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What’s the Big Deal about Video Games?

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The Way I See It
What’s the Big Deal about Video Games?

by Temple Grandin, PhD
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| July/August 2012


Recently I read on the Internet that I was showing my age because I was so concerned about constant video game playing. What I am worried about is when video games become such an obsession that they interfere with schoolwork or getting a job. In a new study led by University of Missouri professor Micah Mazurek, the research team examined screen-based media use among adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The team discovered that the “majority of youths with ASD (64.2%) spent most of their free time using non-social media (television, video games)” (Mazurek et al. 2011).

What Is a Video Game?
The term video game covers a wide range of electronic games, ranging from violent first-person shooter games where the gamer views the screen from the vantage point of gun sight, to fitness games, to Sims (a strategic life-simulation video game) and Foldit, a scientific game.

How Can Video Games Be Harmful?

Video Games Can Reduce Empathy. Realistic killing of people or animals, showing cruelty and gore, would be much more damaging than a game where inanimate objects or cartoon characters are destroyed. It is my opinion that images that enable a game player to graphically inflict pain and suffering on realistic human images are likely to be the most damaging. Douglas Gentile at Iowa State University reported that a meta-analysis of 136 scientific papers on violent video games showed that playing them led to desensitization and aggressive behavior (Bavelier et al. 2011). However, I believe that the nature of the violence is important. When I was a child, my hero the Lone Ranger shot lots of bad guys who fell off their horses. In these shows, many people were shot, but they never showed realistic depictions of cruelty and suffering.

Pictures of car crashes or exploding aliens do not bother me. Violence done to objects, such as cars and buildings, does not have the same effect on me as graphic depictions of cruelty and torture. Since I am a visual thinker, I avoid movies that show such things because I do not want these pictures in my memory. In many movies I analyze chase scenes and think, “This is impossible. A car cannot crash into a storefront and still be drivable.

Video Games Can Be Addictive. To classify a video gamer as an addict, his playing of video games has to seriously interfere in multiple aspects of life such as school, family life, and emotional well-being. Dr. Gentile states that approximately 8 percent of video game players ages 8 to 18 are true addicts (Bavelier et al. 2011). Some kids can make a career in the video game industry as either programmers or artists. Then there are others like me who cannot do programming and do not draw the right type of art. I could have become one of the 8 percent who are video game addicts instead of becoming totally fixated on subjects that eventually turned into my career.

How Can Video Games Be Helpful?
For games to have a beneficial effect, instead of becoming addictions, they should be used to promote learning. If a kid who loves video games is mathematically inclined, he should be introduced to computer programming to learn how to make his own games. If an individual can turn video games into a career, then parents can use the games as a motivator.

Sharing could be taught by taking turns using the game controller. I visited with one boy who absolutely refused to share the controller; he was too fixated to respond to me when I asked him to teach me to play the game. This child could be taught turn-taking skills through the use of his intense interest in playing video games.

Online games, such as Sims, where characters interact in many different ways, should be used to open an avenue for discussions on social cues. Nicole Franklin and Jeffrey Hunt (2012) state that therapists can use discussions of a person’s favorite video game as a social icebreaker to help establish communication. There are situations where socialization can be enhanced by playing online video games where gamers can talk to each other and team up with other players and cooperate. Games requiring cooperation with another person in order to win should be encouraged.

Fitness video games provide great activities to develop both motor skills and interaction with others. Players in Foldit (http://fold.it.com) solved a major problem in biochemical protein folding that might help find a cure for AIDS. With the right guidance an individual who is good at Foldit could go into a career in biochemistry. Other video games enhance certain visual spatial skills, which could be eventually used in such tasks as flying drone aircraft and performing laparoscopic surgery.

In order for a child to grow and develop properly, the use of technology should be guided by teachers and parents. There are some children whose video games and online activities will need to be limited to a set period each day to provide time for other activities such as schoolwork and meals with the family. Most experts agree that for young children, video game playing should be limited to one hour per day and the content of games should be closely examined (the game equipment should always be in the family room where parents can see it). Realistic, gory video games, such as the first-person shooter type, should be discouraged because they can lead to desensitization and aggressive behavior. On the other hand, games that promote learning academic skills or social cooperation should be encouraged.


Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems, and is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today. She is the author of numerous books on autism and is a worldwide speaker on autism topics. Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, coauthored with Sean Barron and Veronica Zysk, captured a prestigious Silver Award in the 2006 ForeWord magazine Book of the Year competition. Her previous book, Animals in Translation (2005) was on the New York Times Bestseller list. For more information visit www.templegrandin.com


Bavelier, D. C., C. S. Green, D. H. Han, P. F. Renshaw, M. M. Merzenich, and D. A. Gentile. 2011. “Brains on Video Games.” Nature Review of Neuroscience 12 (12): 763–68.

Franklin, N., and J. Hunt. 2012. “Rated E—Keeping Up with Our Patient’s Video Game Playing.” The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter 28 (3): 1–5. doi: 10.1002/cbl.20159

Mazurek, M., P. Shattuck, M. Wagner, and B. Cooper. December 8, 2011. “Prevalence and Correlates of Screen-Based Media Use Among Youths with Autism Spectrum Disorders.”  Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Accessed 2/1/2012.  http://www.springerlink.com/content/984812t131480547/

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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  1. jackq says:

    I could say the same thing for movies.