A little over a week ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the potential benefits of video games. They reported that research conducted by different universities and scientists shows that, “…gaming improves creativity, decision-making and perception,” with benefits including improved hand-eye coordination in surgeons and vision changes that boost night driving ability.
Studies showed that, “People who played action-based video and computer games made decisions 25% faster than others without sacrificing accuracy…” Another study showed similar results, finding that most adept gamers can make choices and act on them four times faster than most people. The University of Rochester also found: “…practiced game players can pay attention to more than six things at once without getting confused, compared with the four that someone can normally keep in mind…” The article emphasizes that all of these studies were conducted independently of the video game developers and publishers.
In addition to a gamer’s ability to make quick decisions and multi-task (that’s not a surprise), studies also showed the playing action-based video games increased creativity. According to the article:
“A three-year study of 491 middle school students found that the more children played computer games the higher their scores on a standardized test of creativity—regardless of race, gender, or the kind of game played. The researchers ranked students on a widely used measure called the Torrance Test of Creativity…”
This was in contrast to the use of cell phones, computers, and the Internet for other non-gaming purposes, which did not show any effects on creativity.
Studies like this go against what people typically pay attention to when it comes to gaming and psychology. We’re all too aware of public concern for how violent video games affect brain development. In October of last year, I reported on statements made by Baroness Susan Greenfield, a Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, wherein she commented on an article published in September 2010 by the cognitive scientist Daphne Bavelier calledChildren, Wired: For Better and for Worse. Greenfield said that there’s “evidence showing there’s a change in violence, distraction and addiction in children, linked to the pervasion of technology.” Greenfield also accused doctors that went against her claims as being like the people who denied that smoking causes cancer.
In December, I also reported on a presentation by Dr. Yang Wang, a radiologist at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, given at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. At the presentation, Dr. Wang discussed a study where they had divided men aged 18-29 into two groups. The first group would play a violent shooting game at home for a week, and then did not play at all for the second week. The second group did not play any games at all through the two weeks. MRIs were taken of both groups at the beginning, middle, and end of the study. According to the LA Times:
“The analyses showed that at one week, the game players had less activation in parts of the brain associated with cognitive function and emotional control than they had at baseline, and than the control group. Activation increased again after the second week, when the men didn’t play the game.”
Dr. Wang confirmed that, “These findings indicate that violent video game play has a long-term effect on brain functioning.”
Paul Adachi, of Brock University also conducted a study where he found that there was no correlation between aggressive behavior and violence in video games. He suggested that there were other confounding variables involved in the effects of violent games and aggressive behavior.
Computational analyst Joshua Lewis at the University of California in San Diego, who has studied 2,000 computer game players, stated that he believed many of these studies on the effects of violent games on the brain was a waste of attention. He states, “Not enough attention has been paid to the unique and interesting features that videogames have outside of the violence.”
So why do people focus so much on the effects of violent video games and psychology? Instances of people blaming behavior on video games goes back to at least 1997 when a boy stabbed his friend to death. The victim’s mother filed a lawsuit against Midway Games, because she believed that her son’s friend did it due to an obsession with Midway’s game Mortal Kombat.
Just two years later, in 1999, the actions of two shooters involved in the Columbine High School massacre were blamed on their alleged addiction to Doom.
In addition to those two, there have been at least 23 other incidents where video games were pointed to as catalysts. The most recent was in April 2011, when a 24-year-old man opened fire in a Netherlands shopping mall, killing 6 people and wounding 17 others before committing suicide. In less than 24 hours, people believed that his addiction to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was to blame.
Confirmation Bias Sucks
I think the reality is, however, that most people use games as a means of escapism, which is true for most entertainment. You’re there to do or see something that you don’t have access to in your regular, day-to-day life. How a piece of media affects you has more to do with who you are as a person – your history, experiences, mental stability, etc, than it does with the piece of media itself. So if a kid who plays violent video games and then goes to his school with a gun, maybe he had issues with anger, depression, bullying, and isolation that compelled him to play violent video games as a means of expression anger and frustration, of venting. And then, maybe, the video games just aren’t enough. At that point, do we want to blame the video game? Do we want to fund a handful of doctors and researchers to prove that the media is the problem, because some people can’t handle the fact that sometimes, people have serious psychological issues that need to be addressed, and kicking them under the rug with tags of “weird, addicted, obsessed, outcast” isn’t going to do them, or society, any favors? That’s politics getting in the way of actual science.
