I was recently asked to give my opinion on the video game industry from an “outsider’s” perspective. As someone who studies psychology, I want to make an impartial presentation of concrete research into the effects video games actually have. But this presentation is aimed at the full-on nerd, (those with their own personal Dungeons and Dragons board game and every boxed copy of Metal Gear Solid), i.e. precisely the people who don’t normally listen to the concerns of these researchers.
The age old question has always been whether or not they are they are harmful. Do they make your eyes square shaped? Is someone who has spent a large part of their childhood playing video games more likely to have concentration deficits than someone who has not? Are people who play violent video games more likely to imitate this violence or be de-sensitised to it? Many psychologists have found there to be both positive and negative impacts to playing video games.
The first piece of evidence I will share is by psychologist Albert Bandura, who found a strong link between violence shown on screen and the subsequent violent behaviour of children. Children were exposed to footage of adults beating a doll and later imitated the exact gestures of violence towards it, whereas before they had not interacted in this way. This research shows that children will imitate violence they have seen on screen or enacted by others, which is of course relevant when considering the effect of playing first-person shooter games against a ‘culturally specific’ enemy, or of exposure to gruesome monster-slaying games.
Additionally, a study by Silvern and Williamson found that children playing a violent video game exhibited more verbal and physical aggression compared to children who watched a violent cartoon, suggesting that video games have a more powerful negative effect than other forms of media. But according to Pengl, violent video games might influence people who already have aggressive personalities, so maybe it only affects certain people in a negative way. Interestingly, a link between repeated exposure to violent video games and desensitisation to violence has been suggested – the implication being that individuals aren’t as shocked by violence in real life. Furthermore, missing aversive responses to violence may cause increased tendency towards violent behaviour.
These pieces of research show that video games can have behavioural effects on participants and that playing violent games undermines cooperative and pro-social behaviour. Obviously there are weaknesses to each of these studies, since it has also been found that gaming can have positive effects (meaning they’re not totally awful). Kestenbaun and Weinstein found that heavy computer gaming in teenage males reduces aggression levels. It can lead to a way of dealing with pent up anger, relieving stress levels and managing conflict. Video games can also encourage problem solving and understanding. Gaming inspires thinking, perseverance, and commitment – it gives the gamer qualities that can be useful in life.
In terms of my own involvement with video game culture I am (proudly) an individual who was not brought up playing them. The closest I got was Tinkerbell and friends on the Nintendo DS, and to this day I am still a consistent loser at Mario Cart on the Nintendo Wii. Before I met my significant other I didn’t know what the difference between an Xbox and a PlayStation was (and trust me, ignorance was bliss).
I grew up thinking video games catered mainly for boys, that they were a noisy waste of time. My siblings and I read books and played with Lego and dolls rather than video games. Perhaps it is just a boat that never floated my way and therefore I couldn’t delve as deep as others have to explore the beauty and complexity of certain video games. I admit I didn’t have any exposure to video games till about three years ago, and from what I have seen, I now understand how certain games have the ability to take you on a journey: games which have such intricate, breathtaking scenery and landscapes that they have been etched even in my memory.
There are some games I now consider to be pure art and genius, which are more complex than just moving around on a screen completing tasks. But I think that the history of association with violence gives video games a negative reputation, preventing many people from enjoying the artistic and boundary pushing games. Maybe for a majority of us outsiders it doesn’t occur to us that a video game could be a form of art, and perhaps those violent games give the whole industry a bad name?
Taking all this into account it seems as though the line between art form and risk will always be blurred.