Spring Seminar: Gaming: Pastime, Problem or Passion?

By Pamela Awad

On a recent Tuesday evening, over a hundred parents gathered at the Trevor Day School auditorium to hear an expert panel of psychologists, researchers and media scholars talk about video gaming, a not so trivial pursuit. The spring seminar, sponsored by NYC-PIA and moderated by Dan Feigin, Assistant Head of Trevor Day, addressed parental concerns about gaming. (Panelists answered questions parents had previously submitted.) True to the spirit of the classroom and the topic, Mr. Feigin requested a show of hands from parents who had recently played “Fortnite.” Few gamers were among those present.

Parents troubled by their children’s gaming habits are increasingly concerned as to whether gaming can become an addiction, is a disorder or even diagnosable as such. Computer games were first developed in the 1960s and with their emergence, a “long standing historical pattern of worry about the effects of computer and video games” began, said Dr. Laine Nooney, Assistant Professor of Media and Information Studies at NYU Steinhardt. It’s an open question as to whether gaming is officially an addiction or disorder; at present gaming addiction is “not named as a diagnosable disorder but a condition requiring further research,” said Dr. Yamalis Diaz, a clinician who specializes in ADHD and behavioral concerns at the NYU Langone Child Study Center. “We are not seeing huge numbers of actual diagnosable gaming disorder,” she explained, and behavior trending in that direction is usually indicative of other problems. “If we do trend in that direction it will likely be a more intense picture that doesn’t usually characterize the average child that just really loves gaming,” she said.

What happens to a child’s developing brain when they play video games and is there a dopamine connection? According to Dr. Bruce Homer, Professor of Education Psychology in Learning and Development at CUNY, “Dopamine, the naturally occurring hormone and neuro-transmitter that gets released playing video games… is part of the fun. Playing video games is NOT going to mess up the neuro transmitters in your child’s developing brain.” As to the misconception that there is a link between ADHD, gaming and dopamine, and that children with ADHD are predisposed to developing a gaming addiction, Dr. Diaz explained that in fact, children with ADHD brains do have lower levels of dopamine. Games activate the dopamine pathway and children with ADHD use games more often. However, “ADHD kids are misunderstood,” she said. “The ADHD brain is a superpower brain that needs to know how to channel its superpowers. This brain does more in any given moment than others.” While the ADHD brain gravitates towards stimulating activities, research evidence does not yet suggest that children with ADHD or emotional or attention deficits are more susceptible to gaming “addiction,” and the full role of dopamine is unknown at this time.

Gender patterns differ in gaming but both boys and girls game and they derive an astonishing number of benefits. Dr. Nooney described Fortnite as a “beautifully complicated, difficult and challenging phenomenon that takes practice and effort to be good at.”  Dr. Jan L. Plass, NYU Professor of Culture, Education, and Human Development and Director of the Consortium for Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technology in Education (CREATE), noted that even when playing the “most violent of video games, children develop reflexes that others don’t have. Children’s visual perception, attention, contrast resolution and object tracking increase by an order of magnitude that very few educational applications are able to increase.” The violence, misogyny and racial stereotyping prevalent in some games offer parents an opportunity to “take a critical lens and teach them to think critically (about how) women, bad guys or good guys look,” said Dr. Homer. “These are the kinds of conversations you want to have with your kids.” Success at games like Warcraft and Fortnite means players must plan, strategize, communicate, collaborate and be creative. For Dr. Plass, these skills are 21st century skills and “the outcome of what good learning should be.”

Video games offer kids an opportunity to master skills, connect with friends, teach others and experience success. ‘”What a good parent struggles with most is, what is the balance?” said Dr. Diaz. Children’s gaming habits can cause conflict and disrupt the social life of the family. The problem, as she describes it, is not simply that children want to play video games; the problem is how parents set limits around the game playing. “What’s the conflict?” she asked. Is it that “we need to change how we set limits, how we communicate with them around their game play or is it about emotion regulation, how we teach him or her how to deal with anger or frustration when the game is over?” When the amount of time a child spends playing video games seems to be rapidly increasing, Dr. Diaz suggests asking two questions: “How are you (the parent) navigating the setting of limits?”; and, if you also see a shift in mood, productivity or functioning, “What are they getting away from?” There may be reasons to be concerned but gaming is often the symptom, not the cause. She reassured parents that the “problems around gaming are not the games’ fault and they’re addressable.”

Likening video games to navigating a maze, Dr. Diaz, as do all the panelists, believes the opportunity to play games should never completely be taken away from kids. “We need to teach them how to get where they’re going,” she said. Children need to learn how to “participate in the digitalized, Internet focused, gaming world” of which they are a part. The trick for parents is teaching their children how “to participate in their social world; teach them how to navigate that and teach them how to manage their time, striking a balance.” Dr. Homer concurred. It’s counterproductive to take games away because “for kids this is more than an adrenaline rush, gaming is helping them form their identities, a sense of autonomy and giving them pride in their accomplishments.” Dr. Plass described how gaming could lead to “a professional career path that is becoming more popular and more diverse. Games have matured from a time waster to a way of becoming creative in engineering, design by means of 3D graphics and animation, learning and coding.”

Imagine raising super thinkers, super workers or super “strategizers” with super powers. Parents of game loving children are doing just that. Setting limits may seem like a “Battle Royale” and the words a “super easy Default Detector with 100 levels that can get you around 450 XP per match if you have a 120% XP boost,” may leave you bewildered. But parents have super powers too – we can teach our children well.