That was a bit of a rant, because even though I agree that the effects of video games on the brain is a fascinating field of study, too many scientists go in thinking, “Video games increase aggression or negatively affect cognitive functions, let’s see how” (that’s called confirmation bias). And maybe they go into that because (a) they’re getting paid by a corporation that wants to use that data to further their agendas, (b) it’s a cultural “hot topic” and will guarantee them and their institute media attention, or (c) they’re trying to get funding or maintain their tenure, so they pick up a quick “X negatively affects Y, just like your mom always said” piece.
Does that mean I think 8 year olds should be playing Modern Warfare? No. You have to take into account brain development. That’s why video games and movies have ratings. Because if you let your six-year-old watch all seven SAW movies, it’s going to mess them up, because (s)he’s still having trouble grasping the fact that television and reality are two different things. You might be able to tell it’s not really a human suffering, but a kid whose brain is just beginning to realize that the whole world doesn’t share the exact same experiences it does, isn’t going to know that the man on the screen isn’t actually getting his head crushed by blocks of ice in real life.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with the statement that Joshua Lewis made, about how there a number of other things you can look at in video games, like how they can affect learning, reasoning, memory, visual processing, abstract thought, perceptual organization, processing speed, and dozens of other things. But instead people are just trying to make a point, to prove something. All for naught, really, because no matter how damaging video games may prove to be, they are now officially protected by the First Amendment.
My favorite quote regarding media, especially violent media, comes from Rob Schrab’s foreward in the JTHM Director’s Cut:
“There’s a little monster inside all of us, a little wolf-faced monkey that needs to be satiated. As people, we mustn’t ignore that monster. If we do, we cheat ourselves. We deny an emotion, a feeling.
Think of someone who pissed you off. Some yutz who cut you off in traffic; a prick-ass Kinko’s employee who took three hours to copy your resume; the big bully who spit in your face when you were eight. Now, in your head, relive that moment. This time, however, don’t just stand there and take it. This time you’ve got a knife. Pull it out from behind your back and watch the status flip-flop. Suddenly, Mr. Kinko isn’t so cocky. The playground bully is crying for his mother. Smell their fear. Then, kill them. Kill them like you see in the movies. Make it as horrible as possible. Release that monster and stab that knife deep into their face.
As humans, we are taught to forget that we are animals. Animals kill to survive and it’s just as natural for us. To deny nature is to deny life. Now that you’ve committed murder in your dream world, relax. Take a deep breath, give your monster a high-five and put him away. You’ve just used an evil fantasy to keep you civilized and sane.
Some may call this irresponsible advice, they kid themselves that their monster doesn’t exist. And when a person lies to themselves, there is less chance for spiritual growth. More than likely, their monster will step out of the Dreamworld and into the Realworld. That’s how a society gets messy. Lots of neglected, hungry monsters.”
He then goes on to say that violent media, in this case Jhonen Vasquez’s comic JTHM, “gives our monster something to chew on. It’s pain-food that wears its teeth down.” I think that’s a pretty apt metaphor. The number of times a video game has taken away the sting of a painful incident is innumerable for me. For some of us, it helps keep us sane, it helps make us friends, it helps us learn new things, it helps us get rid of pain, anxiety, depression, anger, if only for a few hours. And yeah, maybe a small percentage of people who play video games end up going on a violent rampage. But that is true of any and every population. Every group of a certain size will have a number of people that do messed up things, that’s reality. And yet nobody is running MRIs to investigate the effects of reading the Twilight Saga, or watching episodes of The Real Housewives of Orange County, or listening to dubstep, because they’re not easy scapegoats. Perceived subcultures and “fringe” interests are easy scapegoats, and the people sitting in positions of power, writing checks to institutions and proposing legislation, are still under the impression that gaming, especially playing FPSs and such, is a fringe interest.