I am 14 years old and don’t like playing first-person shooter games like my friends – what should I do?

Michael RichMichael Rich, MD, MPH, is Boston Children’s Hospital’s media expert and director of Boston Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. (Visit their newly redesigned website here.) Send him a media-related parenting question via cmch@childrens.harvard.edu and follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston.

Q: I am 14 years old, and currently debating my choice of friends. They all play first-person shooter (FPS) games, while I choose other kinds of games. They often tell me how great their games are but criticize mine. When they clamor for the new Call of Duty, I freak out over the new Sonic games. I am firmly against playing rated M (mature) or AO (Adults Only) games and so are my parents. Are my parents and I the odd ones out on this? Aren’t there negative effects associated with playing FPS games? And if so, what can I do?

A: First, I find it admirable that you are paying attention to how playing different games makes you feel and that you are marching to the beat of your own drummer. Video games are great fun because they immerse you in a unique world, challenge you to figure out and solve problems, and reward you for overcoming increasingly difficult challenges.

Because video games are so engaging and immersive, many players are less aware than you that they are learning and changing as a result of their gaming experience. By putting the player into the virtual environment of a game, with its own rules for success and failure, the player builds skills needed to play the game, such as visual attention and hand-eye coordination, but in order to succeed, the player also changes how they view the world. If they are playing a soccer video game, they think more strategically about moving the ball down the field.

In a FPS game, players are conditioned to see any movement as a threat to be eliminated. Because interactive electronic games create virtual realities and reinforce specific “behavioral scripts”, they are believed to be among the most powerful educational technologies yet developed.

As you have noted, FPS games are widely popular. They tap into primal human urges: the fight for survival, and the desire to prevail or win. Many of us will never face life-or-death conflict, but video games engage users repeatedly in vicarious kill-or-be-killed situations Vicarious or not, any experience changes us.

Research shows that those who play FPS games are more likely to be disrespectful to others, to use more confrontational or violent approaches to solving conflicts, and to focus on winning above all. Additionally, they don’t do as well in school and are less likely to help others than those who do not play these games.

But don’t reject your friends on the basis of the games they play. You became friends because you shared a lot more than video games. Friends are important, not only for companionship and fun, but for learning how to live with and enjoy people with whom you don’t always agree.

Try doing something with them other than video gaming – go outside, play hide-and-seek, build a robot or a bird house – but trying to decide which video games to play will only lead to conflict at first. You can show them that there are many other fun things to do that you all enjoy. Perhaps in time you will be able to talk about the positive and negative effects of video games., but for now just be friends.

Remember, it took a generation to move from cigarette smoking being similarly popular to the dramatically lower proportion of people at risk today. We are all reaping the benefits from thoughtful and compassionate public health leaders who had the courage, like you, to stand up for what they thought was best.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®