Video Games: Harmfully Addictive 
or a Unique Educational Environment?

A slightly-modified version of a 1992 article from 
Taking Children Seriously 4

An interview with David Deutsch, by Sarah Lawrence

One in three households in America own video games. In Britain, the figure is eleven per cent. As the market here expands, more and more parents will have to face the issue. Are computer games really addictive? Is the violence and sexism damaging to children's psychological well-being? Are there risks associated with the X-ray emissions from television screens?

I went to interview David Deutsch, winner of the highly prestigious Dirac Prize for Theoretical Physics, and author of The Fabric of Reality, a best-selling book about the borderline between physics and philosophy. Many readers will have seen him on television — on anything from daytime chat shows to “Reality on the Rocks”, a television programme in which he talked about his work on the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory. You may also have read his article on the physics of time travel in the “Scientific American” in March 1994, or his wonderful commentary on Michael Lockwood's “‘Many Minds’ Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics”: “Comment on Lockwood” (p. 222-228) in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science Volume 47, Number 2, June 1996, OUP. David Deutsch is also planning a book on non-coercive education which will be of great interest to TCS readers. Far from believing computer games to be harmful, David believes them to be very good for children. I asked him what is so good about computer games.

David Deutsch: In a way, that is the wrong question, because it assumes that there is something obviously bad about video games, which might be offset by benefits I might mention. But there's nothing wrong with video games. So let's ask first, “Why do so many adults hate them? What evidence is there that there is anything bad about them?”

If you look at it closely, the evidence boils down to no more than the fact that children like video games. There seems to be a very common tendency among parents to regard children liking something as prima facie evidence that it is bad for them. If they are spending a lot of time doing something, parents wonder what harm it must be doing them. I think this is fundamentally the wrong attitude.

The right attitude is: if children are spending a lot of time doing something, let's try to find ways of letting them do even more of it. Prima facie, the fact that they like doing it is an indication that it is good for them.

I think that overwhelmingly the thing which draws people's attention to video games is the fact that children like them. People jump from that solitary piece of evidence to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with video games!

As it happens, I believe that playing video games is very good for you but, I think, even more important than understanding why it is good for you, is to understand and avoid the temptation of saying that if you like it, it must be bad for you.

Now, why is playing video games good for you? They provide a unique learning environment. They provide something which for most of human history was not available, namely, an interactive complex entity that is accessible at low cost and zero risk.

Let's compare video games with other great educational things in the world. Books and television have great complexity and diversity — they give you access to almost every aspect of human culture and knowledge — but they are not interactive. On the other hand, something like playing the piano is also complex, and interactive, but it requires an enormous initial investment (months or years of practice or training) with the associated huge risk of misplacing that investment. One cannot make many such investments in one's life. I should say, of course, that the most educational thing in the world is conversation. That does have the property that it is complex, interactive, and ought to have a low cost, although often between children and adults it has a high cost and high risk for the children, but it should not and need not.

Apart from conversation, all the complex interactive things require a huge initial investment, except video games, and I think video games are a breakthrough in human culture for that reason. They are not some transient, fringe aspect of culture; they are destined to be an important means of human learning for the rest of history, because of this interactive element. Why is being interactive so important? Because interacting with a complex entity is what life and thinking and creativity and art and science are all about.

In The Face magazine (December 1992, page 46), Dr Margaret Shotton, author of Computer Addiction?, is quoted as saying, “Apart from increasing your manual dexterity and hand to eye coordination, video games speed up your neural pathways.” This, the writer says, allows knowledge to travel around quicker, thus speeding up judgements and decisions, possibly leading to a higher IQ. Margaret Shotton, like David Deutsch, believes that parents who disapprove of their children playing computer games are mistaken, but David Deutsch is sceptical about the neural pathways theory. Perhaps surprisingly, he doubts that computer games improve hand-eye coordination.

