Danville Express

Living - March 2, 2007

The 411: Videogames pose dangers - to brains and bodies

by Katharine O'Hara

The advent of videogames that abound in 21st century technology-dominated society may prove detrimental to those who play them. In his book "The Good Son," therapist and educator Michael Gurian addresses the videogames so attractive to today's youth. Most of them are males, according to the third Nielsen "Active Gamer Benchmark" study, which revealed that 70 percent of 117 million "active gamers" in the U.S. are male.

Gurian said videogames "can be dangerous to brain development, and thus emotional and moral development." He describes the 1998 Sony PlayStation game "Cardinal Syn," which was advertised as a game where one could find "torture, mutilation, rivers of blood, bestial howls, and living death chambers." Certainly this gruesome description does not sound like a healthy image, let alone anything most parents would want their children exposed to.

Gurian explains that these kinds of images, and others portrayed in other popular games, stimulate the aggression centers of the brain and can promote violence, especially in males. Videogames "fit the very spatial male brain, and the inherent desire in the male psyche to test the self in aggressive arenas." These images and experiences of suffering and even death that are portrayed in the games distort reality, "desensitizing (the player) to real pain," and thus possibly preventing the emotional development of compassion and sensitivity.

San Ramon Valley High School junior Vincent Chuang, an avid World of Warcraft player who began playing videogames with SuperNintendo in kindergarten, admits he spends eight to 10 hours gaming on weekends.

"I play for a variety of reasons, mostly just for fun," he said. "I like the feeling that when I kill someone in a game, there is another player at his computer, frustrated."

Vincent explains that most gamers are male because he finds the games' violence is more appealing to guys than to girls.

"I also think these games are so attractive because they allow people to escape from reality and get away from their problems in the real world," he added.

Though playing videogames offers a break from stress, many of these games are addicting, and what starts as a short recess can quickly turn into a complete retreat from the real world. The addictive nature of videogames stems from the fact that, in order to succeed in the game, one must spend hours practicing - "leveling up" as Vincent prefers. Literally living in this fantasy world for hours or even days at a time limits real-life social interaction and can likely result in a loss of communication skills people need for dealing with day-to-day situations.

Gurian notes that the players' ability to react to situations in games by simply pushing buttons decreases the need to use words, and can actually detract from the brain's development of "verbal-emotive responses" in youths. Not only this, but Gurian stresses that "games teach violent solutions as opposed to more varied moral responses to social stress."

Aside from psychological development, excessive playing of videogames can cause physiological problems as well.

"The games rely on 'fixated eye movement,' a trancelike state that TV relies on," remarks Gurian. This state of "fixated eye movement" is described as being somewhat similar to the state of oblivion resulting from mild drug use. Many gamers also complain of back and neck aches that result from sitting in a solitary position for any long period of time.

Playing videogames may also be a significant cause of youth obesity in America, as playing detracts from time that could be spent exercising or being outdoors. Kids who spend hours sitting in front of their computers or TVs often subconsciously stuff their mouths with snack foods that are mostly unhealthy.

In addition to these health factors, many videogames are unsafe as they enable youths to talk with strangers. A few months ago I was somewhat surprised to find my cousin gaming, clad with a headset and microphone, and communicating with another anonymous player whom he had never met. Those who play Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMPORGs) assume their own fictional character and apparently interact with numerous other strangers in a vast virtual gaming world.

Though the attraction to videogames is somewhat inevitable, it is still important for parents to delay the time before their kids have access to videogames, and once they do, to monitor the amount of exposure time. Michael Gurian suggests that parents should wait until their children are at least 9 years old before allowing extended exposure to videogames. Even then, he warns, "video games should never become a large part of a (child's) life, especially if (he/she) is showing any signs of being socially, academically or athletically behind," or if any attention span problems are apparent.

It is clear that playing videogames, an activity that once seemed merely a harmless way to spend leisure time, has the potential to cause serious damage in a society gripped by their addictive hold.

The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a junior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at ohara5@comcast.net.

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