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T. Atilla Ceranoglu

Video games can be healthy

A scene from “Battlefield 3.’’ A scene from “Battlefield 3.’’ (Associated Press/Electronic Arts/Dice)
By T. Atilla Ceranoglu
July 5, 2011

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IN THE 1990s, when I used to play video games deep into the night, I found that even when I turned off the game, it was never really off in my mind. It didn’t matter whether I was playing “Civilization,’’ “World of Warcraft,’’ or “FIFA Soccer.’’ When I finally managed to fall asleep, I’d dream of playing the game or being inside of it. The next day, I’d be exhausted.

I often thought about those days while awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling on a California law that would ban the sale of violent video games to minors. Last week, the judges ruled - correctly - that the ban, while well-intentioned, violates the First Amendment. They also reminded us of the violence that has long been depicted in other media forms, such as Saturday morning cartoons.

No one ever seriously proposed a ban on “Bugs Bunny’’ or “Ben 10.’’ Still, it’s easy to understand why parents and lawmakers cringe at “Modern Warfare,’’ the top-selling video game last year, which allows kids to shoot innocent people, torture enemies, and leave behind a trail of realistic-looking gore.

Indeed, much of the debate over video games has focused on whether they make children more aggressive. Research on this is inconclusive at best, and in many ways unconvincing.

However, research on other effects of the games suggests that there are healthy and unhealthy ways to play them, regardless of whether there are soldiers or athletes onscreen. As I’ve learned in my child and adolescent psychiatry practice, the focus should be not only on what kids play, but also, perhaps more so, on how they play.

Whenever I play a car-racing game with my 6-year-old for longer than half an hour, he gets tired, his eyes get glassy, and he becomes more distracted than is typical for his age. This mental fatigue looks different from physical fatigue: When I coach his soccer team and he runs for an hour chasing a ball or a friend, he never looks tired in the same way.

This difference probably is because video game play involves different mental skills. It’s a workout for brain muscles. Just as too much strenuous exercise can cause one to pull a muscle, too much video game play may tax and stretch cognitive functions.

So what do we really know? First, kids who play video games for up to 45 minutes improve their attention span shortly after game play but lose these gains if they play longer. Second, those who play shortly before bedtime have more difficulty falling asleep and go on to have memory problems the next day.

Finally, we know well that the number of electronic devices in bedrooms - from computers to TVs, video game consoles to cell phones - is associated with longer duration of use and increased incidence of sleep and academic problems.

We also know children get more out of video games than the political rhetoric would have you believe. Once I met a child with significant struggles in learning and in social interactions. He was too perplexed to relate to anyone around him, but through playing “Halo 2’’ - a violent video game - he had an easier time making and staying connected with friends. Another child got inspired from “Assassin’s Creed’’ - a violent video game that takes place in Renaissance Italy - to go on to ace his history exams. A history of playing “Call of Duty: Black Ops’’ didn’t stop another young teenager from consistently topping his classes while engineering several apps for smart phones.

The key, in all of those cases, is that the kids had strong parental supervision. Parents need to monitor how much and when their children are playing video games. They could also go a step further and play themselves.

Indeed, instead of talking about ways to ban violent video games, we’d be better off figuring out how to use them as a tool. Video games can be a useful way to understand what our kids are doing with their time, and to interact with them on a turf more familiar to them. The Supreme Court merely affirmed that judgment.

Dr. T. Atilla Ceranoglu is a child and adolescent psychiatrist.