Why the kids are all right

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 November, 2011, 12:00am


After school, 12-year-old George immediately turns on his Xbox at home in Mid-Levels. An invitation to play Call of Duty: Black Ops flashes on his screen; his friend Adam in Oxfordshire, Britain, is waiting. George accepts, puts on his headset, and the two start chatting and planning strategy while they wait for their friend Joe in Pokfulam to come online and join the team.

It's the modern equivalent of meeting your friends at the mall; but here's the irony: while today's parents know exactly where their gaming children are, they're more concerned than ever about what they are doing.

Hong Kong resident Laurie Constantinides is all too aware of the negative effects of video games, having been a high school teacher in the US: 'I saw kids losing sleep, not doing any physical activity or failing in school because of gaming. Parents have to take control of the situation.'

That's why she sets firm guidelines on how often her 13-year-old son, Ben, may play.

Most parents share her concerns, fuelled by a slew of reports about the anti-social, violent and stupefying effect of video games. It's certainly a hot topic, but some experts in this relatively new field argue that such games can actually play a positive role in how children learn, develop and work collaboratively.

James Paul Gee, a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University, leads the charge. Describing games as problem-solving exercises, he goes so far as to argue that children who don't play computer games may be at a disadvantage.

'It is important, first of all, that children learn to solve problems, and not just memorise facts; games are simply well-designed problem-solving spaces,' Gee says.

'Memorising facts and formulas for passing tests - which is what we do in the United States - does not lead to problem-solving abilities. However, if we teach children to solve problems, they use facts as tools for that problem-solving.

'Innovation is important because countries across the world now readily produce skilled and educated people. Standard skills, whether for low-status jobs or high-status ones, are now a dime a dozen. In developed countries, the ability to create, innovate and learn new things is crucial for success.'

Clive Dawes, curriculum leader for information and communications technology at Kellett School in Pokfulam, agrees. Used appropriately, gaming can help a child develop his mind and confidence, he says.

'At Kellett, we use computer games in three different ways: to stimulate, to play and to create. We have an ethos here that children learn through play, and they don't suddenly stop learning through play just because they are on a computer,' Dawes says.

'We ran a group of classes last year with our Year Fours called Stop Disasters, using an online game where the children had to defend a Thai coastal village against a tsunami, as well as looking at other global problems, such as drought or floods. They looked at things like putting in wave breaks without destroying the beauty of the beach, so there were issues they had to resolve. There were real-life discussions about seismology warnings, or how they could build better properties in Thailand.'

Throughout the process, children receive constant feedback, which helps them learn from their mistakes and promote resilience, he says, so they tend not to give up.

Dawes cites Marc Prensky, an American expert on learning and games in education who suggests that workplaces of tomorrow may bear uncanny resemblance to the formats of multiplayer games. Education, too, will involve creative thinking similar to that used in gaming, Dawes says.

The youth of today can't imagine life without broadband, mobile phones or instant messaging. To them, gaming is also a way to socialise and relax.

Louis Bond-Smith, a 17-year-old student at Island School, believes gaming helps develop creativity.

'While it may not teach vocabulary and linguistic skills to the same extent reading does, many games can still help people develop these skills. Mostly, though, they help people look at things in a different way, especially when you're working in a different world created by the game,' he says.

'Storyline-style campaigns create environments which are completely different to anything you've experienced before; you get intensely involved in those worlds. It's so cool to be able to do all the things you've wanted to, but never could. It's like getting into a book that you just can't put down.'

Dawes compares the interest in imaginative worlds of gaming to the explosion of fan fiction websites, which foster literacy and creativity. These sites encourage children to contribute ideas and storylines within the scope of an existing movie, book, TV show or game. Harrypotterfanfiction.com, for example, is popular for fans of the fictional young wizard.

'Fan fiction is part of a much larger trend these days for 'everyday people' to learn and act as professionals, whether writing fiction, making digital movies, creating ads or counter ads, covering the news, or engaging in citizen science,' Gee says.

Many teens such as Louis favour multiplayer online games, which give the thrill of competition.

'It's fun, for similar reasons competing in sports is fun,' says Louis. 'Every now and then, I'll get into a game and play more, for example ... Mass Effect, followed by its sequel, which are my favourite games of all time.' (The Call of Duty series, such as Modern Warfare 3, also gets a lot of play on his Xbox.)

Louis is no addict, though. He hangs out with friends as much as he can (though he often games with them, too), and typically plays for just a couple of hours every few days, maybe more on weekends. What's more, he's a high achiever at school, with a predicted 43 score in the International Baccalaureate, in which he is signed up for six subjects - French, English, maths, chemistry, physics and geography.

A keen sailor, he says sailing is his only sport but a major part of his life:

'Sailing takes priority over pretty much all except school - sometimes school, too,' Louis says. 'Gaming is something I enjoy when I'm not doing something else, when spending some chill time at home is much needed.

'My friends and sport take priority over gaming 98 per cent of the time.'

Even so, his mother, Imi Bond, worries about the effects of gaming.

'I really don't like it or agree with the concept, but I understand the kids enjoy it and need that outlet,' she says. 'As my children are otherwise extremely active, I turn a blind eye. Overall, though, I think it's a negative experience.'

Some research data seems to support the fears of mothers such as Constantinides and Bond. A study published this year in the journal Pediatrics, on pathological video-gaming among Singaporean youth, found links between excessive gaming and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and social problems.

'Simply put, gaming changes your body's biochemistry in many of the same ways cocaine does,' says co-author Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University.

'When you game, your brain releases dopamine - a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centres. The adrenaline rush you feel from playing violent games is exactly that, adrenaline. It's epinephrine coursing through your veins. Other stress hormones are also released, like cortisol and testosterone, and over time your body becomes desensitised: you build up a tolerance to the hormones racing around, and you need more new games to get the same excitement level back. And that looks very similar to a substance addiction.'

The paper, written with Dr Timothy Sim of Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Dr Choo Hyekyung of the National University of Singapore, was based on a two-year study on gaming and addiction in 3,000 children. Participants were asked 10 questions to determine if their lives were being affected. For instance, did they skip doing homework? Did they play games to escape problems or bad feelings? Have they ever stolen money so they could play games?

Gentile reckons addiction is the result of an impulse control disorder rather than the games.

'The gamer knows he should do his homework, but just can't stop playing. He knows it's time to go to bed, but first he has to beat just one more level. What needs to be changed is not the game; what needs to change is the player's ability to control his behaviour - he needs to start putting his life back into balance, but he may need help to be successful,' he says.

As Dawes sees it, addiction to gaming is ultimately a matter of parenting. 'You must have a computer; otherwise, how is your child going to do coursework, get a job or get into university?

'Children must be taught to self limit, and this is a parent's job, through good role modelling. My take on it with parents - and I am one myself - is yes, it can be a problem, but deal with it in a sensitive fashion, and don't believe everything you read.'