Video Games: the good and the bad.

We covered at least a good example of the ugly recently.  For the good and the bad, I’m  going to draw on the Scientific American site.  First, the  good:

research has shown that video games can improve mental dexterity, while boosting hand-eye coordination, depth perception and pattern recognition. Gamers also have better attention spans and information-processing skills than the average Joe has. When nongamers agree to spend a week playing video games (in the name of science, of course), their ­visual-perception skills improve.

Then the bad:

[There’s is] the popular theory that they are responsible for increasing real-world violence. A number of studies have reinforced this link. Young men who play a lot of violent video games have brains that are less responsive to graphic images, suggesting that these gamers have become desensitized to such depictions. Another study revealed that gamers had patterns of brain activity consistent with aggression while playing first-­person shooter games.

This does not necessarily mean these players will actually be violent in real life. The connections are worth exploring, but so far the data do not support the idea that the rise of video games is responsible for increased youth violence.

As for gender differences:

Video games activate the brain’s reward circuits but do so much more in men than in women, according to a new study. … the men showed more activity in the limbic system, which is associated with reward processing. What is more, the men showed greater connectivity between the structures that make up the reward circuit, and the better this connection was in a particular player, the better he performed. There was no such correlation in women. Men are more than twice as likely as women are to say they feel addicted to video games.

Given the other benefits, one wonders if games could be made which women got more pleasure from, and what they’d be like.  And of course we must forget another benefit for women we discussed before:  10 hours of video games virtually eliminates the difference between men and women in spatial acuity..

31 thoughts on “Video Games: the good and the bad.

  1. I hope I’m not being captain obvious by pointing out that it’s probably possible that gamers like the games they play because they were already less sensitive and more aggressive.

    Take, well, myself as an example: I’ve never been in a fight, I just can’t comprehend why anyone would want to watch boxing — two people bloodying each other up; and so one may not be surprised to learn that I’ve never been interested in video games either.

  2. Aaron, nice point. I decided after reading it to poke around on the search engine, Science Direct, which my library has. Some studies do stress pre-existing factors, but it looks to me as though there are effects independent of that. Here’s a sample report:
    Chronic violent video game exposure and desensitization to violence: Behavioral and event-related brain potential data

    Bruce D. Bartholowa, , , Brad J. Bushmanb, c and Marc A. Sestird

    aDepartment of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia, USA

    bInstitute for Social Research, University of Michigan, USA

    cVrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

    dDepartment of Psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA

    Received 21 April 2005; revised 26 July 2005. Available online 7 October 2005.

    Numerous studies have shown that exposure to media violence increases aggression, though the mechanisms of this effect have remained elusive. One theory posits that repeated exposure to media violence desensitizes viewers to real world violence, increasing aggression by blunting aversive reactions to violence and removing normal inhibitions against aggression. Theoretically, violence desensitization should be reflected in the amplitude of the P300 component of the event-related brain potential (ERP), which has been associated with activation of the aversive motivational system. In the current study, violent images elicited reduced P300 amplitudes among violent, as compared to nonviolent video game players. Additionally, this reduced brain response predicted increased aggressive behavior in a later task. Moreover, these effects held after controlling for individual differences in trait aggressiveness. These data are the first to link media violence exposure and aggressive behavior to brain processes hypothetically associated with desensitization.

  3. What exactly is the significance of being “desensitized” to violence? Are there studies which show that individuals desensitized to violence are more likely to commit or otherwise contribute to violent acts?

  4. I have never felt too “rewarded” playing games I was always feeling a little a bit bored and would have to stop after an hour or so. My brother on the otherhand would play for days on end

  5. I should think the content of the games researchers choose is pretty relevant. First-person shooters in particular are overwhelmingly oriented towards the masculine, even when (or perhaps especially when) the protagonist is female. It makes sense then to think that men and women will have different experiences when assuming a powerful role in those worlds.

    Even when games are ostensibly ungendered, as in the ‘reward region of the brain’ story, I think there’s something to be said for socialization. Is “gaining more land” going to appeal more to men or women?

  6. There are lots of good questions being raised. When I tried Science Direct with “video games violence” I got more than 1,500 results. I suspect a lot are available on Google Scholar. The full papers should describe the games being played, how they distinguished between cause and effect, if they were trying to do that, and so on.