D: Life improves one's hand-eye coordination. One spends one's whole life picking things up and doing fine finger movements, which one does in video games as well, but video games, if they are well designed, tend to use skills which people already have. If they go too far beyond what people already have, they tend to be less attractive as video games. They are then more like playing the piano, which requires a new kind of physical skill. Video games do not really impart a new kind of physical skill; what they impart is the fundamental mental skill, of understanding a complex and autonomous world.

S: Many parents would agree that conversation is very valuable, and it is because their children spend so many hours playing computer games instead of conversing, that they worry.

D: I do not accept that children play video games instead of conversation. They love both, and there is plenty of time in a day for many hours of video games and many hours of conversation — especially since, in my experience, it is perfectly possible to play video games and talk at the same time. Most parents do not talk enough to their children. If they want to talk to their children, let them do so. If the conversation is interesting enough, the children will talk. They will either talk during the video game or, if it is very interesting, they may postpone the video game. Forcing them to give up the video game in order to talk will make the resulting conversation worthless.

S: Could the number of hours children spend playing computer games be harmful?

D: Let me answer that question in two ways. First, how do you know what the appropriate number of hours is? Nobody can know that. If your children were playing chess for several hours a day, you would boast about what geniuses they are. There is no intrinsic difference between chess and a video game, or indeed, even between things like playing the piano and playing video games, except that playing the piano has this enormous initial cost. They are similar kinds of activity. One of them is culturally sanctioned and the other is still culturally stigmatised, but for no good reason. I spent a lot of time playing with Lego when I was a child. For some reason, it never occurred to my parents that because I spent hours and hours with Lego, this was bad for me. If it had occurred to them, they could have done a lot of harm. I know now, for myself, that the thing which makes me play video games today is identical to the thing which made me play with Lego then — which is, by the way, the very same thing that makes me do science — that is, the impulse to understand things.

Computer literacy

D: There is a myth going around that because of the increasing importance of computers, soon everybody will need to be “computer-literate,” that is, able to program computers. It is like saying that the Channel Tunnel will soon be in extensive use, so we should all learn how to dig. Computer literacy is like dentistry, mathematics, or agricultural engineering: it is wonderful for those who like it — like me — but useless for those who don't. John Holt identified this myth. He hated the term “computer literacy” because the very term has behind it lots and lots of lessons, and it justifies a whole new type of coercion. Computer literacy, unlike reading, is not a general purpose skill. It is a specific skill which is right for some people and wrong for others. I see no reason to expect most children to like computer programming. Of course, forcing children to program is a good way of making sure they do not take it up, but I think even if you don't force them, there is no reason why most of them should become interested in it.

Could it be harmful? Suppose a child is for some reason unhappy with his situation — his home life or school or whatever — and he has very few creative outlets. Playing video games is such a good thing in this respect, that if he finds it, and finds other avenues blocked off, he may devote all his attention to it. Later, if his circumstances change, he may not be as open to taking up other opportunities as he might have been. If that is so, it is not the video game that is doing him harm, it is that he has been funnelled down a blind alley and not let out. The thing to do is to let him out, not to steal his last remaining source of joy and learning. If someone is in that state, just like with any compulsive behaviour, the cure is simply to offer him other things which he might prefer. There will be some things which he prefers; nobody actually spends twenty-four hours a day playing video games so, in the remaining time, try conversation, try anything. If that does not work, don't blame the video game. Be thankful that there is still something good in the child's life, to tide him over.

But such cases are exceptional. On the whole, if we are talking about how the overwhelming majority of children interact with video games, the reason they sit in front of them for hours is that they are very valuable things to sit in front of. The skills they are learning are needed in every creative aspect of life, and children will always be short of opportunities to learn them. The natural and healthy state of human beings is that we are constantly looking for opportunities to improve our thinking skills, to improve the complexity and the subtlety of the mental apparatus which we apply to the world. Traditionally, this has been expensive, but people still did it. Even learning to play chess is expensive, compared with learning to play a video game. The expense does not make it any more moral. It is a disadvantage of chess or playing the piano that they have this initial cost.

