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X-Boy? Play Cube? Game Box? What?!?

By Jeffery Devens

Dim lights, half-empty pizza boxes, and the thunderous sounds of cheers and groans filter their way out from the television room. Entering, you notice your son and his friends mindlessly engaged in what appears to be a series of orchestrated sequences involving an ergonomically designed handheld device, connected to a box, with cords running into the television. What is going on here? Welcome to the world of gaming…
When I speak of games I am referring to such common platforms as the Internet, Game Boy, X-Box, GameCube, Sony PlayStation, etc. In the last 25 years these interactive devices have taken a firm foothold in the mainstay of our culture.
It no longer comprises a subset of the culture; it is an embedded and a large part of the mainstream. Researchers Beck and Wade note that “... games are a technology that has been universally adopted by a large, young cohort and ignored by their elders.” For young people today, gaming is everywhere, established, emotionally enticing, and embedded in the fabric of their lives. They don’t know of a time when gaming did not exist. As far as they are concerned, people who did not grow up with such “necessities” might as well have been born 100 years ago... and sometimes this is how we feel when it comes to understanding the attraction. Part of the difficulty is that parents (those typically over the age of 45) have had comparatively limited experience of gaming as children.
Without a reference point, parents can be at a loss to appreciate the allure, and need a richer understanding of the draw that games have for children and particularly teens.
Bring It On!
While it is true that games are a consumer product, they are also a consumer experience. One of the central features of games is that they provide experiences that draw on parts of reality, while simultaneously drawing on powerful emotions. Games put the players in direct control of the various scenarios they are experiencing: whether a soldier fighting in WW II or a wizard casting spells, the outcome is ultimately in the hands of the person with the controls. In essence, video games provide a platform where teens can fulfill the urge to challenge, compete, and win, without leaving a record of failures.
The physical skills for gaming are quite simple: hitting the right sequence of buttons at the right moment. But these skills can be taken to extremely high levels. Wins and losses are not evaluated solely based on a particular score, but rather on acquisition of a new skill or level of understanding. Gaming is progressive in nature; with each additional game played, a new level of understanding and confidence is gained. Gratification and “tangible” improvement can be charted moment by moment, game by game. One would be hard-pressed to replicate this type of continuous reinforcement in other arenas of life. This is one of the many factors that make gaming so appealing, and possibly compulsive.
I Am the Hero!
The world of reality takes a back seat when it comes to gaming. Games are all about role playing, and players can assume the role of a soldier, pilot, warlock, athlete, and a host of other characters. The characteristics of gaming also trigger a wide assortment of half-truths and exaggerations. Insulating themselves from the consequences of their actions, gaming allows for trying on different roles, interacting with others who have similar interests and abilities.
This form of social interaction and development is markedly different from experiences commonly noted by parents when they were kids. Children of past generations typically formed bonds with others based on school, club, sport, or religious affiliations. While this is still true of young people today, gaming also affords an opportunity to connect with others and develop a sense of belonging and community, even if this community is electronically based. Gaming also makes it possible for a player, regardless of physical and social limitations, to become the central hero. As Wallace notes, we live in an age when attention is a commodity in short supply but in very great demand. Gaming puts young people at the center of a universe where the world, albeit a virtual one, does indeed revolve around them.
Social Enticements
In computer gaming, a Multi-User Domain (MUD) is a multi-player computer game that combines elements of role-playing and instant messaging. People connected to the internet, from anywhere around the world, become part of a team, working towards an established goal, communicating with one another via a dialogue box which is part of the game itself. For example, in EverQuest (a popular MUD), players explore a Tolkienesque fantasy world of swords and sorcery, fighting monsters and enemies for treasure and experience points, all the while interacting with other players.
As they progress, players advance in level, gaining power, prestige, and increased abilities. In addition, players may opt to take part in battles against other players; including both duels and fights against player characters allied with an enemy faction.
Entering into this gaming area can be likened to meeting up with friends for a night on the town. When gaming online for example, young people may form “friendships” with others with whom they share no other interest (or physical proximity) outside of the MUD environment; however, the bonds formed as a result of these interactions can be just as intense and significant for children (particularly teens) as any “real” relationship.
Teens are in the process of asking that fundamental question: Who am I? Along the way, games help them to express and explore several aspects of this. Over the course of adolescence, teens address substantial developmental tasks, including forming positive healthy relationships with peers and developing an understanding of social forms and norms.
Online gaming draws teens toward others, on an international platform, where they are able to communicate, interact, and share similar experiences.
Worst-Case Scenarios
At what point, if at all, should gaming become a concern? For example, I have met parents who are concerned about the excessive amount of time their children are spending gaming, and are wondering at what point to intervene. As educators and parents, we bear the primary responsibility for guiding children. We are responsible for understanding what is out there in the world of gaming, how it is evolving, and what impact (both positive and negative) it may be having on our children.
But there lies the difficulty. Because gaming is a relatively new phenomenon, considerable controversy surrounds the extent to which gaming behavior is addictive or compulsive in nature; this is true for the layperson as well as the psychologist. We have very little to go on at this juncture, other than anecdotes, a few surveys, and general societal concerns.
Maressa Orzack, Director of Computer Addiction Services at a Harvard University-affiliated hospital, believes that social aspects are a primary factor in compulsive gaming. “Many of these people are lonely, have never felt like they belonged … People get a sense of belonging in the game. In some cases, it provides the only friends they interact with.”
Some general areas for parents to consider, regarding possible excessive use of gaming, may include lifestyle changes in order to spend more time gaming; general decreases in physical activity, instead devoting additional time to gaming; disregard for health (missing meals) and hygiene in order to play more; avoiding homework and social obligations; a decrease in socializing, resulting in loss of friends, due to gaming behaviors; craving more time at the computer, and becoming agitated if this is not allowed; and changes in sleep patterns (or sleep deprivation) in order to spend additional time gaming.
The above symptoms are by no means exhaustive, nor are they official criteria for gaming addiction or compulsive gaming. For those who are concerned, it may be helpful to seek out additional guidance from counselors and psychologists within the community.
First published in TIE's December 2009 issue.
As you conclude this article, new gaming platforms are being launched and are hitting the market. The challenge is to keep up, and to remain aware of the factors that are shaping and influencing the way your children and students think; in other words, it’s time to “get in the game.”

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