The news media puts a lot of headlines towards the idea that video games are addicting. We’ve all heard the “EverCrack” jokes about gamers who spend way too much time staring at the screen and ignoring real life. A few do so to the point that they become completely non-functional.
Most gamers, of course, never get that way. We play a couple of hours a day, maybe a few hours a week, or a weekend a month. Our families aren’t neglected, we hold down jobs, and our bills get paid. Sure, maybe we sometimes look bleary-eyed and have a fluorescent tan, but we aren’t obsessed addicts.
Not in the way video game addicts with a serious disorder might be, anyway.
The truth is, most gamers do not have serious game-enhanced social problems. Those that do may or may not have them due to video games. More likely, games are an outlet or channel for underlying problems, not the cause of them. Research into “video game addiction” is very new and few clinical trials or other research has been done to even prove that it might exist.
Interestingly, research into the opposite has actually been recently completed and published. Building on a growing body of research, this latest study shows that people who played action-based video games made decisions an average of 25% faster than others without sacrificing accuracy and that most of them can make choices and act on them up to six times per second – four times faster than most. Many game players are capable of giving attention to more than six things at once without getting confused, compared to the average of four for others.
Research at the University of Rochester is finding many positive things about gaming. Most of their research is on young adults and full adults, however, and not children. Other research has shown that gaming can be negative for youngsters if overdone.
Most research towards children is into violent gaming and how it affects them. Indiana University researchers released a study not long ago in which young men saw depressed activity in regions of the brain associated with emotional control after only a week of violent game play. Other studies have shown that the younger the gamer, the more likely they are to be overweight, emotionally detached, and prone to depression.
This new study brings some hope, however. The games most likely to bring good effects, according to the Rochester study, were those that were most action-packed – meaning the most violent.
These contradictory studies are what baffle the public about gaming. Most seem to side with games being bad, but the industry is thriving regardless and for the most part, gamers seem to be all right. The number of game players who have serious problems because of or related to their gaming habits is so small that it’s infinitesimal.
Of course, the press is mostly just interested in those that do go bad, so the impression is that all gamers are likely closet Unibombers or killers just waiting to explode.
Computational analyst Joshua Lewis at the University of California was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying “There has been a lot of attention wasted in figuring out whether these things turn us into killing machines. Not enough attention has been paid to the unique and interesting features that videogames have outside of the violence.”
The gamer of today is very different from that of yesterday. Mostly because gamers haven’t stopped playing as they age. Current statistics show that the average video game player is 34 years old, has been playing for at least 12 years, and plays up to 18 hours a week. That’s a far cry from the pimpled teenager with thick glasses and no tan that is commonly depicted as a gamer.
Taking just one, very popular game’s play time, World of Warcraft, we see that gaming is not a small impact on humanity. WOW has had a total of about 50 billion hours of game time so far, which is equal to 5.9 million years – longer than humanity has evolved as a species. Add in other popular games and there is more game time in total than there are years since the dinosaurs went extinct.
And it keeps growing. Fast.
Consumer spending on games in 2010 was $25.1 billion world wide. That’s a huge market and one that thousands of game designers are vying to get a piece of. A look at the top 5 games by sales volume shows that they are not all violence either.
Call of Duty: Black Ops (number one in sales) is violent, of course, but Madden NFL 11 (#2) and New Super Mario Bros. (#4) are not. In fact, the top 5 computer games (no console) were all largely non-violent, including titles like The Sims 3 and Civilization V.
Several studies have been done which show games to have beneficial effects. Although the research is new and undecided, so far, things are mostly in favor of games rather than against them. Fundamentalist groups everywhere may be disappointed.
Michigan State University’s Children and Technology Project reported last November that almost any video game, no matter its subject matter, will boost a child’s creativity. This 3-year study involved 491 middle school students tested on standardized creativity metrics and found that, regardless of race or gender or even the type of game played, their scores grew the more they gamed.
By contrast, in that same group of kids, those who used cell phones, the Internet, or computers for purposes other than game playing showed no creativity boost.
Another study found that women who play video games (about 42% of the current market) were better able to mentally manipulate 3D objects – something men are generally better at than women.
Physical changes have been noted, both good and bad, for gamers versus non-players. Some have already been mentioned here, but overall, the consensus seems to be that gaming changes the brain in ways similar to mental mapping while learning to drive in a new city or playing a musical instrument. Nearly everything we learn changes our brain, actually – even learning to read.
Currently, a large public study is being done by Mark Blair at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, to analyze the behavior of 150,000 people who play Starcraft II. The study is collecting more than 1.5 million data points involving perception, attention, movement, and second-by-second decision making. Blair hopes to see how game playing changes human experience and reaction in the real world.
Obviously, gaming does have down sides. Most psychologists agree that those who exhibit negative behaviors and who are game players are likely using the games as an outlet for pre-existing issues. Violence-prone individuals may use games as an outlet to satiate their violent tendencies while obsessive behavior may be channeled towards a game and become addiction.
While game playing can change the brain’s pathways and curb some of our built-in social dampeners to lower our inhibitions, so far, study has yet to show that this is a cause-effect rather than a channeling of earlier problems.
Gamers who play too much, of course, are often exhibiting problems in their regular lives to go with this over-indulgence. Whether it is due to an underlying problem or not, it is a social issue. For the most part, however, gamers seem to have regular, robust lives. Most substitute gaming for other activities many people spend a lot of leisure time in, such as watching television.
Overall, it’s not likely that gaming is a cause for problems or social mis-behavior. It’s far more likely that it has benefit, but like anything else, should be done in moderation. Some people may have a propensity for over-use or negative side effects, but they are a small minority compared to the average gamer.