One of the ways you can tell that playing video games is not something which captures people and then holds them to their detriment is that each video game has only a finite lifetime. Video game playing almost always follows a definite pattern. People try a video game, and they tell with one or two playings of it whether this is for them or not. If they like it, they tend to continue to play it for as long as they are still improving. The instant they are no longer improving, they stop, and they go on to another game. That is neither random behaviour, nor any kind of mechanical, Pavlovian or compulsive behaviour. It is typical learning behaviour: you are improving at something, and, so long as you are improving, you carry on doing it; the moment you stop improving, you stop doing it.

You might say, okay, you are learning something, but what you are learning is not really very useful. But that is to misunderstand the whole point of the video game. The benefit of a video game is not that you learn the video game; it is that you learn the mental skills with which you are learning the video game, and those skills are good for learning anything.

S: Could the element of violence present in many video games be harmful?

D: First of all, it is not the case that most video games nowadays have violent themes. This used to be true a few years ago, and the reason for that was not at all sinister. The technology for making images appear rapidly on the screen was in its infancy, and it took a great deal of ingenuity to make games out of the very few basic operations possible. I remember having a conversation with John Holt about this in about 1983. Although, of course, he would never have stopped a child playing video games, he was worried about the “violent” aspect of the “shoot-em-up” games that dominated the market then. I said, “You try to write one. It is very difficult not to write a shooting game.” I predicted that within a few years, once the video technology got faster, most games would not be about shooting things at all.

The most popular types of games nowadays are platform games, whose basic themes are exploring, jumping around, finding and collecting things (though admittedly one usually has to fight the occasional monster on the way), and completely abstract games such as Tetris. By the way, I play a lot of video games, and they haven't done me any harm, so there! :-) Some of my favourite games are “shoot-em-up” games — perhaps I'm just old-fashioned. But whatever the type of game, it is not violence. Violence is where you hurt people. Games just appear on a screen; they don't actually hurt anybody. The only actual hurting that goes on is by parents when they prevent or discourage children from playing.

All games need an object and, if there are people in the game, it is natural to have drama, which means there will be goodies and baddies. The same is true in all drama, in all novels, plays, films, or whatever. If King Lear were the first play a person had seen, he might come out severely shocked. But once you know what a play is, have seen a bit of Shakespeare and know what it is about, you know that King Lear is not actually dangerous, that people don't go around after seeing King Lear, plucking people's eyes out. People are not harmed by seeing King Lear if they have reached the stage of wanting to see it gradually, at their own pace, for their own reasons, under their own control. Video games are par excellence a learning environment that is under one's own control, and that prevents them from being harmful.

S: Somebody made the point to me that playing computer games arouses the fight or flight impulse, and gives children too much excess energy. This idea apparently came from Four arguments for the elimination of television. Parents do worry that seeing violence on screen is much more damaging than seeing violence in a play because video games appear to draw people in very deeply and make them addicted.

D: I think that is completely untrue. The only evidence that video games are addictive is that people play them. All this talk about “excess energy” or being “drawn in” and so on is not what scientists would call experimental data. The data are that the child is playing the video game. That is the only thing you know for a fact. You can't see this “drawn in” business. That is just an interpretation parents put on what has happened. Pure theory, based on their own preconceptions. I am not making a value judgement here. I am just stating a fact. My judgement is that these preconceptions are wrong and that children play video games because they instinctively recognise their educational value.

When you play video games, you are using the emotional part of your mind as well, because when you interact with complex external entities, you engage your emotions as well as your intellect. Anything worth doing engages the emotions. What would you say about somebody who learned to play the piano, but never got emotionally involved? I remember once, I came back to playing the Appassionata after a long time, and I ended up with blood all over the keys. (It was not as bad as it sounds.) I saw that I had a cut, but I did not want to stop, so I carried on playing. If that had been a video game and I had been younger, people would have used that as evidence of addiction.

Perhaps children feel violent when they are forced to stop playing, and quite right too! Of course somebody who does not like television is likely to be prejudiced against video games, because they are related. Television has advantages, namely, that it is a more diverse opening to culture. On the other hand, it is not interactive. Video games are interactive, but they are less diverse. They both have their strengths and weaknesses.

