Worry Not, Game On!
Clearing the Stigma Around Video Games
by Kohava Mendelsohn
Raise your hand if your parents told you something along the lines of, “video games will rot your brain” when you were a kid. Mine sure did. They limited my “non-educational” screen time and video game use. They warned me against violent games. I took their beliefs about the dangers of video games as facts and limited how much I played video games.
As video games have gained popularity in recent years, so have fears of their negative impact, especially on children. This has led to laws all over the world banning and restricting the use of video games. In 2020, Japan’s Kagawa prefecture passed a law limiting children’s screen time to 60-90 minutes. China has also regulated the use of video games to only 3 hours a week for children under 18.
These fears spring from a grain of truth. Addictive gambling games can be devastating to players’ mental health (not to mention their wallets), but so can actual gambling. Bright screens and colourful lights are some of the psychological tools that many casinos use to keep your attention, and they are exacerbated in gambling games.
But gambling games are not representative of all video games. It cannot be concluded that because gambling games are harmful, all video games are therefore also harmful. Just as not all exciting activities should be lumped in with gambling, not all video games cause the same effects.
Additionally, it has been shown in several studies that players of violent video games can be more aggressive in their lives. However, as Rachel Kowert and Thorsten Quandt note in their book, The Video Game Debate: Unravelling the Physical, Social, and Psychological Effects of Digital Games, there is also a correlation between video game sales and a decrease in violent crime. As we know, it’s much easier to find correlations than find the root cause of the correlation. After their extensive review, Kowert and Quandt concluded that “it is difficult to conclusively link VVG [Violent Video Game] exposure to aggressive behaviour or certainly violent behaviour in society.”
So what effect do video games actually have on us?
In a recent study, four Oxford University researchers set out to answer the question. They collaborated with seven different game publishers to collect data from a wide range of games, including Animal Crossing: New Horizons, as well as Apex Legends. After consent was received from players, the publishers provided the hours players spent playing. Additionally, the players filled out three wellbeing surveys over biweekly intervals.
After analyzing data collected by the 38,935 study participants, the measured effect video games had on participants’ wellbeing was “not credibly different from zero”.
Not only do video games not cause negative emotions, but also they can actually be beneficial. Studies have shown time spent playing video games was correlated with an increase in children’s IQ and improved cognitive abilities like memory. Additionally, a research study from the University of Colorado Boulder with 12,000 participants found that children with higher screen time had more and closer friendships than their peers who had less screen time.
Despite this evidence, our parents still tell us to stay away. Governments try to limit the use of video games. Gaming is still associated with several harmful stereotypes. These narratives are not necessarily backed by science; we need to be more diligent in our acceptance of unsubstantiated claims.
I constantly see my friends and family (and sometimes myself) get carried away by messages perpetuating alarm with little evidence. The decades-long crusade against video games has capitalised on parents’ fears and worries. It has preyed on our anxiety of new technology and our fear of the unknown. It needs to stop.
These studies illustrate the importance of not blindly believing what we are told. Science and rigorous research determine which beliefs are facts and which are created to scare us. If we blame video games for our feelings of loneliness or depression or for societal issues like gun violence, it leaves us blind to other important factors at play.
The effects of video games on our brains are nuanced but certainly not all bad. Let’s put in the work to find the real causes for the issues we are facing, and in the meantime, game on!