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Video Games: Friend or Foe?

The battle of words over the danger or safety of video games continues to rage.
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Ever since the popular video game based on the "Pokemon" cartoon apparently set off seizures in hundreds of school children in Japan in 1997, experts have weighed in on the pros and cons of video games for kids.

A decade later, the debate still continues -- and the answer is up to parents. Proponents say certain video games can teach valuable skills, such as team building and quick decision making. Detractors still express concerns about violence in video games, and the sedentary lifestyle that playing too frequently can cause.

Understanding the Issues
Research has shown that young people who play lots of violent video games behave more violently than those who don't, and some studies suggest an increase in aggressive thinking, says Craig A. Anderson, a professor at Iowa State University who has written several articles on violence in video games.

Parents should play the game themselves or have someone demonstrate it for them, and pay attention to issues such as whether the game involves characters trying to harm each other and if the harm is rewarded in some way, Anderson says.

Others contend the fear about violence in games is misplaced. To be sure, popular shooter games such as "Halo" and "Gears of War" are violent, but their "Mature" rating for blood, gore, and language means the games aren't intended for kids, points out James Paul Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of the book "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy."

"People want to know if a video game is good or bad and the position we take is it's neither good nor bad -- it's what you do with it," Gee says.

In fact, one of the best-selling video games of all time is "The Sims," a game about building families, neighborhoods, and careers. It contains no violence, Gee says.

Then there's "Age of Mythology," a game targeted at teens, which does involve characters leading armies into battle. But it's also a real-time strategy game in which kids build entire civilizations. Gee says he's seen ancillary benefits where children who develop an interest in the game also read books about mythology, draw pictures about mythological characters, and do online research about the topic.

Teaching Life Skills?
In addition to expanding interest in new worlds or ideas, video games played in moderation teach kids important skills for life and work -- how to collaborate as a team, how to make effective decisions under stress, and how to take prudent risks, says Marc Prensky, author of the book "Don't Bother Me Mom -- I'm Learning."

Kids are increasingly playing multiplayer games that can teach them to work together with other people. "They are in a complex world, solving problems involving multiple skills that involve a lot of decision making," Prensky says.

As for the violence issue, Prensky contends that kids can also learn moral and ethical issues from games. "Kids know it's just a game. Just because you can do this in a game, should you? The idea is to teach people ethical behavior."

On its website, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents help kids and teens select TV shows and video games appropriate for their age and limit screen time to no more than one to two hours of quality viewing per day.

A Joint Decision
Both sides of the video game divide do agree on one thing: Parents need to be involved. The real key to weighing the pros and cons of video games is figuring out the balance that works for your kids. "As adults," Prensky says, "It's part of our job to make sure our kids have a balanced life."

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