While there's good and bad in every form of media, looking for a neutral account of "the Effects of Gaming" can make you feel like a cryptozoologist - especially where kids are involved. Most writers on media effects opt to give readers exactly the stories and opinions they want to hear. We have many choices in where we get our news, after all; when it's not making us happy, the next site is just a mouse click away. But the irksome fact is that games aren't just good or bad, for kids or anyone else. Moreover, games tend not to be either life-threatening or single-handedly rejuvenating. For most children and adults, the effects are subtle. Human, even.
Speaking about the press' back-and-forth melee on games is Lisa Poisso, who writes a column at Massively about playing MMOGs with her two kids. "The media is still treating games as a Topic-With-A-Capital-T, as a phenomenon," she says. "It's all about headlines and extremes. Will gaming give you quicker reflexes and tune up your problem-solving abilities, or will it turn you into an emotionally flat, antisocial conniver?"
No matter which side of the fence you're on, little in this Kids and Gaming topic can be captured by headlines or one-off studies. It's complicated. And, sure, that can be ominous. When I first started work on a book called Game Addiction, I knew full well that some regular folk would expect unflinching simplicity: "Children at age X should always do Y; letting kids game more than N hours per day is kuh-raaaazy," etc. Journalists love simplicity, too. Imagine the Washington Post writer with five inches of column space and a readership that hasn't gamed since Pong. Simple extremes make for handsome reading.
Yet, on their own, games don't make or break a child; extremes hardly make any sense once you've seen how complicated little humans are. Children pass through various stages, each being a gauge of how far along they've come in developing their bodies and minds. Though two kids may be the same age, they could be in vastly different places developmentally. Each one is a different combination of genetics, environment and age - what's potentially harmful to one specific child in one developmental stage can be innocuous to another in a different stage. Though most articles discussing kids and gaming seem blithely unaware of this (or happy not to mention it), we're going to touch on four major developmental stages and how games may or may not fit within them.
We'll start with the first stage: infancy, toddlerhood, and the preschool years (roughly ages 0-4). Children in their first year or so need attachment to other human beings; touch, affection, eye contact and real physical stimulation all help the brain develop. It may not seem like electronic entertainment is much of a factor for this age group, but the recent controversy over Disney's Baby Einstein DVDs says otherwise. Baby Einstein falls under the category of "lapware," interactive videos and software marketed as intelligence-enhancing for kids in this first stage (named as such because children are supposed to interact with the games while sitting on Mom or Dad's lap).