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Are Computer Games Making Children Stupid?

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One of the media’s favorite clichés and a recurrent “urban legend” is that computer games are destroying our children’s intelligence. The assumption, based primarily on techno-phobia and nostalgic dis-interest for novelty (especially computers), has yet to be supported by any empirical research, though there are of course common sense arguments underlying this reasoning.

First, children are getting fat, which we blame on insufficient exercise (this is why so many game consoles have shifted from a more static gamer to a physically mobile and active one). Second, the time spent playing computer games is arguably “stolen” from other activities – reading Philosophy, solving complex mathematical problems, and writing poetry – these activities, like playing football, are deemed “superior” to virtual games. Third, the nature of most computer games, at least the popular ones, is believed to promote violence: from “Call of Duty” to “Angry Birds”, the most popular games have an important component of violence and children may be turning into Tarantino characters.

Yet there are counter-arguments to each of those points. For instance, an unhealthy diet is in fact much more detrimental than lack of physical activity (and in the past 50 years’ diets have deteriorated much more than physical activity levels declined). Then, there is the issue of what children find interesting: Do you really thing kids would be spending time on Wikipedia or Google Scholar if computer games didn’t exist? That is like thinking that in the absence of easy temptations (be it food, women or men) people would “be good” and control themselves. Finally, virtual violence is just a reflection of real-life violence and the games are designed to appeal to children – true, there is “violence inflation” as kids want more and more intense sensations and they habituate to violence levels; but let’s not forget that games enable kids to “act out” violence and do catharsis (without actually hitting or injuring other “real” people). Besides, it is more dangerous to do most sports.

To be clear; I’m not attempting to promote computer games here, but their drawbacks have probably been exaggerated, and few have spoken about their advantages. First, computer games have made kids techno-savvy in a way adults are not, and they appeal to their vivid imaginations with a fantastic alternative to reality (enabling them to “escape” their boring life routines). Second, computer games require skills, and those skills are clearly transferable to other tasks. In fact, there is evidence that in the past 50 years IQs have been increasing in all industrialized nations, and technology clearly plays a part here as increases are found in computational intelligence (abstract reasoning skills and speed of processing). It is true that we are also becoming more ignorant, but who cares about memorizing the capital of Serbia or the names of the human bones when you have internet access 24/7?

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