    Desensitizing is interesting. I’m not going to check the research, but do notice that the quotes above say that there isn’t data to support a direct connection. Part of that might be because there are now pretty sharp limits on what psychological experiments are allowed to try to get subjects to do. Still, I know from my own case at least that desensitizing can change all sorts of reactions. E.g.,if you have witnessed children throwing tantrums in a classroom, your reactions the 15th time around may be much more nonchalant.

  7. I ask because I’m skeptical of the idea of a strong connection between desensitization to violence and violent acts. I’m sure that many depictions of violence in video games, movies and books which I found striking ten years ago wouldn’t faze me now; games like Mortal Kombat, which scandalized many people in the 90’s, now seem almost campy. But I absolutely do not think that I am a more violent person, or that I am any less concerned about real-world violence, as a result.

    I’m sure that a lot of the violence featured in ordinary films nowadays–including depictions which most people would consider quite tame or otherwise unproblematic–would have positively shocked people 60 years ago. To the extent that we do not find such depictions offensive nowadays, you might say that every one of us been “desensitized” relative to earlier generations. But how many of you really think that you are a more violent or less moral person than your 1940s counterpart, as a result?

  8. Hey..that was a good write-up…I was quite bothered as my son is a total game freak. but then, I found him playing certain free games that are really cool, quite entertaining & act quite as a brain teaser. Now I feel a lot more relaxed and decided to let him play.

  9. Sorry to get out of lurking on such a marginal issue — maybe not.
    Do any of you people have any idea of what it’s like to be at the same time male, heterosexual and not in love with violence? I don’t know anything, but I’d be willing to pretend it’s not so much a matter of some truncated gene-code. Your comfortable fantasies might just be hurting someone out there, when some of them might use your support. I might have back then, maybe not. Too late either way.

  10. according to a ‘recent’ study (2007) by astrid kristen from the free university of berlin, there is no link between violent games and violent or aggressive behaviour. furthermore, they are actually linked to personality traits. i firmly believe though that there is a dramatic link between popular science, media and fear of technology. and media panic.
    during the 1950s, football was condemned as a violent game, now the suggested substitute for violent video-games by politicians. at the same time, ‘violent’ games like tom clancy’s rainbow six series do not have violence but team-play and strategic planning in mind, similar to chess (which essentially is a war game too) even though you use fore to achieve your objectives.
    it is very hard to explain to people and the media that there is a significant difference between games like manhunt 2 and call of duty, for example.

  11. cmdshiftesc, I could not find much by her, but her paper in Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences. Vorderer, Peter (Ed); Bryant, Jennings (Ed); pp. 147-163. Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2006. xiv, 464 pp, which is partially on Google Books, does have her claiming it increases agressive behavior.

  12. Counterfnord: I’m not sure of your point here. How are you thinking of comfortable fantasies hurting someone?
    Nice to see you back!

  13. glad to be back.

    just by watching sexist music-videos and reading sexist articles as well as seeing advertisements in work-related magazines, all i can think of is being violent towards those who create this kind of content.
    joke aside, its hard to speak of -that- violence as almost every game includes violence to a certain degree. i do have the feeling that there is a lot of misinformation going on in the media about this issue, including banning games. Though it is hard to argue with very few well researched, well sampled, and statistically well evaluated studies one of the main findings (afaik) of kirstens research is that children playing violent games with incredible amounts of gore are the the consequence, not the reason, for violent behavior. at the same time, those who chose this genre don’t necessarily have a violent background and those gamers who play this particular genre value constructive games like civilizations as high.
    my argument is that for the majority of gamers, the genre of ego-shooter are a way of channelizing pent up conflicts and suppressed emotions and thereby are as valid as any other sport. of course there is a point where games become problematic in the sense that they ignore certain ethical standards (as seen in GTA) but one must not shove every game into a violence segment if there is a gun on the box because this is what too many popular-science and criminologists already do. It needs a complete assessment of what the goals are and how the player achieves it. by looking at call of duty, ghost recon, americas army etc, you get penalized if you accidently target your team or kicked from the server. playing the hasardeur will not lead you to the expected goal, instead will have dramatic effects on the game-play which in some cases forces you to rethink the strategy and try again. looking out for your team, helping wounded etc. are actions which are rewarded.

    but I have one more thought though…why is Stephen King a best-selling author? why do so many people watch TV-shows that include ‘real’ physical violence that is much more realistic then a video game? is it better to be spectator than semi-active participant? isn’t the action a way of sensitizing yourself while spectating desensitizes?

