How are video games changing – and how are we changing with them – during the era of smartphones and Facebook? What can be done at the psychological level to limit their risks and increase their potentials? On these questions we have interviewed Maria Beatrice Toro, psychologist and expert psychotherapist on children, adolescents and new media.
She has published various works on these topics. A review of Toro’s most recent work, Adolescents and Adultescents , can also be accessed on our site.
If you think that they are just a hobby for antisocial, loner children, you need to be updated. More and more, video games are becoming a form of entertainment for all age groups, without limits of time and space, but also a powerful tool for acquiring and developing skills. These instruments are the pillars of an approach toward reality defined gamification. Attitudes and daily behavioral patterns are shaped in the game that can make life easier and make us happier. If these instruments, however, are misused, they can trigger aggression and addictions. The idea “gamification” reality in order to be better is suggestive. What do you think, Dr. Toro?
«The explosion of video games has favored the multiplication of means to play and has extended our time for playing, thereby spreading the extension of the means and timing of the game and a ludic lifestyle. Playing video games certainly is gratifying, but video games are also played in an attempt to escape the anxiety produced by the precariousness of post-modernity. We are dealing with a phenomenon that also encompasses more traditional forms of playing».
What are you referring to? Could you give us an example?
«Think about role-playing games that you play live. There, the boundaries with the reality tend to be particularly unstable; and, attitudes assumed in the fun fiction – maintained in reality – can provoke a loss of a sense of accountability for one’s own actions. It is clear, however, that in this process of gamification of the reality, the digital media assume a pivotal role because of their undisputable capacity to make everything seem exciting and believable».
Experience enriched by 3D technology, but also by narrative plots that hybridization with cinema has made more compelling and believable….
«The intrinsically gratifying and highly attractive nature of the game is elevated in video games by a colorful, audible and kinesthetic hyper-realism capable of hooking in the user. In this regard, the effects of gamification are multiplied by the vast availability of online and offline games. From childhood, recreational activity takes up more time and occupies the areas of life which have always been considered separate from pleasure: school, training, work».
Video games are extraordinary media capable of modifying even the brain structure of us adults, “digital immigrants”…
«Unlike the past, we work less with instruments of imagination and logic, forcing our brains to quickly manipulate icons and navigate the great sea of information. We can imagine our daily actions as a continuous interactive touch screen: ATM, touch screen phones, the tablet. There’s a dominance in the perception of symbolic thought….».
Does this mean that our way of learning has changed?
«Until a decade ago, we would consult user manuals to learn something, investing time and mental effort. Today, we prefer to proceed by trial and error, until you guess the right moves. It’s a cheaper method, but not as stimulating for the areas of the brain assigned to actions, particularly in reference to the left frontal lobe. There’s a sort of infantile regression of the brain».
What novelties have video games introduced into the realms of psychological, physical, and social development of children?
«Two points for reflection. More and more girls give an excessive importance to image, also because of dysfunctional messages conveyed through video games. Spending hours and hours to radically change the look of a doll by a click of a mouse (dolls which we were once happy to dress and comb their hair) tends to insinuate the idea that one day you could do the same with your own body. For example, one could think that they can gain or lose weight at the blink of an eye. Generally, children today tend to interact more and more remotely, through virtual characters. These are really disturbing facts».
In this regard, studies in the American Journal of Play e Pediatrics indicate that the excessive anxiety of parents today drives children to play more at home, exposing them to risks of depression and even to additions when video games are abused.
«Just a little common sense in needed to comprehend that children cannot have all of the experiences they need sitting in front of a screen. Unstructured time has always offered them the possibility to invent a game, a form of recreation, a motor activity that is not prepackaged and yet fun, activating their creativity and intelligence. It would be a grave mistake to stunt these dimensions by only using digital entertainment».
