Five damaging myths about video games—let’s shoot ‘em up
Apr 13, 2019-
Video games are one of the most misunderstood forms of entertainment. In one sense, it’s easy to see why: if you haven’t had much interaction with them, watching someone play one can be a pretty unsettling experience. Gamers can often give the impression that they’re glued to the screen, absorbed in what feels like the digital equivalent of junk food. At best, it seems like a pointless thing to do; at worst, we worry that games are socially isolating, or actively harmful. If we take a little time to uncover the true nature of video games, though, we find a very different story playing out…
1. ‘Video games cause us to become more violent’
One of the longest-standing tropes about video games is that violent ones—like Call of Duty or Fortnite—can cause players to become more aggressive in the real world. It’s a worry that becomes acutely salient in the context of mass shootings. Video games often take centre stage in the ensuing media analysis of such atrocities, with insinuations that not only do the perpetrators play violent games, but that they were driven to the act because they play games.
Such accusations often fall flat in the face of subsequent forensic analysis. Indeed current scientific evidence suggests that the link between games and aggression is actually weak. In a recent study published in Molecular Psychiatry participants were asked to play a violent game (Grand Theft Auto V), a non-violent game (The Sims 3) or no game at all, every day for a period of two months. Using an array of questionnaires and behavioural measures to test aggression, sexist attitudes and mental health issues, the study’s authors found that playing the violent video game had no significant negative effects on any of these measures.
In a similar vein, research published this year in Royal Society Open Science showed that in a survey of more than 2,000 teenagers and carers in the UK, there was no evidence that playing violent games caused the teens to either become more aggressive or less social.
Two studies aren’t going to give us the whole story, of course, but the emerging picture from the research literature is that video games don’t appear to have a meaningful impact on aggressive behaviour, and certainly aren’t the root cause of mass acts of societal violence.
2. ‘Video games are addictive’
In the summer of 2018, the World Health Organization formally included “gaming disorder” in its diagnostic manual, the International Classification of Diseases, for the first time. It was a decision that ignited a furious debate in the academic community. One group of scholars argued that such a diagnostic label will provide greater access to treatment and financial help for those experiencing genuine harm from playing video games. Others (myself included) argued that the decision was premature; that the scientific evidence for gaming addiction simply wasn’t accurate or meaningful enough (yet).
Part of the problem lies in the checklists used to determine whether a disorder exists. Historically, the criteria for gaming addiction were derived from those used for other sorts of addiction. While that might be a reasonable place to start, it might not tell us the whole story about what the unique aspects of gaming addiction look like. For example, one of the standard criteria is that people become preoccupied with games, or start playing them exclusively, instead of engaging in other hobbies. However, these don’t sit very well as a benchmark for what you might consider to be “harmful” engagement, because games themselves (unlike abused drugs, say) are not inherently harmful.
Also, using this as a criterion has the potential to inflate the prevalence of addiction. While there will be people out there for whom gaming can become problematic, the chances are that this is a small group.
Moreover, some research suggests that gaming addiction is fairly short-lived. Data looking at players over a six-month period has shown that of those who initially exhibited the diagnostic criteria for addiction, none met the threshold at the end of the study.
This is not to say there isn’t anything about games to be worried about. Increasingly, and particularly in the case of mobile games, gambling-like mechanisms in the form of in-app purchases and loot boxes are being used as sources of income. Here, some emerging research suggests a correlation between people who spend money purchasing loot boxes to acquire new in-game items and scores on measures of problematic gambling. This work is preliminary, and we don’t yet know the causal direction of the relationship, but it points to the fact that there are some aspects of games marketing and monetisation that we need to be wary of.
3. ‘Gaming leads to social isolation’
The stereotypical view of a gamer is a pasty white teenager playing alone in his or her bedroom. It’s understandable that something about that situation seems unhealthy or unnatural. But this view usually comes from a misunderstanding of what video games really are. Games, since their inception, have been designed as social experiences. Whereas in the first 30 or so years of their existence this was restricted to people playing multiplayer games with each other in person, the advent of high-speed, ubiquitous internet access means increasingly that those interactions are moving online. Rather than isolating people, online gaming has the potential to bring us together in myriad new ways, to form close-knit communities based around common interests and hobbies.
Take Mats Steen, for example. Mats was born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a devastating disease that causes progressive muscle deterioration. As he grew up, to the outside world—to his family, even—he appeared to become isolated and withdrawn. After he died in 2014 at the age of 25, a different picture emerged—one in which Mats lived a full and happy life in the online world of Azeroth, the setting for Blizzard’s long-running game World of Warcraft. Far from being alone, Mats was surrounded by friends in this world, and they clubbed together to travel to Norway for his funeral.
For Mats, like so many other people around the world, the value in playing video games was not just in their ability to help him escape, but in their ability to help us connect with each other.
4. ‘It’s a meaningless waste of time’
I often get this criticism as a games researcher—couldn’t I be doing something better with my time? There’s a certain dissonance to the notion, in a way: somehow, we are able simultaneously to worry that games are the root cause of many of society’s problems, yet also consider them to be a pointless or vacuous thing to do. Why play them when you could go outside, or engage in more culturally enriching forms of art? But this comes from a misunderstanding about the creative power that games possess. They provide us with an opportunity to experience our world and other fantastical places in a way no other form of media comes close to.
As novelist and games designer Naomi Alderman outlined in a 2013 radio essay: “While all art forms can elicit powerful emotions, only games can make their audience feel the emotion of agency. A novel can make you feel sad, but only a game can make you feel guilty for your actions.”
Video games place you at the centre of the story—you are an active participant, instead of a passive observer. They offer us a safe place to interrogate and test the emotional consequences of our actions. Far from being a meaningless waste of time, then, games help us explore what it means to be human, to explore notions of love and loss, and to allow us to travel to far-off incredible places, to become incredible people—all from the comfort of our own home.
5. ‘It’s purely entertainment’
Video games, obviously, were a product of scientific development. Increasingly, that relationship is becoming symbiotic—in part because of their power to draw us in, video games are being leveraged in the course of scientific study. The best examples of this achieve two things: they act as fertile ground for collecting scientific data, while at the same time being an entertaining game experience.
An example of this is the recent mobile game Sea Hero Quest. Developed in 2016, Sea Hero Quest is a living, breathing virtual laboratory where the game acts as an experiment. Players are tasked with memorising a map, and then navigating a cartoonish fishing boat around a series of waterways, visiting a set of buoys in a specific order. That data is being used by scientists at University College London and the University of East Anglia to understand how spatial navigation abilities vary across the globe, and across the lifespan.
This sort of knowledge is crucial in developing a deeper understanding of how such abilities start to decline and go wrong in the case of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Within six months of launch, the game had been downloaded by nearly 4 million people from every country in the world, and the hope is that in the future, data from the game will help inform new approaches towards diagnosing and treating dementia.
—©2019 The Guardian
Published: 13-04-2019 10:19