"Parents deserve so much more when it comes to the ways video games are discussed in our popular media."

An interview with someone who actually thinks a lot about games and our brains

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a pretty bleak look at what quarantine induced screen/gaming time is theoretically doing to kids. I mean, take a look at this triple whammy of moral panic: Possibly sad kid in chiaroscuro lighting, not listening to his parents! Concerned mom! Also concerned dad! The headline: alarming. The dek: “epic withdrawal.” There’s mention future marriage troubles, scary brain mentions, and the phrase “I’m not losing him to this.” The overarching message: if you weren’t already worried that you were screwing up your kids in some lasting way, woooohooooo do we have confirmation for you.

You can read the piece here, but it is simply the latest iteration of a long line of fear-mongering literature on what a new technology will or already has done to children, very little of it ever rooted in research. It’s a shitty way to talk about videogames and it’s a shitty thing to put in front of already-struggling parents. But I know that it’s easy to let a piece like this plant yet another seed of unease right now, when so many of us feel like we’re basically doing everything wrong. So I asked psychologist Rachel Kowert, who’s spent her academic career studying gaming, to talk about why articles like this keep getting written — and what sort of frameworks we could use to think about games and what they’re actually providing kids right now.

You can follow Rachel on Twitter here. She currently serves as the research director for Take This, which works to decrease stigma around gaming. You can read more about it here. Later this week, I’ll be featuring interviews with kids of all ages talking about the games they love — subscribe now to make sure it comes your way.

Can you tell me a little about how you first got interested in the stereotypes and assumptions about games, gamers, screens, etc. etc.?

During my clinical internship in my masters program at Santa Clara University, I started to see an influx of parents concerned about the impact of online games on their children. This was around the height of popularity of World of Warcraft, and there was a lot of worry that increased online game play could be detrimental for players — physically, socially, and/or psychologically.  As a lifelong gamer, I began to adopt these parents' fears, and wonder if my game playing habits were somehow detrimentally impacting me. At the time, there was little to no research in the area — so I decided to pursue a research based PhD program looking at the impact of games on game players. 

In your excellent Twitter thread on this piece, you firmly situate this New York Times within a larger history (and general discourse) of moral panic. As a media historian, I often think about the moral panic around movies and movie star culture in the early 20th century, but also the “vast wasteland” rhetoric around television in the 1960s onward, the ridiculous conversations about explicit lyrics in the 1990s, and, of course, fears that Gameboys were rotting our brains. But that’s just my very cursory historical memory. Can you give us a little more historical context? What people are actually panicking about when they panic about media? 

Popular media and new forms of technology have historically been approached with suspicion. This can be traced all the way back to 400BC, when Plato expressed his concerns about written language (what would happen to our ability to remember things?) and has continued through panic about telephones, crossword puzzles, film, comic books, rock and roll, Dungeons and Dragons and video games.

Put formally, moral panics are irrational approaches to observable and quantifiable phenomena that can be understood separate from subjective evaluation. They are irrational approaches because at their core, they are about ascribing an easy solution to a complex problem. 

A perfect example is the cycle of video games being blamed after mass shootings. They are an easy scapegoat, despite the fact that science paints a much more and nuanced picture about what contributes to any particular individual to commit a violent crime.

The problem with moral panics is that they deflect resources away from determining the underlying cause of any particular problem — like looking at peer delinquency as a contributing factor to violent crime among youths rather than violent video game play. (If people are interested in learning more about moral panics, I recently released a YouTube video on my channel, Psychgeist, discussing their history and current place within video game cultures)

I saw a lot of media and gaming historians doing the Twitter version of groaning when this piece came out. The tropes are just so tired. What’s one that particularly stuck out to you? 

There are so many tropes and old arguments in this particular article it’s hard to pick one! The one that sticks out most was the quote by the interviewed parent who said “What are you going to do when you’re married and stressed? Tell your wife that you need to play Xbox?” I’m not even sure what the parent is trying to imply here, but it is clearly something negative. However, we have known for years that games are fantastic tools for stress relief, social connection, and can have wide ranging, positive impact on mental well-being.

That said, the negative framing of escapism also stuck out as a particularly old, misused trope. We can escape into a good book or escape into the tales of Geralt of Riva in The Witcher on Netflix without a second thought. But for some reason it is suddenly a problem if we want to escape into Midgar in the Final Fantasy 7 (Square) remake? Escapism in and of itself is not inherently bad and it only ever seems to be framed that way when it comes to video games.

You wrote that while pointing to the effects of screens on our brains is “a great way to instill fear in us all,” there’s “actually a LOT of debate in the scholarly community about the long-term effects of technology on long-term, structural brain change due to technology work.”

So much of your research is really seeking to complicate the easy narratives we have about what gaming and screens do to us and for us — and I’ve always found it to be an endlessly fascinating and generative field of research. Why are people (journalists, but also parents) often so resistant to that nuance? 

I think this is very much an issue of “clickable headlines.” Fear sells. Easy solutions to complex problems, they sell. This is why we still see headlines today linking violent video games to violent behaviours even though there are (literally) hundreds of studies pointing to the opposite conclusion. As a scholar in the field, it’s incredibly frustrating to see generalized headlines that continue to instill fear and misinformation. 

Cultural studies teaches us to actually pay attention to the way people say that they’re interacting with, absorbing, or seeking comfort from a piece of media. It shouldn’t be radical to listen to people about how they make meaning out of the world around them, but I think it’s often still treated that way. Later this week, the newsletter is going to be dedicated to kids talking to their parents about what they like about their games, and the place it’s filled in their lives.

What have you learned from your own conversations and research that feels important for people to hear right now? Parents, but also just people in general?

Parents deserve so much more when it comes to the ways video games are discussed in our popular media. Especially now, during social distancing and COVID-19 lockdowns, as video games have become one of the last fun, social activities we can do together with our friends safely.

Play is important throughout the lifespan: many people assume that it’s only critical for child development, but it’s actually critical to your mental well-being throughout your life. Games are particularly effective tools for mood management, because good games (well-designed games) engage players in a way that meets basic psychological needs as humans: they give you a sense of autonomy (you are free to make your own choices), competence (that you can achieve things, be successful), and relatedness (connecting with your friends via online play).

These three components — autonomy, competence, and relatedness — are thought to be essential for psychological health and well-being of an individual. Having these needs met, while also having the added element of playfulness, makes players feel good, happy and satisfied. All of this stems from Self Determination Theory, a theory of motivation from the 1970s that has been expanded upon to talk specifically about games and how well designed games can contribute to our well-being while offering a sense of happiness and satisfaction.

Why would you want a that so beautifully ticks all three of these boxes of human motivation right now? Because all three are hindered by COVID-19. We don’t have a sense of autonomy: we’re not free to go wherever we want to go, and we’re not free to do it without a mask (though, of course, wear your mask). Our sense of competence is reduced: we cannot control what is going on outside, we’re less efficient at our jobs or schooling. And social distancing, social bubbles, and all the other social challenges of COVID-19 have reduced our relatedness.

Should screens be the only thing your child engages with all day? Of course not. There are physical considerations to consider: disturbed sleep, being sedentary, the potential impact on vision. But should you be afraid that your children are playing more video games now than ever before? Absolutely not. Games and play are a great way to foster relationships, to reduce stress, help manage negative emotions — and to just have fun. When did fun no longer become an important outcome? 

If you’d like to see Rachel speak more about the impact of games and their role during quarantine, you can watch her recent talk here.

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