's really quite insulting. Would you take automotive advice from someone who's never tinkered with cars in their lives but instead based their opinions merely upon watching them pass by on the road? I think not.
Anyway, I found it refreshing to see Dr. Dini talking about his gaming experiences right off the bat, and I look forward to the day when I can meet or hear from other accomplished figures in positions of importance throughout our nation (lawmakers, lawyers, educators, etc) who are also gamers and don't come at the issue blindly or arrogantly, as many still do. The reason this issue is so important is nicely summarized by Dr. Dini much later in his book when he correctly notes:
the irrational fear of the unknown is age-old, and the capability of this fear to prejudice people against useful, new phenomena can be pervasive. Approaching games with the sole purpose of finding their negative aspects will only confirm existing fears; potential benefits will then be lost. An excellent way to reduce these fears is to learn about the subject with an open mind. (p. 85)
Open Minds & The Current State of the "Science" of Media Effects
Dr. Dini has it exactly right. Regrettably, however, open minds have been in short supply when it comes to video game issues. Those less familiar with games have been skeptical about their worth to society, and they have formed pre-conceived biases about their supposed negative impact on kids. Dr. Dini powerfully illustrates how this has become a problem regarding much of the psychological research that has been conducted so far about kids and media:
A pattern noted in psychology suggests that we see only the things we look to see--sometimes termed selective attention, tunnel vision, mental filter, or blinders. Although the research that looks for negative aspects of gaming is certainly warranted, the findings, unfortunately, serve to accentuate the notion that games have little to offer. In such circumstances, video games can readily become scapegoats, as rock & roll's Elvis and comic books' superheroes have been. The potential strengths present, even by some more violent offerings, become lost when researchers are only searching for negative qualities. (p. 85)
Again, exactly right. However, Dr. Dini points out that "this is not to say that games are entirely benign." Games can have a negative impact on certain kids in certain circumstances. It is here where Dr. Dini gets into the more refined sort of analysis regarding the impact of games on kids that has long been missing in so much of the existing literature.
Let me explain what I mean by that. As I have pointed out in some of my writing on this issue, far too much of the "research" out there right now on this issue makes sweeping, illogical conclusions that might best be summarized as "monkey see-monkey do." In the minds of some psychologists, kids are all just Skinnerian rats or Pavlovian dogs, ready and willing to be conditioned to be killers or anything else. (Anti-gaming activists like David Grossman and Jack Thompson have built an entire cottage industry for themselves around this notion).
But rational people have long realized that such theories cannot possibly hold water. If there was any truth to such "monkey see-monkey do" media effects theories, then people right now across America would be walking down the road hacking at each other with machetes and chainsaws. After all, isn't that what violent video games (and movies) have conditioned us to do?
In reality, Dr. Dini correctly notes, "most people are able to distinguish thought--and, by extension, fantasy--from reality." He continues:
Even people involved in violent activities, such as contact sports, can separate that aspect of the self from other parts of life. Football players typically do not tackle people outside of a game. Arguably, such sports are more intensive in involving the entire person in violent acts than are video games. (p. 84)
Moreover, we now how fairly solid real-world evidence that makes it clear that the "monkey see-monkey do" theories cannot be correct. As Dr. Dini notes:
If one were to believe that violence is directly related to the increasingly graphic and realistic nature of video games, then a corresponding increase of violence should be seen. However, the overall trends are exactly the opposite, with a notable decrease in violence since the mid-1990s. (p. 81)
[If you want more solid evidence documenting these trends, see this article in Commentary magazine by Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin entitled "Crime, Drugs, Welfare--and Other Good News" which points out that just about all the important social indicators (murder, rape, robbery, etc) have witnessed steady decreases. And I provide additional supporting statistics in this paper, starting on page 20].
The Complexity of the Human Mind & The Many Potential Causes of Aggression
More importantly, and getting back to Dr. Dini's more refined analysis of the impact of games on kids, he notes that:
The causes of violence are most likely multifactorial and cannot be isolated down to one or two influences. Factors that have been implicated with increasing adolescent violence include history of aggressive behavior, lack of parental involvement, tumultuous family environment, low IQ, substance abuse, parental substance abuse, overly strict or excessively lenient rules, lack of parent, and inconsistent enforcement of rules. (p. 81-82)
It is true, of course, that violent video games may be one of those "multifactorial" causes of aggressive or violent behavior. It would be wrong to say, for example, that games never have any impact on kids or their behavior. But the real question is: how much of an influence do games have relative to those other factors? That is the key question that has long been missing in the discussion about games and their impact on kids and society.
In my opinion, while games deserve to be studied as one potential cause of juvenile aggression or violence, they should probably be near the bottom of the list of things to worry about. There are just so many other factors in play regarding what makes the human brain tick that I find it utterly preposterous to think that video games are somehow the dominant force in shaping the behavior of adolescents. All too often, we overlook the far more important variables that Dr. Dini identifies above, especially the problem of broken homes and bad relationships.
