A brief review of Chapter Three from Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D.

One of the first questions I ask pre-teens or adolescents when I first meet them in my office is, "What do you like to do?", "What are you interested in?", or "What are you passionate about?". The answers vary, but nowadays it is so common for boys to include video games toward the top of their list of interests, whereas girls do not. While recent Pew Research Center data indicate that 97% of teens ages 12-17 play computer, web, portable, or console games (99% of boys and 94% of girls), my experience tells me that gaming may mean something differently for boys and girls. Girls game, but it is generally not as high up on their list of interests compared to boys.

The group most likely to play video games is younger, teen boys, followed by younger girls, and then older teen boys. Older teen girls are the least frequent consumers. Interestingly, of those teens reporting daily gaming, 65% are boys, while 35% are girls. This confirms what we've known for a long time: boys game more frequently. They seem to be more drawn to it and more psychologically invested in their attempts at mastery over it. The important questions are why boys are so drawn to video games, and what they get out of gaming.

Numerous professionals have attempted to answer these questions (most recently, Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. in Boys Adrift) and have come to some understandable conclusions. Some find that boys are socialized into the world of video games at young ages (pre-schoolers aged 2-5 play an average of 28 minutes per day). Others (like Sax) conclude that most children (and adults for that matter) have a strong desire to be in control of their environment, and video games offer the ultimate experience of being in control. Even in the face of defeat, you can always just hit the reset button and start over. Sax reminds his readers that this concept is what Nietzsche meant when he spoke of the "will to power". Yet, one of the interesting observations from parents, educators, and fellow mental health professionals is that this desire to be in charge and derive esteem from, mastery over, or connection with others through a game seems to be more dominant in a certain subset of boys. Put differently, the will to power takes precedence over other drives and other perspectives, and this is when we see boys who become fixated on gaming begin to struggle academically, socially, and emotionally. Another complicating aspect that parents talk about is that activities such as homework, pleasure reading, and outdoor activities often times cannot hold a candle to the hyperstimulating world of 21st Century video games.

In his interesting and provocative book Boys Adrift (2007), Sax presents five factors that he feels contribute to the apparent growing epidemic of older teen and young adult males floating along in life without direction, passion, or motivation. One of these five factors is video games, and Sax discusses the current gaming research and its implications thoroughly. He also presents some common sense advice for parents of teen boys who are worried that gaming has become too dominant in their sons' lives. Of course, "balance" is the magic word, according to Sax. The problem is that teen boys' definition of "balance" often differs from their parents' definition. I cannot tell you how many times a teen boy will passionately defend his choice to game for hours each day by claiming, in part, that the act of gaming in and of itself is social (when it's done as an interactive, "live" activity with others who are connected to a central server...think X-Box Live). He will also claim that when his buddies come over to game, even though they are all focused on a common gaming activity and do not seem to be interacting much, it is still being social. On the first argument, he actually has a point: think of how powerfully attractive (and connective) it would be as a teenager to interface with same-aged peers while playing a video game together but in separate settings. You would have your headset on, talking to your buddies while playing a real time game. "That's social," many boys assert to their parents in my office. "You just don't get it," they'll continue.

Sax does a decent job of presenting data on video gaming and its effects on academic performance, intellectual development, and noncognitive development (i.e., social skill development, general social connectivity, aggression, and lessons about masculinity). As one might guess, the relationship between gaming and each of the above is not particularly positive. Moreover, Sax gives caretakers guidelines for the appropriate use of video games as it relates to content, time, and activities displaced (he emphasizes that family comes first, schoolwork comes second, friends come third, and video games come last). The problem for many caretakers of boys is that their sons think that video games trump everything else on that list, and they will go to the mat to keep it that way.

What's a parent to do to shift the priorities in these teens and young adults? How do caretakers help their sons see that their list of priorities may be out of whack? Although Sax does not delve too much into this, he does offer one conceptual bit of advice: if boys are driven by the will to power, simply restricting video games from them is only part of the possible solution. Helping boys to find a constructive outlet for their need to feel powerful and alive is also critical. Joining a competitive sport (in addition to playing Madden NFL '09), starting to play a musical instrument (in addition to playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band), or taking up paint ball competitively (instead of playing Call of Duty 5) are examples of channeling boys' desire to feel challenged and (occasionally) triumphant. It also helps boys and young men really experience the ups and downs of life and not just look for the reset button to start over. Pick up Sax's Boys Adrift, it's worth the read.