Are video games really that bad?

Jon Sutton reviews the BBC Horizon programme.

Well, are they? Over the years I have come to see this seemingly simple question as the discipline of psychology in microcosm. People want to know the answer. There have been thirty-odd years of research into it, with the brightest minds in the business using a huge range of methods. Yet, as the redundant reminders come throughout this programme, ‘human behaviour is very complicated’, and the area ‘may always divide scientific opinion’. It’s little wonder that the media choose to make up their own mind, cherry-picking from the research for their scare stories. 

Horizon promised to look ‘behind the hype and the headlines’, and as you would expect for a programme with first-class psychologist and blogger Dr Pete Etchells (Bath Spa University) as Programme Consultant it served up plenty of serious science. Yet I was left unsatisfied by the staple Horizon diet – foreboding warning versus by contrary evidence, the ‘which part of the brain lights up?’ bit, the feel-good and future oriented conclusion. 

The starter in that three-course meal pitted the research of Professors Craig Anderson (Iowa State University) and Brad Bushman (Ohio State University) – broadly speaking, ‘You can’t zone out when you play a video game, you’re directly tied to a violent character’, and this leads to small but measurable increases in real-life aggression – against Professor Chris Ferguson (Stetson University) and a ‘growing group of academics’ who argue that if anything the rise in gaming has led to a decline in youth violence. Ferguson’s ‘routine activities theory’ certainly makes intuitive sense: if you take a group who are already prone to aggression and give them something else to do, it takes them away from scenarios where they are likely to engage in bullying and aggression out in the real world.

The programme noted that this division in the academic community is rarely mentioned in the media, and scare stories continue to dominate. Am I being naïve in hoping for one side of this debate to win out? A recent APA report supported the link between gaming and increased aggression and not criminality, so perhaps that’s the key distinction. Or perhaps the changing nature of gaming – myriad styles for all sections of society – means we need a more nuanced approach to the question, or simply to move on to richer and more positive possibilities. 

That’s pretty much what the programme did, with a series of contributions from academics looking deeper at the gaming-aggression link, before diving into the potential of virtual worlds. Dr Andrew Przybylski, a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, used the wonderfully named ‘Bastet’ (also known as ‘bastard Tetris’) to look at the impact of frustration on aggression. Professor Rene Weber (University of California, Santa Barbara) showed that even looking inside the brain at the moment of playing a violent game is not providing us with answers. (Apparently the anterior cingulate cortex suppresses the amygdala’s normal response to violence, but that’s just a normal modulation of emotional response.) Then there’s a brief diversion into ‘problem gaming’, with Professor Mark Griffiths (Nottingham Trent University) warning ‘we should not confuse excess with addiction.’ 

Also normalising the pastime were the video game journalists who were interviewed, with Leigh Alexander pondering ‘Play is fundamental to who we are, and we’re just doing it through technology now.’ There seems little doubt that gaming is changing and in amongst the shoot ‘em ups you’ve got virtual worlds which can train surgeons (Henk ten Cate Hoedemaker’s ‘Underground’) and combat mental decline as we age (Professor Adam Gazzaley, University of California, San Francisco, demonstrated ‘Neuroracer’). We may not be able to play our way to a better world, but there seems little doubt that gaming can improve visual tracking and attention shifts (see the work of Professor Daphne Bavelier). [UPDATE: Apparently there is actually plenty of doubt about this as well. Thanks @JoeHilgard]

In the end, no doubt my frustration is not with the programme but with the nature of psychology and even the scientific process in general. Could playing video games actually be good for us? Yes, no doubt they could, but isn’t that another programme? Can’t we get some kind of decent answer to the other question first? What constitutes ‘proof’, and if it’s never really ‘game over’ for any particular body of research is it any surprise that the media write their own ending?

- Watch the programme now and read more in The Psychologist archive. 

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