The debate over the psychological impact of violent gaming has been going on for years. If you ask worried parents, they might complain that the violent content is making children act more aggressively in the real world.
If you ask the game producers, they might say that the social aspect of online games adds an extra dimension to peer relationships.
The gamers themselves might say that playing games offers them ‘escapism’, a chance to escape the stresses of real life, or ‘catharsis’- that they play out all their anger in a safe way. Or they might just say that they enjoy them!
But what is the truth?
What does the science tell us about the impact of violent games on these adolescents?
In May this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) finalised their decision to include ‘gaming disorder’ in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) for the first time. Many people laughed, or viewed this as a sad reflection of the addiction of ‘younger generations’ to technology. But gaming disorder is more than just a teen who won’t come to the dinner table unless shouted-at to turn their Xbox off.
Although they don’t distinguish between types of video games, the WHO defines gaming disorder as:
“a pattern of gaming behaviour characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences”
For a person to be diagnosed with gaming disorder, these symptoms must be so severe that they significantly impair personal, family, social, educational or occupational functioning.
This sounds scarily similar to the definition for other, more commonly-known addiction disorders, such as drug or gambling addiction. For the WHO to add this to their ICD reflects the fact that these behaviours have been identified all over the world, and that experts are having to develop treatments for them. Although only a small proportion of people who play games are affected by ‘gaming disorder’, it is clear that more people than ever are playing games, so it becomes more important than ever that we understand what the psychological impact of these games is, particularly those which include so much violent content.
But, the WHO decision did not come out of nowhere. Scientists had been studying the effects of excessive game-playing long before. For example, five years ago, two researchers from Austria summarised 98 different studies on the effects of game play. They reported that there are social effects of most games, but that it depended on the type of game. Violent games (where the predominant aim is to harm other characters) were associated with increased aggression and reduced prosocial behaviour, whereas prosocial games (where the predominant aim is to help other characters) had the opposite effect. The problem with this is the classic chicken and egg conundrum (or, as we call it in science: ‘causality’).
Do individuals with aggressive tendencies play more violent games, or does the playing of violent games increase aggressive tendencies in the people who play them?
This is very difficult to work out, unless we start measuring children before they start playing violent games, and track them over time.
Even if individuals are not showing any increases in aggressive behaviour, another concern might be desensitisation, where an individual becomes less emotionally affected or shocked by violent imagery.
One review of the evidence has indeed reported that exposure to violent video games increases the risk of desensitisation to violence, which may lead to increased aggression or a reduction in prosocial behaviour. However, other studies, some using functional MRI scanning, have not shown any emotional desensitisation in the brains of adult males who play violent video games. So, more needs to be done to understand where there are any desensitisation effects.
It is not such a bleak story though; a recent report found no link between aggressive video games and real-world aggression.
In fact, some research even shows positive effects of video games.
A large study in 2017, using data from 3195 children aged 6–11 in six EU countries reported that, once the figures were adjusted for many other aspects of the child’s environment, high usage of video games almost doubled the chance of a child having high intellectual functioning and school competence. There was no association with mental health problems, but those who used video games were less likely to have problems in peer relationships. However, this study did not describe the type or content of the games that these children were playing. Would the result have been different if they focused on games with violent content?
Overall, much of what this research is telling us might seem like ‘common sense’, or may be consistent with what you have observed in your own life.
Living with an adult ‘gamer’ myself (my fiancé, in fact!), who is as obsessed with gaming now as he was when he was a teenager, I have observed some of his most aggressive behaviour (and language!) when these games, both violent and non-violent, aren’t going his way.
But, I also see him, with his headphones on, talking and laughing online with people he hasn’t seen in a long time. He communicates with friends and relatives who may not have easy access to other social interactions due to disability or social anxiety.
Is gaming the best way to address this? No.
But, it seems to me, that it is a relatively low-cost, enjoyable way of improving loneliness and social isolation in particularly difficult-to-engage groups of people.
Perhaps, like so many other aspects of our lives such as healthy diet and drinking alcohol, it is a case of ‘consumption in moderation’. In this case, parental supervision and education is just as important.
Parents need to be very aware of the level of game usage among their children, and of the level of violent content in these games. They also need to ensure that their children are aware and protected from the malicious or toxic behaviour that can often be found in forums where other players have anonymity.
Gaming can have many positive effects, such as improving social interaction and may even help to build relationships, as players work together and share a common interest. They also allow players to ‘vent their frustrations’ by playing them out in the gaming world, which may be considered a more ‘safe’ environment.
We must not forget that some games can be intellectually stimulating, and this, as we have seen in one of the studies, might even improve school performance.
Like we have seen on the packets of sweet treats so many times before, maybe gaming needs to be ‘enjoyed as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle’.