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A Lot of Gray Areas with Video Games and Kids

A Lot of Gray Areas with Video Games and KidsAn expert on the effects of video games on children has a clear opinion on the topic — the subject is too complicated to be categorized in black and white terms.

Dr. Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, argues that there’s a vast grey area when considering the multiple dimensions of video game effects on children and adolescents.

Gentile writes that there are at least five dimensions on which video games can affect players simultaneously:

  • Amount of play
  • Content of play
  • Game context
  • Structure of the game
  • Mechanics of game play

“Parents tend to care about either how much time their kids play or what types of games their kids play,” Gentile said.

“But when I did a study where the effects couldn’t be explained by the amount someone played or the content of the game, it made me realize there’s a lot more going on here. And in puzzling through what that more was, I realized there are at least five dimensions on which games have effects.”

In his article, Gentile references some of the most cited literature documenting video game effects in the five dimensions.

Many studies have found associations between the amount of game play and several negative outcomes, Gentile said.

But he contends it’s likely that some of those outcomes — such as findings that kids who spend more time playing video games typically experience poorer grades — may not be due exclusively to the amount of play.

“It is possible to argue that this relation might be due to the children themselves, rather than to game time,” Gentile said. “It is likely that children who perform more poorly at school are likely to spend more time playing games, where they may feel a sense of mastery that eludes them at school. Nonetheless, every hour playing games is one not spent doing homework.”

While Gentile writes that there is no standard definition of “content,” most definitions focus on the “script” elements or themes of the game. And previous research has found it is clear that children learn game content, and that learning can affect future behaviors. “This is how violent, prosocial, or educational games have most of their documented effects,” Gentile said.

The least researched dimension of game effects, according to Gentile, is how the game context alters or creates effects.

“It could be that as you play a violent game with a group of your friends, that context increases the aggression effect because you’re getting social support from people you care about for being aggressive in the game,” he said.

“Or it might be that context might have a teamwork motivation and prosocial orientation that you’re trying to help your team — which negates the aggression effect.”

The way a game is structured on the screen (to provide meaningful information to the player) also changes the psychological meaning of the content Gentile writes. This is the level at which games cause improvements to visual attention skills.

The skill necessary to play the games should not be discounted. Many game controllers improve fine motor skills (such as with a thumb controller), gross motor skills (swinging the Wii remote like a baseball bat), or even balancing skills (with the Wii balance board), according to Gentile.

By considering all these dimensions, he concludes that the same game can have both perceived positive and negative effects on players.

“There are several benefits to this approach,” Gentile said. “One is that it gets us past the dichotomous thinking that games are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’

“It also gives us testable hypotheses, and that’s good for science,” he continued. “And it also tells a game designer that if you’re looking to design a game for maximum impact, you need to focus on these five dimensions.”

The research appears in the journal Child Development Perspectives.

Source: Iowa State University

A Lot of Gray Areas with Video Games and Kids

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). A Lot of Gray Areas with Video Games and Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 23 May 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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