Several parents have recently inquired about the effect videogames have on the development of a child’s brain—and how much time they should allow their children to play videogames.

The simple answer is that although all childhood thought and behavior affect brain maturation at some level, no one really knows the long-term effects of something as specific as playing videogames. Current brain-imaging technology can’t measure the effects of extensive videogame activity on the normal maturation of a brain. Richard Haier (1992) observed the activity of various brain systems during mastery of the computer game Tetris, and last month’s column reported on research that involved brain activity during meditation and prayer. Such research, however, doesn’t determine if videogames, meditation, and prayer per se enhance or diminish a brain’s maturation. Rather, it merely depicts what occurs within our brain during the activity.

What we do know from observing behavior is that extensive practice tends to move knowledge and skills from a slow, conscious, and inefficient level to a quick, automatic, and efficient level. Further, skilled, automatic performance tends to require lower levels of brain activity (albeit more highly focused). To put it simply, proficiency generally requires extensive practice.

For example, an adolescent who wants to drive a car at 16 better begin with a tricycle at three — and spend many hours on lead-up wheeled-equipment (such as bicycles and skateboards) before trying to drive an automobile. We’re not born with the innate ability to manage wheeled movement at the proficiency level that driving an automobile in traffic requires.

Similarly, a young person who hopes to function effectively in the complex Internet environment should probably begin with videogames during the preschool years — the Internet being a kind of a worldwide videogame. Computer proficiency requires the ability to smoothly carry out such mouse functions as moving cursors and files, and such research functions as knowing where to locate and how to manipulate electronic information. Videogames contain many of these Internet challenges at a level analogous to that of a tricycle and automobile challenges.

Much of the mastery of key human movement and communication skills emerges easily through informal play and games—from playing hopscotch to telling jokes. Cars and computers move us from human-scale to more complex technological-scale activity, and so such mastery requires an even greater commitment to extensive practice.

Games are emotion/attention machines that throughout life are somehow able to activate and maintain our critically important capabilities for emotional arousal and attentional persistence. We see it in the willingness of the young to continually attempt to throw a large ball through a hoop in a competitive frenetic small group setting, and the older to attempt to hit a small ball into a buried cup in a more leisurely competitive small group setting. One could reasonably ask, what’s the point of either activity?

An avid golfer complained to me that his children were always playing expensive videogames when they should be engaged in other more important developmental activities. He got quite upset when I pointed out the many similarities between his golf and their videogames. For example, both are expensive. Both typically involve several players playing together. Both involve directing something (a ball or an electronic character) through a series of invented (natural or electronic) environments fraught with challenge and danger. Both are time-consuming and almost addictive…

He had all kinds of reasons to justify why it was OK for him to play golf (or bridge or bowling or chess or whatever), but that it wasn’t similarly OK for his children to play videogames. They’re bogus justifications. He plays golf because he enjoys it, and his children play videogames because they enjoy it.

Three-year-old children don’t realize that their videogame experiences are preparing them to understand and navigate cyberspace any more than they realize that their tricycle play is preparing them to navigate street space. The beauty of games is that they’re simply emotion/attention machines. They may take us nowhere (what’s the point of it?) or they may take us somewhere important — to the eventual mastery of knowledge and adult skills seemingly unrelated to the actual game.

I’ve noticed a common progression in our grandchildren. They’re initially content to simply observe older siblings play videogames. They then move to frustrating beginning attempts to play, and appreciate the tutoring older children seem willing to provide. They tend to master videogame concepts/procedures during early adolescence, lose interest in the lack of challenge, and shift to more complex computer games and Internet explorations. When I confront a computer problem, my grandchildren can usually tell me what’s wrong, and fix it. It’s a quite amazing progression from videogames to computer proficiency that I’ll never have because I didn’t spend the thousands of hours of computer playtime that they did.

So how much time should children spend on videogames — or on homework, or on helping out around the house, or on physical exercise, or on reading, or on babysitting siblings, or on TV, or on religious activities, or on practicing the piano, or on whatever?

The cognitive sciences currently have no answer to this question. A child probably shouldn’t be playing videogames most of the time — or do any of the other activities in the proceeding paragraph most of the time. But to deny or to seriously limit videogames to children in an era in which computer proficiency will become increasingly important in adult life is probably as foolish as denying wheeled-toys to children and then handing them car keys at 16.