X-ray emissions

D: LCD screens, such as those on hand-held game-playing machines, emit no radiation at all. The radiation from a television screen is negligible. Even the radiation televisions do give off comes mostly from the sides and the back, not from the screen. It is completely crazy to react to that tiny “danger” by preventing children from playing video games. If you can't help worrying irrationally about it, get a radiation shield for the screen, or an ultra low radiation monitor.

S: Should we be concerned about the sexism in some games?

D: The way to combat false ideas is not to censor them but to contradict them. Most of the great literature of the world is sexist, and more generally, riddled with all sorts of false and irrational ideas, as well as valuable ones. Nobody would want to cut himself off from all culture just because it is “something-ist.” The sexism of some video games is a minor and easily corrected fault. Once you have pointed out to your child how silly it is, she will be able to recognise sexism in other contexts.

I think one thing that is sinister is how boys play video games much more than girls. This is part of the same phenomenon that makes girls reluctant to do science, reluctant to go into management and business, reluctant to do anything creative and effective in the world. It is an effect down a long chain of cause and effect which began with things like being dressed in pink costumes when they were babies. The whole pattern of behaviour towards a girl rewards her for suppressing her creativity. One of the unpleasant side effects of this is that it makes girls suppress the side of them that would like video games. The reason why this effect is more marked in video games is that video games are so well suited for developing creative skills.

People are so much more complicated than these simplistic theories of what “influences” them. Human beings are not laboratory rats, and do not react like laboratory rats. Look at Eastern Europe, where they used to control what everybody read, and gave them a constant diet of Marxist propaganda, which they had to learn by heart in school, and repeat with eagerness in their voices: in spite of all that, it did not rub off on the overwhelming majority of them, and even those people are rapidly regretting it. The children went to school; they learned the stuff the same way children do everywhere. The fact that it was Marxist propaganda did not make it any more or less easy to swallow than what children are taught in our schools, but it did not go in, any more than what children are taught in our schools goes in.

I think that all these fears are a posteriori — you first know the conclusion, which is that you must stop him playing the video game, and then you invent the reasons. The reason why video games are hated is that they are, in the true sense, educational. Of course people don't put it like that, but that is what it comes down to.

S: Most parents are really very keen to educate their children. Many have no objection to educational games.

D: But they have a preconception, a vision, of what education must look like, which results largely from psychological injuries inflicted on them in their own childhood in the name of education. They make the fundamental mistake of human relationships, which is to try to use force to make the other person act out your vision of him, instead of looking to see who the other person actually is, and what he wants, and trying to help him get what he wants. The market tends to do the latter — it tends to do the right thing — and so games which are made for money tend to be good for you. A video game which is designed to be “educational”, like everything which is designed to be “educational”, tends to be bad. It is making that fundamental error of trying to channel children into a predetermined vision.

Looking at this more broadly, learning to read is an educational video game. Learning to play a musical instrument is an educational video game. Some of these good things by accident have got social sanction. If children get “addicted” to those things, parents overflow with pride. But there is no better criterion for finding out whether something is good for you than whether you enjoy it. There can't be.

Sir Karl Popper once said “the belief that truth is manifest is the basis of all tyranny”. The fact is, the truth is not manifest. The truth can only be found by a critical process, by a creative process, by a process that is open, and our only criterion for whether one idea is better than another is whether we prefer it. We have to look at the ideas, and use criticism — everything must be open to criticism — to find which of them is ultimately preferable. We have to be willing to change and change again. If you have a power structure where a single idea of what is right is imposed by force, then that can never be criticised, and the chances of approaching the truth are nil.

Children playing video games — regardless of subject matter — are learning. Adults who prevent this are preventing them from learning.

S: But there is a whole world out there for children to find out about, to explore...

D: And I suppose that's why people lock them up in schools! Even home educating parents tend not to allow their children enough access to the world, just as schooling parents don't. Anyway, the video game world is a complex autonomous world. It is an artificial world, but then so is the street outside. The point is not what world you are learning about, but that you are learning how to understand the world.