How are video games changing – and how are we changing with them – during
the era of smartphones and Facebook? What can be done at the psychological
level to limit their risks and increase their potentials? On these
questions we have interviewed Maria Beatrice Toro, psychologist
and expert psychotherapist on children, adolescents and new media.

She has published various works on these topics. A review of Toro’s most
recent work,

Adolescents and Adultescents

, can also be accessed on our site.

If you think that they are just a hobby for antisocial, loner children, you
need to be updated. More and more, video games are becoming a form of
entertainment for all age groups, without limits of time and space, but
also a powerful tool for acquiring and developing skills. These instruments
are the pillars of an approach toward reality defined gamification.
Attitudes and daily behavioral patterns are shaped in the game that can
make life easier and make us happier. If these instruments, however, are
misused, they can trigger aggression and addictions. The idea
“gamification” reality in order to be better is suggestive. What do you
think, Dr. Toro?

«The explosion of video games has favored the multiplication of means to
play and has extended our time for playing, thereby spreading the extension
of the means and timing of the game and a ludic lifestyle. Playing video
games certainly is gratifying, but video games are also played in an
attempt to escape the anxiety produced by the precariousness of
post-modernity. We are dealing with a phenomenon that also encompasses more
traditional forms of playing».

What are you referring to? Could you give us an example?

«Think about role-playing games that you play live. There, the boundaries
with the reality tend to be particularly unstable; and, attitudes assumed
in the fun fiction – maintained in reality – can provoke a loss of a sense
of accountability for one’s own actions. It is clear, however, that in this
process of gamification of the reality, the digital media assume a
pivotal role because of their undisputable capacity to make everything seem
exciting and believable».

Experience enriched by 3D technology, but also by narrative plots that
hybridization with cinema has made more compelling and believable….

«The intrinsically gratifying and highly attractive nature of the game is
elevated in video games by a colorful, audible and kinesthetic
hyper-realism capable of hooking in the user. In this regard, the effects
of gamification are multiplied by the vast availability of online
and offline games. From childhood, recreational activity takes up more time
and occupies the areas of life which have always been considered separate
from pleasure: school, training, work».

Video games are extraordinary media capable of modifying even the brain
structure of us adults, “digital immigrants”…

«Unlike the past, we work less with instruments of imagination and logic,
forcing our brains to quickly manipulate icons and navigate the great sea
of information. We can imagine our daily actions as a continuous
interactive touch screen: ATM, touch screen phones, the tablet. There’s a
dominance in the perception of symbolic thought….».

Does this mean that our way of learning has changed?

«Until a decade ago, we would consult user manuals to learn something,
investing time and mental effort. Today, we prefer to proceed by trial and
error, until you guess the right moves. It’s a cheaper method, but not as
stimulating for the areas of the brain assigned to actions, particularly in
reference to the left frontal lobe. There’s a sort of infantile regression
of the brain».

What novelties have video games introduced into the realms of
psychological, physical, and social development of children?

«Two points for reflection. More and more girls give an excessive
importance to image, also because of dysfunctional messages conveyed
through video games. Spending hours and hours to radically change the look
of a doll by a click of a mouse (dolls which we were once happy to dress
and comb their hair) tends to insinuate the idea that one day you could do
the same with your own body. For example, one could think that they can
gain or lose weight at the blink of an eye. Generally, children today tend
to interact more and more remotely, through virtual characters. These are
really disturbing facts».

In this regard, studies in the American Journal of Play e Pediatrics indicate that the excessive anxiety of parents today
drives children to play more at home, exposing them to risks of depression
and even to additions when video games are abused.

«Just a little common sense in needed to comprehend that children cannot
have all of the experiences they need sitting in front of a screen.
Unstructured time has always offered them the possibility to invent a game,
a form of recreation, a motor activity that is not prepackaged and yet fun,
activating their creativity and intelligence. It would be a grave mistake
to stunt these dimensions by only using digital entertainment».

The problem, therefore, lies in the approach…

«Look, parents today are very affectionate with their children, to the
limit of intimacy. But a structured, complex, and in many ways precarious
life generates a sense of anxiety that leads parents to confuse a false
security with genuine safety. Closing children in the house or committing
them to excessively organized activity presided over by adults – parents,
teachers, coaches, nannies prevents children from maturing in the dimension
of separateness, and of competing in a spontaneous and direct way with
their peers, thereby learning lessons that technology cannot transmit».

