It’s clear that video games are already a primary source of entertainment for many young people and millions of adults…for better or worse.

More than ever before, video games are a centerpiece of American culture for all ages. In 2015, the Entertainment Software Association (ESRB) found that almost half of the American population played video games in some capacity. Of those 150 million players, about 26% were 18 years old or under and about 97% of Americans ages 12-17 are gamers. However, as the industry continues to grow, all parents, teachers and public officials should be aware of both the potential benefits and pitfalls video games have to offer.

Benefits of Playing Video Games

Video games have been questioned in recent years in a way that closely mirrors the condemnation of comic books in the 1950s, but, as a medium alone, video games are not inherently harmful. In fact, they can provide several surprising cognitive and mental health benefits. As an interactive medium, games prioritize abilities such as decision making, hand-eye coordination and multi-tasking. All of these skills can be improved upon by playing just about any genre of video game, but action games in particular can be more beneficial because of the speed required. As Peter Gray of Psychology Today says, “video games appear to build [the basic building blocks] of intelligence faster and more efficiently than any other intervention anyone has devised.”

While the power of improving cognitive and physical skills is impressive, perhaps an even greater advantage of playing games is the effectiveness in combating depression. For years, video games and depression have been negatively linked, but new research finds that people are actually playing games to fight their illness. In an article written for Slate, Jane McGonigal provides an in-depth overview of how gaming is a type of self-medication for many people suffering from depression. According to a study at Stanford University, video games hyperstimulate the regions associated with motivation and learning or memory. McGonigal notes that “these two regions of the brain..are the same two regions that get chronically understimulated, and that even shrink over time, when we’re clinically depressed.”

This self-medication can certainly be dangerous, as an escapist attitude can lead to an inability to deal with the real world. However, a purposeful and regulated amount of playing can be incredibly beneficial. Games can be used as a way to express creativity, practice team work, socialize with friends, think about moral issues or even learn about a specific historical moment. Playing with a purpose can alleviate symptoms of depression and provide a better sense of self efficacy.

The Negative Consequences of Violent Video Games

Unfortunately, many video games also come with a negative side. On March 8, in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, President Trump invited several prominent executives of the video game development and publication community to talk about the potential effects of video game violence on juveniles. President Trump showed a “violent video game sizzle reel” that exhibited distasteful and controversial scenes from seven relatively recent games. While the reel that President Trump displayed could be criticized for picking and choosing the most violent content available without context, there is still much to be said concerning the problematic material shown.

Two of the most cited groups that promote the correlation between virtual and actual violence are the American Psychological Association and American Academy of Pediatrics. In their studies, both groups found strong links between violent video games and increases in aggressive behavior. In more recent studies, the correlation (or lack thereof) has been questioned (over 200 scholars are even asking that the APA rethink their “outdated and problematic statements on video game violence”), but that doesn’t mean that this type of violent media is acceptable, especially for the under-age teenagers who often get a hold of such games.

Many popular gaming franchises are built around shooting mechanics or swordplay, but like any other form of entertainment, games come in all sorts of genres that can range from military shooters to farming simulators. Likewise, these genres can vary wildly in their content. The ESRB uses five categories for game ratings: Everyone, Everyone 10+, Teen, Mature and Adults Only (which has only been used five times in the past twelve years). All of the games shown in President Trump’s reel were rated Mature.

In addition to “Violence,” Mature rated games almost always have further objectionable descriptors such as “Strong Sexual Content,” “Use of Drugs” or “Strong Language.” So, while it is contextually important to note that these violent games are not marketed towards young people, there are many additional reasons as to why parents should be cautious of letting their children select games without supervision. In an NPR interview with Ari Shapiro, Iowa State University psychology professor Douglas Gentile asserts “that the more children consume media violence…they do become more willing to behave aggressively when provoked.” However, Gentile does take extra caution to not put video games in a different category than music, film or tv. “We used to think that video games would have a much larger effect than passive media like TV or movies,” he says, “But the research has not seemed to bear that out.”

A complete dialogue on the role of pop culture in a Christian’s life is far beyond the scope of this piece, but we must consider where mature video games belong for any believer. First, it is critical that we do not engage in entertainment that may hinder us in our walk with Christ or our witness to others. Philippians 4:8 (NIV) commands us: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” The complication is that much digital entertainment has “noble” features that certainly glorifies God to some extent, while others grieve Him. Romans 14:13-23 further encourages us to think about our freedom in Christ to judge for ourselves what is admissible as long as we do not cause others to stumble.

While the video game industry is much younger than film and television, it’s clear that this medium is already a primary source of entertainment for many young people and millions of adults as well. There are more genres of games than many people realize and it is essential to note the myriad of ways that games can be a positive entertainment source. Still, there is much to be said for the troubling violence and amount of corrupt content in a wide variety of games as well. Certain video games can greatly benefit the development of the brain and combat depression, but parents also have a responsibility to ensure that the video games children and teens are playing do not contain morally inappropriate content and are suitable for their age and maturity level.

William Outlaw