  14. My bad, cmdshiftesc, the last comment was to counterfnord, who hasn’t commented here for about half a year.

    I think you do raise a lot of good points. I especially like the idea that a lot of criticism comes from luddite (not your word) tendencies. New technology is scary and suspicious.

    I certainly can’t say why human beings enjoy violence, and no doubt it is complex. Some of it seems to me a kind of curiosity to see what is fairly hidden. I’ve often thought rubber-necking is a manifestation of our moral sense, even if not an especially good one. It would be harder for us to respond to cries for help if we didn’t find they grabbed our attention. We may well not understand very well what capacities fictionalized violence or the controlled violence of reality TV draw on. England seems these days quite caught up in a young woman’s dying, and perhaps someone can tell us why.

  15. I have been pretty quiet recently, but after reading the comments on this post (and the previous one on Rapelay) I find myself feeling very frustrated, and I think it’s important to vocalize why. Apologies for the directness/aggressiveness of tone here.

    A description of the dialectic that seems to be at work:

    JJ presents an article to generate critical and reflective discussion about the role that video games might play in leading to or reinforcing violent behavior in men. The immediate response is a cacophony of aggressive skepticism from (male) video game consumers (who don’t usually comment here) offering anecdotal evidence — “Take myself, for example” — that of course video games don’t lead to violence and, silly alarmist, men who are violent are just predisposed to violent video games. JJ then responds by providing more information about the pool of data at issue, and that the researchers took care to control for such pre-existing personality traits, only to be met with more unhelpful skepticism at even the possibility of the truth of such a hypothesis.

    This dialectic should be familiar to anyone who has taught feminist criticisms of pornography to straight college-age men. The same dismissive incredulity at the very idea that people might not be in total introspective control of how they perceive and act toward others. The same air of defensiveness at the suggestion that their consumption of culture artifacts might influence how they think and feel about and value human bodies and relationships. The same aggressive skepticism, the same unresponsiveness to methodological nuance in the empirical evidence.

    It’s a fucked up aspect of boy culture that conversations meant to generate critical and reflective inquiry into such practices as the sale, use and consumption of these artifacts — video games, pornography — are consistently met with this sort of attitude. I just want to say how much I admire JJ, and all the bloggers here, for their patience and their ability to offer their interlocutors much more charity than they receive from them.

  16. i am not sure if one can expect anything good from a society that does not value human bodies and relationship, not to mention respectful interaction while at the same time hyping and supporting, no matter how tragic her death, a racist and homophobic celebrity. if it would there should be no reason for violence, aggressive behavior, abusive language and a world economy dependent on the testosterone level of a few.

    nevertheless, skepticism is valid though due to the media misrepresentation of computer games based on popular science and not scientific evidence. and there is still little evidence due to the ethical issues of testing. it would be interesting to do that in a kasper hauser experiment.

    however, i always thought that this is what blogs are for, a legitimate comment is free section for an exchange of ideas, no matter how valid the thoughts. if thats still the case, may i question your argument by claiming that tetris as a video game (i know that it is cherry-picked, but you put everything into one basket here) will not cause an increase in aggression?

  17. Rachel:

    I explicitly said I do not consume video games. I do not care about video games. (I’m assuming you saying “Take myself, for example” was paraphrasing me. Apologies if your wee rant was about every comment but mine.)

    JJ presents an article to generate critical and reflective discussion…

    Yeah, so I offered a possible counter-argument to what jj called “the bad.” That’s how critical and reflective discussion goes down. You call yourself a teacher; I’d have thought a teacher should understand better than anyone that people can, and should, offer counterpoints without necessarily agreeing with them. I wasn’t sure if I agreed with mine; it’s just a question we should ask — hence why jj said “nice point.” There was nothing “aggressive” about my remarks.

