Rock n’ Roll, Television and Social media. In the days when these developments first came about it was thought they would negatively impact society and create anti-social cynics out of younger generations. This led to headlines suggesting that these forms of media were responsible for all the world’s problems and were the reason society would come screeching to a halt. As far as I can tell they were wrong.
With the rise of video games the cycle has begun again. Over the last decade there has been no shortage of headlines and studies claiming that videos games like Grand Theft Auto or Mortal Kombat will turn you into a ragging psychopath. However, there appears to be minimal publicity for those studies which show no link between video games and aggressive behaviour. Likewise, the media seems more concerned with berating game developers than discussing the studies which investigate the positive aspects of playing video games. For example, a review by the American Psychological Association found that adolescents who play strategic video games display improved problem solving as well as higher cognitive ability and social skills.
More recently, the positive aspects of video games, particularly learning new skills, is gradually being embraced by the wider public. Recently, Microsoft released MinecraftEdu; a form of Minecraft designed to be used in schools, to teach Chemistry, History and even study Shakespeare. While this demonstrates a willingness to explore new avenues there are still a significant number of people who are against the idea that video games could have a positive impact.
This side of the argument is supported by stories of people suffering from serious video game addiction. For instance, in 2010 in South Korea a couple were arrested following the death of their daughter, who died of malnutrition while they were playing a massively multiple online (MMO) computer game. Likewise, in March last year a 24 year old Shanghai resident died at an internet café after playing World of Warcraft for 19 consecutive hours. While these examples are thankfully rare, they unfortunately represent the extremes which can occur when playing video games.
While the term “video game addiction” may sound like a term designed to scare parents it is now considered a medical condition. As of 2013 “internet gaming disorder” features in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5), used by psychiatrists to diagnose patients. The DSM indicates that playing games prompts a neurological response that can influence feelings of pleasure and reward and can result in, in extreme situations, addictive behaviour. Anyone who has successfully completed a game or received a particularly difficult achievement can attest to the sense of accomplishment that a game can provide. However, exactly how that sense of achievement causes addiction is unclear. It has been suggested that certain individuals have brains which are hyper-reactive to positive stimuli, making them susceptible to addiction. The previous examples are extreme instances of this kind of video game addiction; the kind which the media gravitate towards. One of the key aspects which the media ignore, which is usually clear in the scientific literature, is that the negative consequences of gaming involve those who play excessive amounts of video games.
Currently, there is little evidence that playing a moderate level of video games has significant adverse effects. This is reinforced by the fact that, after years of research, there is no consensus concerning the link between video games and violent behaviour. One of the reasons for this controversy is that many of the studies which have been conducted do not account for all the variables. In an attempt to counter-act this, a recent meta-analysis was carried out by the American Psychological Association. This study pooled data from 170 research reports in an attempt to identify a common thread in all the previous studies on video games. Once again, the outcome of the study was that they did not have enough evidence to evaluate whether violent behaviour is affected by video game use.
In an attempt to understand why people enjoy playing games a group from The University of Queensland, Australia, investigated the demographic of those who play video games. Interestingly, rather than a link between violent video games and violent behaviour they identified a strong link between violent video games and the desire for sex. In particular, the results suggested that sex was more important to those who played violent video games. Furthermore, both men and women view themselves as more attractive and a better romantic partner the more violent the video game they play. While the consequence of these findings remains to be seen it is refreshing to see research which investigates other aspects of video games, not just that they are rotting our brains.
While, there are an increasing number of studies which investigate the impact of video there are still some areas which have yet to be fully investigated. For instance, the effects video games have on those younger than 10 has yet to be seen. Likewise, there has yet to be studies done on how technology affects the video game experience; something which will become increasingly relevant given the rise of virtual reality.
Overall, it would appear that when looking at the link between video games and violence the jury is still out. While there are examples at the extreme end of the spectrum we also need to consider the potential positive impact gaming can have. Now that many of the people who grew up playing games are getting involved in research we may start to see more objective research into the effects of video games. Hopefully, future research will be fuelled by people who understand the hobby and can once and for all tell me whether playing Mario will turn me into a serial killer.
Image courtesy of Silvio Sousa Cabral, image hosted on Flickr.