Scott Novis
It's Time to Embrace Video Games

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Embracing the potential of video games

Raising Well Adjusted Gamers

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Raising Well Adjusted Gamers

There are plenty of times when video gameplay can feel like a barrier to the simple goal of raising healthy, well-adjusted kids, prepared for the future. In previous articles, I have written about the drivers for gamer health. In this article, I want to dig into perhaps the most sensational myth confronting parents today; That video games make kids violent.

You might bristle, that I call it a myth, but before I dig in and make my case, let's review why it feels real for most parents. In my own house, I have seen my children "rage quit." They lose their composure and become extremely upset. I have also seen children explode in anger at video game tournaments. In one instance, the runner-up spiked his controllers on the gym floor after losing the final match. He ran, screaming out of the auditorium. Neither he nor his mother had a great experience that day. It was this experience that caused us to rethink how we operate tournaments at Bravous.

When parents see children become upset to the point that they lose control, it's not difficult to believe that video games play a part. I think the visual impression exacerbates this. As a parent, you only see one child experiencing emotional duress. We, humans, are wired to respond to what we see. Since the online competitor is invisible, we don't naturally factor them into our thinking.

So what's going on here?

First, research indicates that video games do not increase aggressing in players^1. However, this is not the same as saying, video games do not cause children to become upset. In physical sports and in-person competition, the source of the conflict is both immediate and undeniable. Online games mask this adversarial interaction putting the visual cues on the child alone. It looks like only your child is losing their marbles. Thus, the video game becomes the apparent culprit.

Understanding this behavior is tied to our first learning. We need to understand the competitive dynamic of most online video games. Are children are not playing alone.

Secondly, we need to realize that video games are in one sense, just another form of social media. Specifically, video games are like social media in that they form what is called "mediated interactions." In other words, technology works to manage communication between another person and us. Mediated communication matters enormously for adolescents because screens filter out many of the cues necessary for healthy social and emotional development.

Just like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter video games produce (often intense) interactions with people, the players can not see. Why is this so important? Because seeing how other people react to our behavior is critical for our development.

Mirror Neurons

Mirror Neurons and the Whites of the Eyes

Human beings are amazing animals because we learn from watching each other. Mirror Neurons^2 allow us to see a movement performed by another person, then mimic it ourselves. It turns out these magical little brain cells are also essential for social, emotional development.

Remember the 5-38-55 rule?^3. Albert Mehrabian put forward this rule as a result of his research on personal communication. The law says that only 5% of the meaning comes from the words people use. 38% comes from their tone, and 55% comes from their body language. Some call this the lyrics, music, and dance of personal communications^4. Recent research indicates these nonverbal cues, not only convey information, they can shape our behavior as well. In research conducted by Dr. Sherri Livengood at the University of Northwestern, non-verbal queues affected subjects listening to similar music.

In layman's terms, when two adolescents listened to music that was familiar to one and not the other, they would alter their behavior. If the new listener did not like the music, the first listener would "close down," protecting themselves from emotional harm. If the new listener liked the music, the enjoyment increased for both listeners. All of this happened without conversation. The complex visual queues used by the amygdala protect us from harm, keeping negative energy from spiraling out of control. The positive energy, however, opens us up to bonding and increases.

However, what happens when we can't see each other? Recent research has shed new light on how important it is that human beings see each other's eyes^5. The Sclera make it easier to see how someone else responds to our behavior, improving communication.

Even the most sophisticated video games can not respond to a child's emotions, let alone their behavior. Without this essential non-verbal feedback, children struggle to learn how their behavior affects others. They miss the subtleties we associate with emotional intelligence.

As a result, I believe we are seeing a steady rise in Autism rates^6 and advocates for young male healthy like Michael Gurian^7, and Warren Farrell^8 believe that extensive isolated video gaming is a likely contributor to these effects.

In addition to real, medical autism is a new mode of behavioral development Teacher Tammie Nowak describes as "Synthetic Autism." It appears more kids are bypassing healthy social-emotional development due to excessive screen time. These children are not medically autistic, but they are exhibiting behaviors on the spectrum of autism. Home school parents rely on tools like "Social Stories"^9 to make up the gap. Parents use these tools to teach their children the kinds of social behaviors we used to take for granted.

Even the best video games today are not capable of responding to the complex emotional cues that human beings produce regularly. No mediated human interaction serves this function. The younger generations are experiencing more loneliness despite their connectivity.^10. In plain English,

What you do about it?

There is some good news. Human beings are wired to learn from each other. We want to be part of the tribe. Consequently, there are some things you can do to help bolster your gamers social and emotional development.

  1. Manage isolated screen time.
  2. Build a bridge into your gamers world.
  3. Use resources like social stories to help them catch up.

Manage Isolated Screen Time

The key here is isolated screen time. Playing video games together in person can be an effective way to help your child "level out." We have seen this in our Bravous programs where children will help other children work through difficult circumstances. With the right levels of support, children will improve. We also learned from our work at the Boys & Birls Clubs. In our Labo Workshop, we proactively included children with autism to participate. The Boys and Girls Clubs of America found the practice has two benefits. It accelerates the development of the affected child, but it also builds resilience and acceptance for the unaffected children.

So the key here is not just limiting screen time, but either replacing it with social activities or bringing in other players to remove the isolation.

Building a Bridge

And that brings me to a core belief I have to encourage more parents to play video games with their children. Children learn from role modeling, and as a parent, you have the capacity to role model behavior for your child. Nine out of ten parents will go to watch their children play a sports game, but only one out of ten will play a video game with their child.^11

The exact reasons you are reluctant to play are the exact reasons I would encourage you to get in there and play. Show your child what it looks like to struggle, to learn, to be a beginner again. There are many opportunities for you to engage your children in play through video games. Your goal is not to win, but rather building a bridge from your world (adulthood) to your gamers world ( childhood).

When you play with them, remember it is not about you but them.

Social Stories

Finally, if you are deeply concerned about your child's behavior, I would encourage you to explore "Social Stories"^12. Granted, these can take time and effort, but they have been useful.

Conclusion

When we hear someone yell that video games cause violence, it is understandable to be concerned. However, our goal is not be concerned but raise healthy kids. And in that sense it helps to have the facts. The reality is not so much that video games make kids violent, but rather, that extended isolation and mediated interactions can negatively impact their social and emotional development.

I hope I was able to put forward some tools for you to use as a parent, and point out some resources available to you today. The bottom line is that your children need you more than ever to navigate todays amazing technology toward a healthy digital future.


Scott Novis