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Play No Evil

As I went through my training to become a pediatrician, it was burned into my brain that video games = bad. Now, mind you, I was born at a time when the term “video game” didn’t exist. When I was in the 5th grade, Pac-Man made its debut in the local arcade, and by 6th grade Atari was rapidly becoming a household name. Gaming came of age at the same time that I did.

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But even though the technology kept evolving, for decades there was nothing physical about video games beyond the wrist. As a result, during medical school and residency—which took me through the end of the 1990s—video games were a budding pediatrician’s enemy. They were a hideous combination of anaerobic activity and violence. Study after study showed that they increased couch potato status, dragged out homework procrastination and interfered with a good night’s sleep. I was trained that part of the checkup visit needed to cover screen time, and not in a positive way.

Then I had a son.

Despite their transformation, I still think video games are bad in the same way that anything addictive is bad.

Everyone always teased me that I would change my tune once my son hit a certain age. You know when you know that everyone is right? Yeah, well, that was my story. Sort of.

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My son was born in 2005, when the Legend of Zelda and Resident Evil 4 topped the video game sales charts. These titles meant nothing to me (still don’t). The year 2005 was also the dawn of the exer-game, the first time a video game was expressly marketed to be used for exercise. The first one appeared on store shelves just about the same time that my son arrived on Earth. Two years later, when my little guy was a full-flegged toddler, Wii Fit made its debut. And in the ensuing five years, as my son went from diapers to preschool to riding a two-wheeler and playing bantam league baseball, video games have radically transformed, too. So has my opinion of them.

Despite their transformation, I still think video games are bad in the same way that anything addictive is bad. Grown boys, not just 5-year-olds but 50-year-olds too, collapse into hysterics when they are denied access to their beloved remote. Need a consequence for bad behavior? No video games does the trick.

The chemistry between a child (especially a boy child) and a screen is not limited to video consoles. When I first got an iPad, I told my kids it was off limits unless they asked. Within a week, I found my son crouched behind the bed furiously swiping and playing games on the coveted machine. Math and spelling games, mind you, but that’s beside the point. He was playing because he thought it was fun to aim a rocket at something (OK, it was the sum of 2+2) and shoot it down. Whether we’re talking about a 6-inch handheld unit or a 12-inch tablet or a 50-inch entertainment center, boys jones for video games. That cannot be healthy.

But despite the teaching engrained in me, I no longer think video games are all bad. In fact, in some cases, I don’t think they are bad at all. Dare I say good? It’s not just because I have a son who begs to play them.

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Life has changed since the first Atari. Kids don’t walk to school anymore or run over to their neighbor’s house to play. They don’t get nearly the amount of exercise that we got when we were young because of slashed school budgets, dual working families, safety issues and so on. Kids eat more calories than they used to, and foods are made differently so their caloric punch is heftier now. And then there’s the Internet, the bane of the waistline and the reason why so many of us—not just our children—are sitting for hours on end. Add all of these variables together, and you get an increasingly heavy population. A very unhealthy population.

I see the value of today’s video games because the devices have evolved along with the rest of life. When my kids play Kinect, they huff and puff and glisten with sweat. Yes, I would rather have them frolicking outside, breathing clean air and inventing games with their own unfettered imaginations. But if that’s not happening, I will take the cardiovascular intensity of Big League Sports or Just Dance 3 over channel surfing with a remote in one hand and a snack in the other.

Anything that will make kids move will also help reverse this country’s current explosion in body mass index. I am not suggesting that video games are meant as a first line offense, but I think it is time for us to rethink them. If your kid begs to play and you feel like you are fighting a losing battle, remember that all video games are not created equal. Lots of things change in this world, including one pediatrician’s opinion of video games.

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