I know a 16-year-old boy who is addicted to video games. By ‘addiction’, I mean that he is compelled to play them for several to many hours each day, even while he knows that it is in his own best interests to limit his play time, even while his parents continually (ineffectively) try to curtail the time he spends at this activity, and because, more than a little ashamed of himself, he often attempts to conceal his level of game play. Does this matter, for this boy?

There is a book titled “Everything Bad is Good for You” by Steven Johnson that is all about the benefits of video game play (and other media) for children. It describes video games as a rich, positive basis for learning and reasoning. And so they are. A person can acquire a magnificent body of knowledge and considerably refine perceptual, cognitive and motoric skills and abilities within the artificial world of gaming.

But what AREN’T they achieving? They aren’t reading. They don’t provide very significant sources of content about the things or ways or the histories of real things in the real world. They are not sources of valuable conversational input, and they certainly do not evoke conversational responses. They rarely evoke complex thought. While they are rich in cleverness, they’re impoverished in wisdom. With rare exception, they are not exercises designed for the development of social skills, or of emotional control. They provide only limited opportunities for open, free, integrative thought. The rules and challenges that they employ follow closed sets that are only pale reflections of the variance and surprises and complexities that actually occur in the real world. With some notable exceptions (like DDR and Wi games), they don’t exactly contribute to the elaboration of control of coordinated movements. The repertoires of information that they deliver apply to the game, but not to the world at large. These games individually and collectively teach an ethic, but not necessarily one a thoughtful parent would seek as a model for a young man or woman.

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon about this subject. Playing games delivered by the computer or game player can be damn captivating and entertaining, and can have very useful learning dimensions. But I do strongly believe that a parent should understand that as with any serious, rewarded activity, a child spending hours each day playing video games on their PDA or game player or computer pays a price for it, and is changing in their interests and personality and socialization in ways that are not in every way positive for their intellectual and social development. Steven Johnson accepts and applauds these differences. I say, “For God’s Sake, Steven! In moderation!”.

Afterword: An autistic child can LOVE video games. They often play them facilely, and in game play, appear to be completely normal. When the get up from their chair, turn around, and re-enter the real world, they’re autistic again.

Put another way, autistic individuals frequently demonstrate, clear as glass, that game worlds are not real worlds.