In my research on Internet safety issues, I often find the same thing at work. Critics blame the Internet or social networking sites for the woes of the world, but all too often the real problem lies somewhere else. Many youngsters who get themselves in trouble online are the victims of broken homes and bad relationships. They are "at-risk" youth who need mentoring, love, and understanding. But our lawmakers propose silver-bullet quick fixes like bans on social networking sites and comprehensive regulation of the Internet, including the prohibition of anonymous communications. How is that suppose to help those kids again?
In any event, Dr. Dini sums it up best when he argues that, "If we devote excessive focus to video games as a cause of adolescent aggression, then our collective resource of attention toward understanding societal malady is likely to be ill spent."
The Benefits of Play
Anyway, I have focused too much here on the elements of Dr. Dini's book that will be of most interest to the crowd reading this blog (politicos, policy wonks, free speech advocates, and gamers). But I should mention that his book is really about much, much more than just the debate about media effects research. He asks more fundamental questions like: What are games? Why do so many people play them? Why do people (even adults) need play time in their lives? How do games contribute to critical learning? And what sort of skills can be learned from playing games?
I particularly liked a short section at the end of Chapter 1 about the importance of play and human creativity:
The greatest artistic and scientific works seem to be the constructs of play. From the human mind, by divine or natural forces, the inspiration by which the great masters create their works is delivered via the conduit of play. When something is termed childish, perhaps it is better considered with awe and wonder. Childhood is the beginning of life. It is a time of power and energy. It is a time of growth and creativity. [...] We associate play with children, as if it were something we "grow out of." But what if play is something that is not purely associated with childhood and that, instead, our rules, regulations, and adult-centric expectations of "success" stamp out the ability to play? Rather than "teach" by viewing knowledge as something bestowed upon others, we could defer to the students' strength of creativity, attempting to foster their growth as carefully as we would tend a garden. Growth and creativity are inseparable. If we wish for our society to progress, then we must make allowances for the greatest creative powerhouses we have--namely, our children and adolescents. (p. 27-28)Incidentally, these are themes that have been developed more fully in the brilliant work of Henry Jenkins, founder and director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers.
Dr. Dini also spends time discussing the relationship between video games and learning, themes also developed in recent books like How Computer Games Help Children Learn, by David Williamson Shaffer and James Paul Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.
Addiction: The More Legitimate Problem for Study
Perhaps the most important part of Dr. Dini's book is that he offers a serious--but still quite level-headed--examination of the issue of video game addiction. He offers a detailed blueprint that other psychologists, as well as average parents, can use to go about diagnosing gaming addiction and what can be done about it. But, again, he puts things in the proper perspective:
Eating, shopping, and having sex are perfectly normal activities, but some people take them to extremes or engage in them problematically. These people usually have some predisposition--biological, psychological, or often both--toward the type of addiction presented. There is some factor motivating the person toward the addiction, either consciously or otherwise. Video games can, similarly, provide an addictive outlet.(p. 45)
I have long believed that this was the more serious problem with which psychologists, social workers, and parents should be spending their time. Many gamers will freely admit that they spend too much time playing games. The question is, have they crossed the line into addiction, and what can be done about it? Dr. Dini's book provides some good answers and approaches to the problem. Dr. Jerald Block has also been doing some interesting work lately to help people to identify the "S.I.G.N.S." of Internet or video game addiction.
I believe that many kids probably do spend a bit too much time playing video games, but most don't cross the line into serious addiction. That being said, the best course of action in this--and all things, for that matter--was offered to us long ago by Aristotle when he counseled moderation in all things.
Toward that end, in my book on Parental Controls and Online Child Safety, I argued that parents should consider taking a "food pyramid" approach to all media consumption by teaching their kids the importance of a balanced media diet, which includes teaching them the types of things that they think they should probably avoid altogether (or at least only consume in limited portions). The federal government has a recommended food pyramid for nutritional purposes, of course. But just as government doesn't enforce the food pyramid through regulation, neither should it enforce a media food pyramid through mandates or restrictions. In fact, we don't need the government to tell families what is in a "media food pyramid" at all. This is something that parents can do quite effectively on their own, especially in light of the differing values each household will bring to the job.
Regardless, while different families will always have different values and approaches, there is something to be said for a balanced diet when it comes to media consumption, just as is the case with child nutrition. And this is certainly true for video games. Parents can determine the right "portions" that that think make sense for their kids--both in terms of the substance of the games and aggregate amount of time that kids are allowed to play games.
In conclusion, I highly recommend. Dr. Dini's book on "Video Game Play & Addiction." It's a very accessible book that offers a great deal of sensible advice for parents who might be wondering about how to best manage video games in the lives of their children. It strikes just the right tone and it serves as an important contribution to the field.