Online Video Games Can Either Make or Break our Kids

Kids Playing Video GamesA line of resistance often used against the legalization of online gambling is that it encourages underage gambling. While there is no denying that safety mechanisms should be considered in preventing underage gambling (and are already effectively employed in regulated markets), in this increasingly digital age, shouldn’t we be more worried about our youth’s growing reliance to video games, which could be argued, are a gateway to taking part in computer games that allow betting?

According to The Entertainment Software Association’s 2015 study, approximately 43.5 million children in the United States of America under the age of 18 regularly play video games. These kids represent 29% of the total estimated 150 million people in the US who are playing digital games. Gamers make up a whopping 59% of the American population according to this study. And with virtual and augmented reality bubbling into the mainstream, those figures are likely to grow exponentially.

In August, the zeitgeist defining game, Pokemon Go, hit 100 million downloads and it is easy to assume that a decent percentage of those are by people who may not have been included in the ESA’s 2015 stats. A cultural and generational paradigm shift is occurring. How do we chart its course with some modicum of safety?

Ethical questions abound as the the lines blur between real life responsibilities and the virtual world; its entertainments, and demands on our attention. How are these demands affecting the behavior of our children and potentially shaping their personalities and cognition skills? Are we shaping the next generation to be more reactive, anti-social, and adrenaline driven? Or will the next generation be more adaptive, have greater problem solving skills, and more capable of identifying with experiences other than their own?

Like with most things in the observable universe, both outcomes exist and maintain the same probability of an “outside” bet at the Roulette table.

In a recent NOVA episode: School of the Future, the development in highly personalized and intuitive game design is incorporating educational tools that are helping students learn more effectively and efficiently. One such platform was created by Sal Khan of the Khan Academy, whose mission is discribed as, “Tackling math, science, computer programming, history, art history, economics, and more. Our math missions guide learners from kindergarten to calculus using state-of-the-art, adaptive technology that identifies strengths and learning gaps.”

Game design strategy used to increase our children’s capacity to learn and retain information in a way they interpret as useful and interesting is the holy grail for educators.

But beyond being an effective innovation in education, what about the effects of video games on our childrens’ character? In a study conducted at the University of Michigan, 160 male and 160 female college students played either a violent or non-violent game for 20 minutes. When the students had finished playing and were dismissed, they encountered a fake fight that the researchers had staged. As a result of the fight, one of the plants was knocked to the ground and as they struggled to get up, the other plant, the aggressor, left the scene. This left the study subjects observing the one person in pain and unable to stand up.

What researchers were hoping to establish was if there is any effect on empathetic behavior after playing violent vs nonviolent video games. They did indeed observe a relationship between these things: The average time it took the players of the non-violent games to help was 16.2 seconds. But the average time it took the players of the violent games to help was 1 minute 13.3 seconds – a substantial difference which reflects the negative effects on empathic and compassionate action that playing violent video games has on a person.

But a study conducted in 2010 that was published by the American Psychological Association, showed “playing prosocial video games increases prosocial affect and decreases antisocial affect. More specifically, we found that exposure to prosocial (relative to neutral and antisocial) video games enhanced interpersonal empathy and diminished reported schadenfreude toward a target befalling a misfortune.”

This takes the empathy study a bit further, in that it strives to reveal if positive, cooperative, or prosocial games have the ability to increase those positive behaviors in the people who play them. Doing so thereby reveals video games to be a tool that can promote positive character development, just as they can promote negative character traits when the games reinforce negative, violent, or dehumanizing behavior. This is a boon for interest groups focused on healthy child development, because there is a way to promote the development, design, and promotion of prosocial games that can actually help us with teaching the next generation to be more empathetic people.

As studies uncover the power that video games have on shaping behavior in the real world, it must be made known that this phenomenon is occurring, because of the heightened emotional, and physiological state that video games have on people, particularly children. This heightened state is akin to the “rush” people have when gambling at a casino. Adrenaline, if habitually accessed in order to feel that “rush” can lead our brains to form a dependency, and predilection toward addictive behavior.

The line between online video games and online gambling have become increasingly blurred, as two separate instances of influential youtube “gamers” have had recent charges brought against them for advertising unlawful gambling and for inviting children to gamble. The first was a suit filed by a parent on behalf of her child, that claims that Trevor ‘TmarTn’ Martin and Tom ‘ProSyndicate’ Cassell fostered an illegal gambling scene in which weapon skins served as stand-ins for casino chips.

The two Florida-based Youtubers have well over 10 million subscribers and own CSGO Lotto, which is accused of encouraging millions of Americans (underage players included) to link their individual Steam accounts to websites that allow players to gamble online with their CS: GO weapon skins. [Steam is a multiplayer software management platform, that also includes a Steamwallet feature.] CSGO Lotto is structured in a way that players can place bets on various casino-style games, lotteries, jackpots and other games by using Counter-Strike: Global Offensive skins. Skins are ‘in-game’ items that provide aesthetic upgrades to a player’s game play, which can be won, traded, sold or used as virtual currency.

Two other popular Youtube gamers in the UK, Craig Douglas and Dylan Rigby, recently had a case brought against them by the UK Gambling Commission for similar activity. The commission cautioned parents that children can be drawn into using in-game items to bet with, and trade, sell or use as virtual currency in order to then be converted into actual money. Meanwhile, most of these online gambling activities are happening well outside of the jurisdiction of regulated online gambling provisions, and hidden within the densely layered world of online multi-player platforms which have evolved to have their own unique virtual economy and interpersonal ecosystem.

These developments stress that in order for parents to preserve their children’s well being, it is going to require tireless oversight and foresight in order to proactively envision and invest in ways that video games can help foster positive character traits and learning skills, while also preventing the development of unhealthy addictive behavior. Instead of bemoaning the fact, it is time to be proactive and get creative of how we can use this incredible development in technology in a way that ensures the next generation soars to new heights.

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