Do violent video games have an upside for kids?

This video game image released by Activision shows a scene from "Call of Duty: Black Ops II."  (AP Photo/Activision)
This video game image released by Activision shows a scene from "Call of Duty: Black Ops II." (AP Photo/Activision)

How’s this for a little holiday shopping fodder as teenagers beg for the latest video shoot-out game? A press release issued earlier this week from the American Psychological Association declares: “Playing video games, including violent shooter games, may boost children’s learning, health and social skills.”

(As I write this post, my own 15-year-old is playing a “Call of Duty” warfare game, while waiting for the latest version to arrive by mail.)

The positive news about violent video games was based on a review paper published in the association’s journal American Psychologist in which Dutch researchers made a concerted effort to summarize research showing the upsides of playing these games. In other words, the paper had an intentional aim to present an optimistic picture, the researchers admitted, in order to balance out bleaker study findings suggesting that violent games lead to aggression, addiction, and depression in those who play them.

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After news reports revealed that Sandy Hook Elementary School gunman Adam Lanza played shooting games like “Grand Theft Auto” and “Call of Duty,” President Obama asked Congress to set aside $10 million to fund studies devoted to investigating the effects of violent video games, movies, and television shows. Clearly, researchers have a more pressing incentive to study the harmful—rather than helpful—aspects of these games.

“Important research has already been conducted for decades on the negative effects of gaming, and we are certainly not suggesting that this should be ignored,” said study leader Isabela Granic, of Radboud University Nijmegen in The Netherlands. “However, to understand the impact of video games on children’s and adolescents’ development, a more balanced perspective is needed.”

There might actually be some potential benefits to playing simulated war games and car robberies where players are armed to the hilt with virtual semi-automatic weapons that many would like to see banned in the real world. These include:

1. Improved cognitive skills such as spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and perception. A 2013 study found that playing shooter video games improved a player’s capacity to think about objects in three dimensions, just as well as academic courses to enhance these same skills, according to the review paper. Numerous small studies suggest that volunteers recruited to learn a violent shooting game for the first time developed better attention to detail, visual processing skills, and abilities to mentally rotate objects than those randomly assigned to learn other types of video games.

These enhanced thinking skills were not found to be associated with other video games that involved puzzles or role-playing.

2. Enhanced abilities to problem solve. Those teens who increased their time spent playing strategic video games—with defined goals and rules to achieve those goals—experienced an improvement in problem solving skills and school grades the following year, according to a long-term study published in 2013.

3. Growth in creativity. Research suggests children’s creativity is enhanced by playing any kind of video game, including violent games, but not when they use other forms of technology, such as web-surfing on a computer or texting on a cell phone.

4. Promotes social connectedness. While some researchers have warned about the social isolated gamer, the latest video games are designed for social play with multiple players who can compete against each other in the same room or online. Multiplayer games become virtual social communities, the study authors said, where decisions need to be made quickly about whom to trust or reject and how to lead a group. A 2011 study found that those who play violent games that encourage cooperation to win are more likely to be helpful to others online in their game—and also offline in the real world—compared to those who play non-violent games that don’t encourage players to join forces as a team.

My son chats with his online friends through his headset as he plays, but I’d still rather see him riding his bike or playing basketball with them.

The bottom line: violent video games might be a mixed bag providing players with both a positive and negative impact. They’re probably fine in moderation if they don’t detract from homework and time devoted to physical activities. More research is certainly needed, the study authors emphasized, to determine what effects these games have on a developing teen’s brain.