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Video gaming has become such a big part of the lives of young people that it cannot be ignored. On the contrary, the use of video games has been studied extensively, from various angles: as tools for learning maths, in teaching social sciences, developing digital skills and even promoting emotional literacy among gamers.

The bulk of research, however, has been driven by concern about whether violent content leads to or increases aggressive behaviour among children. Although causality is still debated, there is plenty of evidence of a correlation between the two, and plenty of warnings among parents and educators about the negative effects gaming can have on children.

New research by the Rome-based Family and Media organisation, however, takes a fresh and positive approach to the subject, focusing on the virtues at stake in gaming: self-control, temperance, fairness and, in multiple player games, mutual collaboration.

It cautions parents and other educators against a merely tolerant or suspicious attitude to a form of play that, in terms of potential for character development, is comparable with physical sports.

The video game research is part of a larger study which included use of social media and television among Italian teenagers recruited through church groups in six Italian cities.

Some 48 young people participated in the gaming section through three focus groups. While collecting from the young people data common to other studies (for example, time spent playing, source of information about video games) researchers also wanted to know:

Who buys the game, their parents or themselves? Do they have time limits established by their parents? How do they react when parents stop the game-playing. Do they play with friends, and how is that different from playing by themselves? Do they play upon reward conditions like getting good grades at school?

A playful participant approach

The team, led by Norberto Gonzalez Gaitano, also took a novel approach to getting answers. Field researchers “close in age and mindset to the young people involved” were embedded in the interactive focus groups, acting as facilitators and leaders, asking the teens questions but also observing them and collecting additional information.

The aim of this experimental method, says Gaitano in an English introduction to the published study, was to test its ability to elicit answers not induced by an adult mindset and so to get realistic indicators for parents, teachers and others involved in the formation of young people.

Reporting on the gaming portion, Raffaele Buscemi says that the method was very successful in drawing frank and spontaneous responses from the (boys, in this instance) and throwing light on the opportunities for cultivating virtues that gaming represents.

Said one participant: “When you play online you cannot cheat. If you use cheats (tricks), usually you get banned immediately by the server and you hardly find companions to play with, together or against.”

Among other findings:

Self-control in gaming. Though the time each normally devoted to playing varied widely, almost all the teens expressed great annoyance at being interrupted while playing, especially if they consider they have only just begun.

Related to this aspect is the frustration young people experience when they are criticised by their parents for the time spent playing with remarks like: “Are you still wasting your time on those video games?” Or, “You’re still playing? Don’t you have anything better to do?”

Kids become discouraged because their hobby/passion is considered “inferior” to other activities (reading, going out, playing sports, watching TV). They feel their parents do not understand that gaming, just like a football game, requires its own time to be lived and appreciated, and that almost never is this time less than an hour.

Playing alone, or with others? One of the principal findings of the study is the fact that most of the youngsters involved prefer to play with others. However, they do not distinguish between playing with friends physically present, and remotely online; what matters to them is cooperative or competitive interaction with other people.

Positive opportunities identified by the players:

* If you play with others, you can socialize and feel part of a group.

* The games allow you to use digital media in a playful way.

* With electronic games you can learn and hone various skills, such as hand-eye coordination, reasoning, sense of orientation and creativity.

* Video games allow you to learn how to move between real experiences and virtual sensations (online and offline).

* Video games help players to develop strategies and to search for solutions, which are problem solving skills.

* Gamers learn to work in teams. In businesses, we would call it team building.

* Playing with people from other countries and in different languages, allows one to deal with different identities, opening one’s mind and making one more cultured.

Adults should understand the medium before setting rules. Young people perceive the video game as what it is: a playful experience that has its rules, its times and “internal” purposes, which are not necessarily related only to the goals to be achieved in the game, but connected also to relations with others: sometimes the purpose of the play is spending time with friends.

Buscemi concludes by saying that video games offer many ideas for working with boys who have this passion. However, educators may need to change their approach to the medium, from seeing these games as a mere distraction, to realising their potential for fostering soft skills and virtue. And mentors who already share the passion for gaming,can see it as one more way to get closer to the world of boys and not to be perceived as “interfering adults”.

Download the Family and Media study, Teen Usage of New and Old Media: Formation and Family, as a free E-book. (In Italian, with an English introduction.)

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet