In other news: behind the video game scare

The research on the psychological impact of video games tells quite a different story from the stories we get from interest groups and the media. I look at what we know in an article for The Observer.

Perhaps the two biggest concerns are that video games are ‘damaging the brain’ and that violent video games are causing, well, violence.

It’s first worth noting that talking about the impact of ‘video games’ as a whole is about a pointless as talking about the health effects of ‘sports’ as a whole.

However, we do know that certain sorts of video games have specific effects. For example, we have increasing evidence that ‘action video games’ lead to significant improvements in certain mental skills.

The number of aliens you kill may directly contribute to an improvement in your brain. This may not sound like a typical scientific discovery, but it has come from some of the world’s finest neuroscience laboratories. In fact, it is the genuine outcome of studies on how action video games can improve your attention, mental control and visual skills. We’re talking here about fast-moving titles such as Halo, Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, which demand quick reflexes and instant decision-making. They’re often portrayed as the most trashy, vapid and empty-headed forms of digital entertainment, but it looks as if they may be particularly good at sharpening your mental skills.

As the article makes clear, this has been tested quite rigorously, including with randomised controlled trials.

With regard to violence, violent video games have been found to cause small, reliable but temporary increases in aggressive thoughts and behaviour in the lab – as have other forms of violent media, including films and the news.

But in terms of real-world violence “delinquent peers, depression and an abusive family environment account for actual violent incidents, while exposure to media violence seems to have only a minor and usually insignificant effect.”

Nevertheless, the video game utopians also have reason to think again. There are some negative effects of spending too much time in front of the console, which are also tackled in the article.

Link to Observer article on the science of how gaming affects us.

7 thoughts on “In other news: behind the video game scare”

  1. I recently published an anthology about sexual assault in virtual worlds, which I co-edited with tech journalist Julian Dibbell. I wrote the Introduction, in which I discussed the phenomenon of video game rape from the perspective of both a feminist and a BDSMer. Needless to say, these are complicated issues. I’m certainly willing to entertain the idea that negative effects exist, as you note, but the popular vision of those negative effects is so limited — and typical social justice writing doesn’t help matters.

  2. What are the newer, better-designed studies of game training benefits you mention? I’ve seen exactly none that avoid the design problems that Boot et al discuss. I’d be curious to hear if you have other information.

  3. I am glad the piece mentioned exercise. The question in my mind is: does exercise improve mental health? The NY Times had a great article on the runner’s high but they did not say if this has important emotional benefits. Yes, many gamers are peaceful but I’m thinking of those who play video games day in and day out. Among those who are disturbed (or, you know, not placid) would sedentary living (and even indoor air, no I’m not joking) cause a downturn in mood or, more significantly, would physical activity create stability – to me that is the question.

    1. Not placid people don’t really need play video games to commit violency. Neither normal people do. And”Disturbed people” are far more victims of violency than the contrary. What people really forgets is that violent games is just an escapism. It doesn’t really transform you into a soldier or someone prepared to dealing with a real situation or anything like that. When someone decides to kiil innocent people in a school, so much it’s going on in his head than straight “Call of Duty..must compensate violence..bleep..bleep..”. There’s no simple answer, never.

  4. I did not see any one discussing the attention increase presented in the article, so I thought I would make a clarification that is important. Attention is a process in psychology and not a single action : one aquires an object of attention, focuses on that object, and then shifts attention to the next object. (Obvoiusly this description is simplified.) What the studies show is an increase in acquisition and transition speeds–not an increase in focus. This can be confusing because of the common usage of the word attention.

  5. I play goldeneye online multiplayer on the Wii quite a lot.

    Its a good vantage point from where to observe yourself in “the zone”. Frankly my best performance is when I visualise myself as a sort of viking berserker, mentally screaming “die”.

    This is not to say I have “lost control”, rather the opposite.

    I find that when I am in this frame of mind my powers of perception speed up. Even more so when you are on a “kill streak” and seem to be able to pull off feats which seemed impossible earlier.

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