Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 29 / OCTOBER 1982 / PAGE 16

A Monthly Column

Computers And Society

David D. Thornburg Associate Editor

The Game's The Thing

Those who draw a distinction between Education and Entertainment don't know the first thing about either.

(Marshall McLuhan)

I can think of no application of microprocessor technology that has aroused as much controversy as the electronic game. It matters not if the game is in the home or in an arcade; some people feel that such electronically enhanced entertainment is a greater threat to society than, for example, micro­processor controlled smart bombs.

Almost anyone with a sufficiently negative opinion of game arcades seems assured of television exposure on the evening news or front page treatment in the local paper. As an example of the level to which the hysteria has risen, I have only to thank those readers who sent me copies of the front page article from the June 1 issue of the tabloid Weekly World News. For those of you who haven't read it, the front page headline blared (in 1 3/8'' type) TEEN KILLED BY VIDEO GAME. The article went on to say:

Shocked players at the Calumet, I11. video center were stunned as they watched the 18-year-old youth suddenly slump at the controls of ‘Berserk’ and slowly crumple to the ground. His lifeless body was a tragic symbol of the video game's conquest over its human foe.

Of course, the article went on to point out that the coroner found the boy had an undetected heart condition, and that it was the stress that killed him. Had this young man died as a result of overstress on the tennis court, I'm sure the story would not have been nearly as newsworthy.

It was thus with great relief that I received a package of articles in the mail from Peter Favaro – a Long Island psychologist who has spent years carefully studying the effect of video games on children.

You say that you haven't heard of Peter? Well, from what I can tell, he isn't the sort who is going to be gobbled up by 60 Minutes or The Today Show. He is a scientist who believes in reporting without hysteria what he observes. His writing does not contain sentences like:

He could see the beads of sweat reflected in the TV screen as his clammy hand reached for another quarter. Finally, after spending $85, he was within striking distance of his goal – a free game.

What Peter has done is quite interesting. He explored the skills acquisition potential of video games for his Master's thesis a few years ago. He explored the use of video games as a reinforcement tool for teaching learning disabled and emotionally disturbed children, and he studied the so-called "addictive" aspects of video games.

Coordination Test Findings

What did he find? First, some game proponents (myself among them) have speculated that, if nothing else, prolonged video game play would result in improved eye-hand coordination. Along with three colleagues, Peter devised a test involving 45 nursery school boys aged three to five years. The children were randomly divided into three groups. The experimental group received six, five-minute training sessions on a popular video game; another group received the same amount of personal attention, but did not play any games; and the third group was a control group that received no special treatment.

Prior to the experiment, each group was tested on two video games and one pencil and paper maze-solving task. The results showed that the experimental group did improve their skills in playing other video games, but that these skills did not transfer to the maze-following task. As Peter says,

One might criticize these results by saying that they suggest that children who play video games only get better at playing video games. On the surface, this is certainly true; however, my colleagues and I feel that, if given longer training sessions, the children might have achieved transfer to the maze tasks since there was a trend in this direction and since transfer was shown on a task with different stimulus characteristics.

Note that he did not say:

In the diffuse light of the damp basement laboratory, one could see that the children's eyes, once large with excitement and wonder, had hardened to steel as they fought for the right to get just one more quarter.

Peter's more recent work included the use of video games as a reinforcer for good behavior in a special education class of six boys who had previously "acted out." (Acting out, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, means doing things like breaking chairs over each other's heads.) Using this class as an opportunity for more research, he discovered that children responded much better when video games were used as the reinforcement tool than when the traditional "snack" reinforcers were used. An incidental benefit (beyond the low sugar content of video games) was that some of the more withdrawn and defensive children gained confidence and peer acceptance through the games.

Of all the criticisms leveled against these games, the idea that children become addicted to them raises considerable concern with the greatest number of people. Accordingly, Peter devised a study to measure social responsibility, impulse control, and compliance among groups of children who played video games. Since these three areas are ones in which addicts display behavior quite different from that displayed by non-addicts (whether the addiction is alcohol, drugs, etc.), it seemed appropriate to measure these things for a group of "heavy game users" and to compare the results with those for a group of "light game users."

In one test, he gave every child 12 quarters and told them that they could use six quarters on a game, but must give the remaining six quarters to a person nearby who was collecting money for charity. While the heavy game users did play more games (7.6 quarters vs. 5.6 for light users), the heavy users showed more social responsibility in giving the balance to charity (5.5 quarters vs. 4.5). My, my – so much for differences in social responsibility.

While Favaro's study is by no means conclusive, it did encourage him to make an interesting observation:

Obviously, anything that is done in an obsessive way can seriously disrupt anyone's life, but the point is: Why focus on video games? A child would be in serious trouble if he practices dribbling a basketball nine hours a day to the exclusion of everything else. Children as well as adults who have "addictive personalities" will always find a target for their addictions. It is unscientific to claim that a causal link exists between video games and maladaptive behavior, simply because a small population of children do both.

Well said, Peter, well said.