Ask any parent how they feel about their kids' video gaming and you'll almost certainly hear concerns about all the hours spent in a virtual world and the possibility of antisocial or even violent behavior. But are these concerns valid?
My teenage son is a gamer — bigly — and I've wrestled with how proactive I should be in monitoring an activity he's clearly passionate about. Research on the subject is all over the map, from those who say gaming is a benign part of young people's lifestyles to those who see it as a gateway to the next Columbine.
The U.S. video game industry generated more than $30 billion in revenue last year, according the Entertainment Software Assn. and the NPD Group. Two-thirds of U.S. households have at least one member who plays three or more hours a week.
At a recent seminar on video games at UC Irvine, Constance Steinkuehler, a professor of informatics at the school and president of the Higher Education Video Game Alliance, emphasized that most researchers embrace the idea that "play is good."
She also acknowledged that video games, like smartphones, social media and other modern technologies, can have addictive properties.
I spoke with Steinkuehler this week and she said "there's a lot of confusion and a lot of fear" among parents as to how they should respond to an interest that's consuming much of their kids' lives.
"Our children's lives are structured very differently from how our own were," Steinkuehler said. "Many kids are spending more time on average playing games than they are on homework."
Yes, games can be addictive in some cases, she said. But, no, there isn't any meaningful evidence that video games lead to abhorrent or violent behavior.
Kids are just as stressed as adults, Steinkuhler observed. Their lives are heavily structured and they're often pushed to succeed.
"Game play is a form of blowing off steam," she said. "It's a form of leisure. And it's the one media that turns screen time into activity time."
At the beginning, we tried to address our son's emerging interest in video games by limiting him to games and game systems that included an educational component. LeapFrog was our platform of choice.
He quickly outgrew their offerings, so we transitioned to Nintendo's Wii, which offered more family-friendly games and a physical element thanks to its motion-based controls. My son and I played virtual ping-pong and Frisbee golf, and flew digital planes around the Wii Resort island.
Eventually my wife and I noticed that he was scheduling play dates at the homes of friends who had Xboxes and adrenalin-charged, kill-or-be-killed games such as "Call of Duty." So we got an Xbox to bring the play dates to us.
He plays in online tournaments. He talks of joining a team, being sponsored or even going pro (top gamers can pull down six figures).
On weeknights, our son plays for maybe a couple of hours after finishing his homework. On weekends, he may play five, six, seven hours.
It's very social. He wears a headset and microphone and maintains running banter with his teammates. So I'm reluctant to say that just because this isn't the way I played Dungeons and Dragons when I was his age — face to face with others, sitting around a table — it's not healthy behavior.
But is it unhealthy?
"Parents should always be alert to obsessive behavior," said Scot Osterweil, creative director for MIT's Education Arcade, a program that promotes gaming in educational settings. "And too much screen time in general is bad for all of us."
However, he agreed with Steinkuehler that there isn't a lot of evidence to support theories that video games, particularly violent video games, foster antisocial or violent tendencies in young people.
Osterweil observed that violent crime in the United States has dropped in the three decades that video games have been around. In 1991, there were almost 25,000 murders in America — an all-time high. Last year, there were 17,250.
"If there was a correlation between video games and violence, we should see it," he said.
Parents, he noted, need to look deeper than just the fact that their kid enjoys virtual horseplay. Which child is more at risk for antisocial behavior, Osterweil asked, the one who spends six hours rambunctiously playing video games with friends or the one who spends six hours alone in their room practicing the violin?
"In most video games, kids are being challenged to do difficult things to master game play," he said. "That not a bad thing and could be developing skills that will extend beyond the game."
My wife and I encourage moderation in our son's gaming, although we're not always successful. We watch for signs of trouble, but we also want to give our son the freedom to make — and learn from — his own accomplishments and mistakes.
Magy Seif El-Nasr, director of the Game Design Program at Northeastern University, said parents should make an effort to learn about the games their kids are playing and to join them for a match or two.
"Make it a bonding activity," she said. "It allows you to spend time with your kids and talk to them."
That's good advice, but it's not easy. I tried playing "Call of Duty" and quickly proved myself hopeless at navigating the virtual terrain and battling others. Now I stick to watching my son play and discussing the strategies he employs.
I still push him to read more, and I try to find books that will catch his fancy (thank you, Ernest Cline, for "Ready Player One").
I also ask my son to leave the computer every so often and play me in chess (a game I'm fairly good at). He's an aggressive player with a great head for spatial and tactical thinking — skills that will undoubtedly work in his favor in future years.
It's not hard to understand where he gets those skills.
He beats me almost every time.