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Are video games really the villains in our violent age?
The Sandy Hook school massacre has revived concerns about the effects of first-person shooter games, but some of them are actually good for you.Sunday 30 December 2012
The number of aliens you kill may directly
in your brain. This may not sound like a typical
but it has come from some of the world's finest
laboratories. In fact, it is the
outcome of studies on how action video games can
mental control and visual skills. We're talking here about fast-moving titles such as Halo, Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto,
quick reflexes and instant
They're often portrayed as the most
forms of digital entertainment,
but it looks as if they may be
good at sharpening your mental skills.
This may come as a surprise if you read much of the popular press, which is often
with technological scare stories. Scientific
has been less media-friendly but
We now have
studies on how playing action computer games, as opposed to puzzle or strategy
titles such as The Sims or Tetris, leads to an improvement in how well we pay attention, how quickly we react, how
we are to images and how
we sort information.
Crucially, these studies are not just focused on people who already play a lot of video games, but are testing whether action video game
training genuinely leads to improvements.
The studies use
It is a method normally used to test medications, but it can be applied to anything. In this case, a group of
people are randomly
to one of two groups. Half get the "treatment",
perhaps blasting away at enemy combatants in Medal of Honor, while the others get
the "placebo" – for example,
a digital family in The Sims 3.
those assigned to play the fast-moving action games show improvements on
neuropsychological tests that measure the
to process quickly and react to visual information. It's worth saying that these
were thrown into doubt in 2011 when several scientists, led by Walter Boot from Florida State University,
that these findings may be due to poor experimental design, but
and better planned studies have
to find a positive effect.
Another aspect of the game debate concerns the
of violent video games. This has become a matter of public
again in light of the tragic Sandy Hook
killings after the gunman was identified as being a fan of first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty. It's worth saying that such
events are not a good basis for science, simply because the popularity of this form of entertainment makes it difficult to
any form of link between their use and statistically
rare individuals. This does not, however, mean that the issue itself is not important and worthy of study – and it has,
in fact, been
Also using randomised controlled trials, research has found that violent video games cause a
reliable short-term increase in aggression during lab-based tests.
However, this seems not to be something specific to computer games. Television and even
violence in the news have
been found to have a
similar impact. The
longer-term effects of aggressive gaming are still not well studied, but we would
expect similar results from
long-term studies of other violent media – again a small
increase in aggressive thoughts and
behaviour in the lab.
These, however, are not the same as actual violence. Psychologist Christopher Ferguson, based at the Texas A&M International University, has
predicts genuine violence
committed by young people. It turns out that
delinquentpeers, 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. This makes sense even in light of horrifying mass shootings. Several
of the killers did play video games, but this doesn't
distinguish them from millions of non-violent young men. Most, however, had a previous history of antisocial
behaviour and a disturbed background, something known to be much more common in killers.
Perhaps the most telling effect of video games concerns not what they
involve but how much time someone spends playing them. A helpful study on the effect of
giving games consoles to young people found that, while the gaming had no negative impact on
core abilities, school
performancedeclined for those kids who put
aside homework for screen
entertainment. Similarly, a
significantamount of research has found that putting aside exercise for the physical inactivity of video
games raises the risk of
obesity and general poor health.
And while "
addiction" is now the pop psychology label of choice for anything that someone does to
excess (sex, video games, shopping), the same behaviour could
just as easily, and more
parsimoniously, be described as a form of
avoidant or unhelpful coping. Rather than dealing with uncomfortable life problems, some people
avoid them by absorbing themselves in other activities, leading to an unhelpful
cycle where the distractions end up
maintaining the problems because they're never confronted. This can apply as easily to books as video games.
verdict from the now
considerable body of scientific research is not that video games are a new and
ominous threat to society but that anything in excess will cause us problems.
prosaic conclusion is that
moderation is key – whether you're killing aliens, racing cars or trying to place oddly shaped blocks that fall from the sky.
Vaughan Bell is a clinical and research psychologist based at King's College, London
The original article can be found here.