By Mick Warshaw
Video games are big business. Top games have sales in the tens of millions, and in recent years big opening weekends have generated more revenue and profits than big Hollywood blockbusters.
Some of the biggest titles, like Call of Duty, Resident Evil and Halo, have become significant modern cultural touchstones. These titles and others like them have spawned bestselling book franchises, board games, movies and even special edition vehicles.
In short, it seems like everybody's playing, and children have been a major part of the target audience since the early days of gaming.
Objections to Gaming
The explosion in the gaming industry over the last 35 years has been accompanied by significant objections to the effect video games have on children. Parental and other objections to video games generally boil down to a few major points.
Games discourage physical activity. Gaming is essentially a sedentary activity, and every minute spent gaming isn't spent playing outside. The Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect have made strides in trying to create more active video games, but their overall popularity falls short when stacked up against the number of teens who prefer the Xbox Live experience with first person shooters, like the Halo series.
Games have been alleged to be addicting. The jury is still out on this charge, but the idea that it could be is enough to scare off some parents. This wasn't as big of a concern until consoles, like Xbox 360 and PS3, made it possible for players to game online and chat through headsets. Young gamers could play and interact for hours on end without leaving their game systems,.
Content concerns. Media conjecture and some reputable reports have blamed violent content in games for desensitizing children to violence in real life. This is the issue that famously caused Joe Liebermann and Herb Kohl to introduce legislation to ban games following the release of Mortal Kombat in 1993.
Liebermann and Kohl failed in their initial crusade, but their persistent efforts to regulate games led directly to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The ESRB rates all games in the United States for content, labeling them as to their age-appropriateness.
The ratings haven't been effective in keeping content from kids, according to Sage, owner of Sage Mantis Game Haven in Fredericksburg. "The majority of parents do not pay attention to the rating," said Sage. "They will sometimes ask if a game has this or that type of content."
The Good in Gaming
Gaming has been tied to several beneficial brain developments. Studies have indicated that games could help hand/eye coordination and rapid decision-making. Puzzle and strategy games help develop problem solving and logic skills. Nintendo's hand-held systems—DS, 3DS, DSi— have done an admirable job in their development of a line of brain games and simulators. Shooting games, like the titles in the Call of Duty series, can help improve visual acuity and rapid processing of ocular stimuli. Certain types of games have been shown to help dyslexics with reading.
The biggest reason for many parents to say yes to video games is the fun and bonding gaming can offer with children. This helped the Wii become a wildly popular family gaming console. Gaming together offers parents and children the opportunity to work as a team to overcome challenges of varying difficulty and complexity. That sort of shared accomplishment can lead to stronger long-term emotional bonds.
A Hard Sell
Regardless of the potential benefits, video games still have major perceptional barriers in some places. In Fredericksburg, for example, Game Haven approached the local schools about offering coupons, discounts and other special programs to honor school children.
"The local schools, the teachers and principals were all on board," said Sage. "I think the superintendents' generation still views games as a bad thing, so they struck it down."
In the end, like anything else, gaming comes down to choices. If a parent is comfortable with gaming they can have fun and rewarding time doing it with their children. If not, they can still have fun and rewarding time doing other things with their children–and that is a happy ending.