    I never said “of course video games don’t lead to violence,” or any variation on that. I said “it’s probably possible.” That’s about as far away as one could get from the absolute certainty you attributed to me.

  18. Everyone will remember that we have a rule: Be Nice! I have the sense the discussion could go over the edge.

    Aaron, I didn’t check to see that you’re an Aaron who has been here before, so please don’t take it personally if I say the “nice point” had a tinge of the professor about it.

    Rachel does have a point. After all, I was quoting Scientific American and they do have a reputation for doing a decent job on saying what the state of research is. The “number of studies” had better have been sophisticated enough to look at pre-disposing factors, or psychology is in very big trouble. So one individual’s experience really shouldn’t be considered as posing any challenge.

    That’s not to say one individual’s contrary experience is worthless, but it needs to be followed up on to have much evidential merit in the context of my post.

    Still, the net is casual.

  19. JJ –

    …or psychology is in very big trouble.

    That was actually kind of my point. There are psychologists out there who have an aversion to any discussion of innate psychology, so this is one discipline where we have to be quite mindful of appeals to authority.

    Here is a recent example. I’m not saying he’s right or wrong, I’m just saying some psychologists are quite averse to it.

  20. Aaron —

    I wasn’t speaking in particular about you. I was speaking about the general tenor of the comments to this and the previous video game post, and about the similarity between them and the sort of comments I have dealt with from undergraduates in discussions about pornography and violence against women. I used a quote of yours because it illustrated one particularly frustrating dialectical move that I consistently come across from straight college-age men in these discussions — the offering of anecdotal “But what about ME?!” evidence as a trump card against the presentation of empirical evidence rather than dealing with the status of the empirical evidence itself.

    Yes, I quoted what you said as a means of drawing attention to the general tone of the comments here. No, I don’t think what you offered as a counterargument genuinely counts as a counterargument.

    And yes, I do “call myself” a teacher.

  21. I would be interested in seeing any differences between single player and competitive online games. It seems plausible that there is a large difference between (in a shooting game for example) killing zombies or evil soldiers and killing enemies who are actually controlled by real people. Such differences exist in some psychology experiments e.g. the game where one player has $10, offers a second player any amount of that, and the second player can accept the offer or forfeit all the money for both players – when the player knows a computer is giving them an offer for $2, they have significantly different brain activity in some areas (don’t remember which) but when against computers the activity is not there and they do not reject unfair offers (they normally do, at a cost to themselves). If we can be sensitive to humans and computers in that case, it’s plausible that there’s a difference in violent video games, one that might be worthwhile studying individually.

    Plus, when I used to be into video games a lot (I had sponsors and some stuff for an online first person shooter game, although I’m not really proud of it) it was surprising just how much resentment and hostility there was between players, and it seems like a lot of people really loved seeing others lose, become frustrated, and so on (I would go so far as to say that a number of people played almost exclusively for this). I can’t imagine any of that being healthy, or more importantly I don’t think this is comparable to how people engage versus computers (but this is a guess). Any thoughts on this, or is there some reason I’m not aware of to not take these as being significantly different situations?

  22. Aaron, the example you gave isn’t from someone who opposes any innate factors; rather, the author says:

    To conclude: the categories of intelligence, race and gender are not definable within the framework required for natural scientific research, failing my first criterion of being well-founded. They also fail the second criterion of being answerable: we lack the theoretical or technical tools to study them.

    I thought that the psychological approach you mentioned really went out with the behaviorists, but even that school wasn’t against all pre-existing differences. Some people may have been trained early on to avoid violence, for example. In any case, the probability of research like that getting cited with approval by Scientific American is slight.

  23. Taylor, this is really outside my expertise; maybe some else here can provide some help. Alternatively, you might find some interesting stuff on google or google scholar.

  24. For those interested, Louise Antony (together with Thomas Pogge) addresses the significance of game violence on the AskPhilosophers site. Like many others, she sees the underlying issue as the empirical question of whether violence in video games does, in fact, somehow “carry over” into real life; she appears skeptical of this idea. Antony also mentions that she herself enjoys playing “violent video games.”

  25. So, this may be an illegitimate personal anecdote-type response, but oh well…

    In response to “Given the other benefits, one wonders if games could be made which women got more pleasure from, and what they’d be like.”

