Are scientists prejudiced against games?

In short: Most research done on games is looking only at their potential bad effects. The scientific community tends to think that if games have any effect it must be bad. They only seem to be looking for answers that confirm their views. Not the best scientific practice.

Why so many papers looking at whether games are bad?

 90% of violent people are right handed, therefore righthandedness causes violence. Don't you enjoy a good statistical fallacy?

90% of violent people are right handed, therefore righthandedness causes violence. Don't you enjoy a good statistical fallacy?

Because I am a nerd I was reviewing the literature on games in general---for fun. I was taken aback by the number of papers looking at harmful effects from mainstream games. This seems to be even worse since the tragic incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The way these things are linked ignores basic stats. If 97% of all American students play video games (1) chances are any incident involving a young person is likely to involve a young person that plays video games. Also, bearing in that in mind, if 97% play these games and these games cause violence, how come we don't have hundreds of thousands of incidents? Even this simplistic look at the issue reveals that, if there is a link, it is weak. This reminds me of similar spurious links made to playing Dungeons and Dragons, Punk music or violent films.

So are they bad or good?

Nonetheless this has been extensively researched. The conclusions: mixed; some find a link (2) some don't (3).  The studies in general look at very short term effects, such as those that could be expected from priming. The ways they measure violence do not seem to include physical violence and they usually involve more verbal aggression and general hostility. I couldn't find any showing a clear link to physical violence. Also they all seem to be lacking a good comparison such as watching a violent film versus playing a violent video game; or, better yet, watching a violent sport versus playing a violent video game. I mention this because a recent study seems to suggest it is competitiveness, and not how violent the game is, that explains the increased aggression (4).

Don't get me wrong, I think it is important to understand if there are any negative effects from gaming. My argument is that there are also reasons to believe games may have good effects and these nobody seems to care about.

Why look at positive effects?

There is an excellent review paper I came across (5), which is largely the inspiration of this piece. It lays out a research agenda for games and how to look at their potential benefits. It comes up with a few well-reasoned research questions and how to look at them.

Their research plan revolves around the idea that video games seem to meet the same criteria as organised activities for young people, such as participating in clubs or sports teams:

  • Intrinsic motivation: people like doing these activities
  • Concentration and cognitive effort: to be good you have to pay attention and concentrate
  • Cumulative effort over time to achieve a goal: to be good you have to practice and gain expertise over time

I think it is easy to agree that games will meet all three. They also have the same social dimension: you can cooperate and/or compete with friends, form teams, etc.

So, it is not totally crazy to suppose that games might have some good effects. It turns out that at the time they wrote their paper there were only 4 studies looking at potential positive effects from gaming. Since then Daphe Bavelier's lab has produced a haldful more.

Do those studies looking for a good effects find them?

Judge for yourself, here are some of their conclusions:

  • Video game players, regardless of gender, reported higher levels of family closeness, activity involvement, attachment to school, and positive mental health. (6)
  • Prosocial video game play was related to helping behavior, cooperation and sharing, and empathy (7)

We don't know much, but when we look for positive effects they seem to be there.

What about serious games?

I should say there is another body of literature looking at serious and educational games, which does look at positive effects and finds them. The one notable exception is 'brain training games', which show very modest (if any) benefits---normal games seem to be better at training your brain than Dr Kawashima.

We fall into this latter category of 'serious games', but we are interested in the general effects of games and we would like for there to be more research into general pure entertainment games. One of our main goals is to incorporate as many fun elements as possible. It would be good to have a body of evidence so we can include those elements that might be most helpful.

If you are a clinician/researcher you might want to take this up. There are so few examples of good research in this important area that you are likely to make a name for yoursel!

(1) Lenhart, A., Kahne, J., Middaugh, E., Macgill, A. R., Evans, C., & Vitak, J. (2008). Teens, video games, and civics (Report No. 202-415-4500). Washington, DC: Pew Internet and American Life Project

(2) Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., & Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 151-173. doi:10.1037/a0018251

(3) Ferguson, C. J., & Rueda, S. M. (2010). The hitman study: Violent video game exposure effects on aggressive behavior, hostile feelings, and depression. European Psychologist, 15, 99-108. doi:10.1027/1016-9040/a000010

(4) Adachi, P. J. C., & Willoughby, T. (2011). The effect of video game competition and violence on aggressive behavior: Which characteristic has the greatest influence? Psychology of Violence, 1, 259-274. doi:10.1037/a002490

(5) Adachi, P. J. C., Willoughby, T. (2012). Do Video Games Promote Positive Youth Development? Journal of Adolescent Research published online 2 November 2012 DOI: 10.1177/0743558412464522

(6) Durkin, K., & Barber, B. (2002). Not so doomed: Computer game play and positive
adolescent development. Applied Developmental Psychology, 23, 373-392.

(7) Gentile, D. A., Anderson, C. A., Yukawa, S., Ihori, N., Saleem, M., Ming, L. K.,
Shibuya, A., & Sakamoto, A. (2009). The effects of prosocial video games on
prosocial behaviors: International evidence from correlational, longitudinal, and
experimental studies. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 752-763.