I confess that I am old enough to remember when there were no video games. I remember when Pong, Space Invaders and early Mario Brothers arrived, but I never played them because I found them tedious, predictable and annoying in their pinging and zapping. Conversing with a human or doing something active was far more engaging. 

Over my years as a therapist, I have observed the psychological and cognitive impact of video gaming on children. I am no expert or researcher on this subject, but believe that technology overall has a very negative impact on children. Certainly the sedentary behaviors these games create harms children’s physical health, making them overweight and out of shape. While it is possible to “meet” people online, I feel the loss of face-to-face interactions harms children’s social skills and mental health, as they have reduced active play and social interactions. The rapid pace of play, loud noise, and violent content cannot help manage symptoms of anxiety or ADHD, but likely make these conditions worse. 

However, what I recently witnessed in a child made me realize video games also have a very negative impact on the ability to learn. 

Map of US

Eight-year-old “David” told me at the start of therapy that he was learning to identify the states of the northeastern United States in school. He wanted to try to identify them on a website that he had learned about, so I pulled it up on my computer. While this was not strictly therapeutic, I was actually curious that he wanted to address anything academic, because he was generally quite negative about school. 

The website had a map of the U.S. with no names. Players of this game were prompted with a state name and they had to click on the appropriate state to identify it. David admitted that he hadn’t learned any states other than the northeastern ones, but wanted to try to identify all the states. 

Predictably, he got very few correct on his first pass, even when I was giving him hints (“It’s way to the west” or “It has a V-shape,” etc). My clues and education were even quite specific:  “NORTH Dakota is very far NORTH.” After getting a mediocre score, at least he wanted to try again, and I gave him credit for persistence. However, this behavior may also be indicative of another problem with video games: addictive behaviors that they can induce. 

However, even with several repetitions of this game, David’s score did not improve. He learned essentially nothing from each attempt. His method continued to be merely one of “point and shoot” guessing. He made no effort to remember his mistakes and learn from them. The suggestions gave him were completely forgotten minutes later.

His skills of deduction and logic were quite lacking. Once he correctly identified North Dakota, for example, when South Dakota came up he failed each time to connect that it might be south of North Dakota. Same for West Virginia/Virginia and North/South Carolina. Even when I prompted him with a clue, he barely listened to my input and preferred to just guess on his own — not an attitude that is indicative of a receptivity to learning. ,

His play of the game continued to be an impulsive click on states just because they “felt right” and not because he knew the names or was even close to the right region. His desire to click on a state was his main focus, not on actually deducing which state was which and getting the correct answer. His deductive problem solving was nearly non-existent, over-ridden by his desire to take a wild risk, “shoot” at a state, and assume the consequences — because you can always start the game over. 

I realized this was the result of him growing up playing video games for hours every day. Video games can always be restarted with no real consequences, whereas school tests should have some finality to them. In actuality, most schools operate on a “re-test” policy where students can retake tests and re-do homework indefinitely up until the end of the marking period. This further reinforces the mentality of “shoot first, think later” — exactly what video games teach. Students are being rewarded for reacting, not reasoning. 

As a child I would have hesitated to play an identification game like this with no education — not because I was afraid of failure, but because I would have known that my score would have represented nothing about my knowledge, but was merely a guessing game. 

Video games are not about knowledge, but about shooting first impulsively and trying to get lucky with a result. And this young man was applying that same attitude to this learning website, but the result was he learned nothing. He only engrained the bad learning habit of rapid-fire impulsive guessing and clicking randomly. 

I really hope parents start to rethink the harms of hours of exposure to video games starting at young ages and schools rethink video game-based learning as possibly unhelpful at actually training memorization skills. I saw with David that his only interest in playing this “game” of identifying states was not in the learning, but in the “point and shoot” tactics it involved. He appeared to learn nothing from the experience. Time spent in actively memorizing the states would have been far more productive.

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