    I am female, and have always sort-of liked video games, though not first-person shooters (or any-person shooters for that matter), or racing games, or sports games, all of which dominate the market. This makes it somewhat difficult to find games I like. I said I “sort-of” like video games because when I find one I like, I usually really like it, but finding one is rare.

    Recently a game called “Little Big Planet” was released for PS3. It is a game I love. You run around as a tiny stuffed-person called a “sackperson” (similar to a sock monkey, and the game actually calls it “sackperson” and not “sackboy”). Once you complete a certain portion of the story-levels, you can completely design your own levels an post them on the network for other players to play and comment on. If you like other players’ levels you can “heart” the level or the player (or both). You can also leave comments and suggestions for the maker of the level as you see fit. I can play this game for hours. Some of the levels made by users are violent, but many users have creatively made levels that are non-violent. For example, since your sackperson is tiny, some players have made levels in which you experience the difficulty you would have navigating the world if you were only 10 cm high. The game is interesting in that it encourages community input, discussion and creativity. I also find it highly rewarding. Since I did not play video games all that much before, I can see my skills improving over time (for example I can now land a jump where I mean to).

    One of the things I find interesting about the game is that it seems to have pretty much universal appeal. My female friends who are non-gamers actually ask to come over to play. But so do my male friends, and the user-generated levels seem to be made by both men and women. It is a game that is attractive to both children and adults, since different levels have different difficulty age/motor skills are not really a barrier to play. It is a really interesting game that reminds me a little of playing with lego in the sense that you can build whatever your imagination can come up with.

    I wonder why there are not more games like this, since something with universal appeal must have better market-share than games that are specifically aimed at one gender or a particular age group. I think one of the ways that this game achieved universal appeal was by including lots of elements that some might stereotype along gender lines (e.g. building structures, creating communities, dressing up your sackperson in outfits you collect as prizes for finishing levels, building machines, decorating your “pod” which is like your home). But it also includes many other elements that are not gender-coded (facilitating artistic creation, freely sharing your creative products). The trophies are similarly not gender-coded. You get a trophy for dressing up the sackperson, for acing all the levels, for decorating your pod, for commenting on other people’s levels etc.

    I think games with universal appeal are better than those that have so far been created to appeal to “women or girls.” The latter group tends to rely heavily on female stereotypes (shopping, home decorating, cooking, pink icons etc,) and often fails to actually appeal to women.

    I have had some gaming friends tell me that most video games are shooters, racing games, and sports games because these activities are the kinds of things that translate into fun video games and other activities would result in “boring” game-play. But having played Little Big Planet, I wonder if it is more likely a lack of imagination that has prevented developers from creating more games that go beyond killing-fighting-sports-racing.

    I think the narrowness (and resulting narrow appeal) of video games may be beginning to change. Perhaps in part because more women are becoming game designers, and perhaps in part because video game companies now realize that women play video games and are a largely under served market.

  26. There is an interesting (though 10-year old) TED lecture about creating video games for girls at the following link: it is rather long, and I find it interesting that the speaker, Brenda Laurel, identifies some feminists as one of two main groups of critics (along with male gamers) of the games she developped. Also interesting is the closing video that she thinks would appeal to feminist, which portrays a large-breasted woman who is about to engage in fighting during “Armageddon”, not an image that many of the feminists I know would find more appealing. There is also an interesting discussion of women and gaming in response to this video at feministing:

  27. Meredith,
    Thanks so much for the interesting remarks and links.

    Just for the record, I loved Second Life, which might be seen as something like a game, though it doesn’t have the winning and losing unless one builds that in in some way. Getting to know members of the community carried problems, however, and the heavily sexualized nature of so many personas became difficult. In the end, I think it was the building and designing that attracted me.

    A lot of women seemed to enjoy having a kind of hyper-Barbie persona, which might be related to the last game you mention. Not exactly feminist though, and not the representation of female power many would seek.

  28. hey… i think video games could be good for you. i am doing a paper in language arts on this subject. And i thought of some good reasons on why they can be good for you. some of them can provide education for you, they can have exercise. For example Dance Dance Revolution. And then not all of them are bad for you. so most parents would say that they rot your brain. but not all of them do.

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