It must be said that the video game industry proves itself to be a valuable
ally of children in many cases, combining the fun with the useful. Funky Nurse a videogame free of charge, developed by Teenage
Cancer and Miniclip, to help young children with cancer is emblematic in
this sense…

«Video games allow you to effectively confront sensitive issues, even
dealing with health, giving concrete answers to problems. In the diversability’s area there are, for example, different ways of
presenting educational stimuli. These have been developed in order to
overcome physical or cognitive difficulties, thereby allowing many children
to receive a formation suitable to their needs, favoring a sense of
community and support, where they feel understood».

You are an expert also in techno-additions. Do you think that the practice
of games online, facilitated by increasingly advanced cell phones and
social networks, can aggravate the problem?

«The phenomenon ought to be carefully monitored. New-generation platforms
and devices facilitate mild leisurely experiences that allow to play with
reduced cognitive, emotional and psychomotor abilities. In the past,
multiplayer games required a great deal of energy and skill, and this
partly discouraged those who were less skilled from playing. Today,
everybody plays all the time, but with less competitiveness, doing several
things at the same time. And this exposes them to a greater risk of

This appears to be true particularly for the practice of gambling games
increasingly among the youth, as reported by the Institute of Clinical
Physiology of the CNR (Italy’s National Research Council), probably also
driven by the solitary, fast and decontextualized mode of the Web.

«We are talking about a widespread reality that adds to the obsession with
economic damages, often difficult to grasp. Counting up hours of connection
or how many games a person owns – the old criteria for diagnosing online
techno-addiction – does not make much sense today, given the intense usage
of digital media. It is more useful to look at other possible warning
signs. For example, if our children neglect other aspects of their lives to
play video games and display signs of fatigue and nervousness, along with
an evident tendency to lie, it is very probably that they have this

A ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States has established that the
selling of violent video games to minors cannot be banned – the same games
have been accused by many to incite violence. Wasn’t there a time when playing war was a healthy form of letting out aggression?

«Playing war is a symbolic game through which children enact their
own aggression, managing it without letting it be shaken. Exposing minors
with contents soaking in blood, violence and sex,on the contrary, is
traumatic, because it forms a critical experience of their personality. The
violent scenes enter into their emotionally sphere without being processed
because the child’s mind is not capable of confronting situations that
exhibit death, explicit sexuality, offenses to the body…».

Not everyone knows, in this regard, that in Europe there is a
classification system to protect minors (PEGI). The details can be found on
the labels of the games. But let’s return to the question: can these media
provoke emulation?

«The issue is controversial. Many studies say that the violent behavior
that follows the use of similar content is often fruit of an emotional
desensitization linked to overexposure. Unlike us adults, children have few
resources in the areas of empathy and pain, to the point of remaining
surprised by the real effects of their actions. The news is full of
instances of overlapping between the level of virtual reality and the
reality of everyday life of some minors».

Fortunately, there are positive aspects. Studies in Perception and Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin reveal, for example,
that strategic and action video games facilitate the cognitive development,
and that those with pro-social contents help develop the same patterns of
behavior in real life.

«If properly exploited, the interactivity of digital games can be very
useful. For example, they can stimulate curiosity and creativity,
strengthen the memory, help a person to think in an organized fashion or
from another person’s prospective. It may boost one’s self-esteem, which is
so important for psychological health. Nevertheless, they don’t lead to the
formation of more solid friendships, for which the face-to-face
relationships are irreplaceable».

Dr. Toro, what advice would give to parents and teachers in the end?

«In Adolescents and Adultescents, we recommend a full recovery of
educational responsibility. In short, this means to approach children with
simplicity and with respect to the roles, actually playing with them,
taking interest in them and sharing in the things they do, favoring an
establishment of terms and conditions of use. The ultimate goal is to
identify certain rules and proper, responsible approaches».


It’s More Enriching to Read with Mom than to Watch TV or Play with Her


Can Pinocchio teach a lesson to parents of digital natives?

Check Also