The problem, therefore, lies in the approach…
«Look, parents today are very affectionate with their children, to the limit of intimacy. But a structured, complex, and in many ways precarious life generates a sense of anxiety that leads parents to confuse a false security with genuine safety. Closing children in the house or committing them to excessively organized activity presided over by adults – parents, teachers, coaches, nannies prevents children from maturing in the dimension of separateness, and of competing in a spontaneous and direct way with their peers, thereby learning lessons that technology cannot transmit».
It must be said that the video game industry proves itself to be a valuable ally of children in many cases, combining the fun with the useful. Funky Nurse a videogame free of charge, developed by Teenage Cancer and Miniclip, to help young children with cancer is emblematic in this sense...
«Video games allow you to effectively confront sensitive issues, even dealing with health, giving concrete answers to problems. In the diversability’s area there are, for example, different ways of presenting educational stimuli. These have been developed in order to overcome physical or cognitive difficulties, thereby allowing many children to receive a formation suitable to their needs, favoring a sense of community and support, where they feel understood».
You are an expert also in techno-additions. Do you think that the practice of games online, facilitated by increasingly advanced cell phones and social networks, can aggravate the problem?
«The phenomenon ought to be carefully monitored. New-generation platforms and devices facilitate mild leisurely experiences that allow to play with reduced cognitive, emotional and psychomotor abilities. In the past, multiplayer games required a great deal of energy and skill, and this partly discouraged those who were less skilled from playing. Today, everybody plays all the time, but with less competitiveness, doing several things at the same time. And this exposes them to a greater risk of dependence…».
This appears to be true particularly for the practice of gambling games increasingly among the youth, as reported by the Institute of Clinical Physiology of the CNR (Italy’s National Research Council), probably also driven by the solitary, fast and decontextualized mode of the Web.
«We are talking about a widespread reality that adds to the obsession with economic damages, often difficult to grasp. Counting up hours of connection or how many games a person owns – the old criteria for diagnosing online techno-addiction – does not make much sense today, given the intense usage of digital media. It is more useful to look at other possible warning signs. For example, if our children neglect other aspects of their lives to play video games and display signs of fatigue and nervousness, along with an evident tendency to lie, it is very probably that they have this disorder».
A ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States has established that the selling of violent video games to minors cannot be banned - the same games have been accused by many to incite violence. Wasn’t there a time when playing war was a healthy form of letting out aggression?
«Playing war is a symbolic game through which children enact their own aggression, managing it without letting it be shaken. Exposing minors with contents soaking in blood, violence and sex,on the contrary, is traumatic, because it forms a critical experience of their personality. The violent scenes enter into their emotionally sphere without being processed because the child’s mind is not capable of confronting situations that exhibit death, explicit sexuality, offenses to the body…».
Not everyone knows, in this regard, that in Europe there is a classification system to protect minors (PEGI). The details can be found on the labels of the games. But let’s return to the question: can these media provoke emulation?
«The issue is controversial. Many studies say that the violent behavior that follows the use of similar content is often fruit of an emotional desensitization linked to overexposure. Unlike us adults, children have few resources in the areas of empathy and pain, to the point of remaining surprised by the real effects of their actions. The news is full of instances of overlapping between the level of virtual reality and the reality of everyday life of some minors».
Fortunately, there are positive aspects. Studies in Perception and Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin reveal, for example, that strategic and action video games facilitate the cognitive development, and that those with pro-social contents help develop the same patterns of behavior in real life.
«If properly exploited, the interactivity of digital games can be very useful. For example, they can stimulate curiosity and creativity, strengthen the memory, help a person to think in an organized fashion or from another person’s prospective. It may boost one’s self-esteem, which is so important for psychological health. Nevertheless, they don’t lead to the formation of more solid friendships, for which the face-to-face relationships are irreplaceable».
Dr. Toro, what advice would give to parents and teachers in the end?
«In Adolescents and Adultescents, we recommend a full recovery of educational responsibility. In short, this means to approach children with simplicity and with respect to the roles, actually playing with them, taking interest in them and sharing in the things they do, favoring an establishment of terms and conditions of use. The ultimate goal is to identify certain rules and proper, responsible approaches».