Horizon: Are Video Games Really That Bad?

I got home to catch Horizon last night and it happened to be about video games; covering the negative issues that games are known for, such as violence and addiction. It turned out to be a fascinating delve into how playing video games can affect our minds. You’ll usually find people sat in one camp or the other, with either what feels like a vendetta against gaming, or being on the defensive; What I liked about this programme was that it gave a more balanced viewpoint and didn’t jump to any assumptions. It may disappoint those looking for a definite answer, but games are still too young for us to fully understand the impact they have had on our lives. Research will always be ongoing and new answers supporting one claim or another will continue to crop up. Part of what I find interesting about game development as a field is the fact that we’re still learning about how we can untap the true potential of video games.

I obviously lean towards wanting to believe that games can enrich our lives, but I also try my best to keep an open mind to anything on the contrary. I believe that most things have a good and a bad side, depending on how they are utilized. You get bad games, just as you can get bad films and books. I guess that’s why it bothers me when it’s usually only the darker side of gaming that we hear about in the mainstream media – it overlooks all of those games that have had a positive influence on people’s lives. It’s also important to understand the good and the bad so that better games can be designed around that; If games do indeed have an influence on our emotions and behaviour, then this too opens up the potential for games that can promote traits such as empathy (see ‘How Can Videogames Make You a Kinder Person?‘ by PBS Game/Show and ‘A Question of Empathy‘ by Extra Credits.)

During the programme they referred to a number of studies that showed that playing violent games can also desensitise us. During one test they used a brain imaging scanner while a person was playing a violent game. When we observe violence it is our Amygdala that usually lights up – this is the part of the brain that is responsible for regulating emotions such as a fear. However, while playing a game a different part lit up, causing the Amygdala’s usual response to be suppressed. This process isn’t actually unusual, as we frequently have to control our emotions on a daily basis. It may only be temporary too; We’re so focussed on playing the game well it probably wouldn’t help us to respond emotionally to every scene of violence. These results are interesting as they show that violent games can affect our brains; It doesn’t yet prove that they make us more violent, but they can numb us to the imagery of it.

Since video games first appeared crime rates have actually dropped, including that of youth violence. While there may be a number of complex reasons for this, studies have also found that youth crime drops around the release of a new violent game. The theory behind this is that people who are more inclined to be aggressive are using games as an outlet that would otherwise have occurred in the real world – known as ‘routine activity theory.’ I also like to believe that games can be a form of catharsis. I think all of us have been through experiences where something felt unfair and struggled to work through the emotions that came from that; I find that games help me to spend up my frustration and excess adrenaline during such times.

The programme also explored addiction. We usually find games compulsive because of the short term rewards they feed us with; Game addicts are more sensitive to these short term rewards – they will choose to receive a smaller reward sooner rather than a greater reward later on. They performed tests on a gamer that many would consider to be an addict, only to find that the results came back as healthy. This suggests that we perhaps throw the word addict around a little too frequently. They concluded that probably less than 1% of people are actually prone to becoming addicted, while the rest are just enjoying it in excess, much like we may sometimes drink too much or eat too much chocolate. I personally think that many people become hooked on games because they offer an escape from any real problems they might be having. I for one feel that I’m driven to play more when I’m feeling stressed and overwhelmed by something. I also eat more chcoclate and pizza when I’m down. Of course, we may also do things in excess because we just enjoy it that much.

Finally, the programme went on to explore the positive affects games might be having on our brains. Rather excitingly, it suggests that games can improve our cognition and slow down mental decay as we age. This makes a lot of sense to me, as the more we do something the stronger the connections can form in our brains; Games require us to utilize our focus and attention over long periods of time, and so without even releasing it we may be repeating the same process over and over again, improving all the while. Even games that may not appear to be beneficial on the surface still require us to use our brains.

Horizon: Are Video Games Really That Bad?‘ might not have been entirely conclusive, but it does show some exciting possibilities for the role that games could play in the future. The negative issues haven’t been fully expunged either, but it seems to me that games have enough potential to make it worthwhile to investigate further. I guess I also don’t like to believe that games can make us more aggressive because I’ve been playing them on a regular basis for as long as I can remember – including some of the games that have been accused for being violent – and yet I still like to consider myself to be a fairly empathetic person; It’s what feels right within me.


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About wallcat

I have a strong passion for computing. In particular programming for which I am able to use a variety of languages including C++, Visual C#, Blitz Basic, Actionscript 2.0, Python and Lua. I also enjoy web-design and have some knowledge of HTML/CSS, PHP/SQL and Javascript. As well as programming I have a strong background in art and enjoy drawing in my spare time. When I’m not sat at my computer I like to keep fit by going to the gym or using my exercise ball.

7 responses to “Horizon: Are Video Games Really That Bad?”

  1. Aura Eadon says :

    Oh such a hot subject, enough to start religious wars. This is my personal view, but it’s not substantiated in a “scientific” way and to be honest I am completely desensitised and rather unwilling to start “hot” debates. I don’t feel like I have to defend or attack games as such, I am rather neutral.

    I believe that the entire debate about whether games are good or bad is based on black-and-white thinking principles. When a person dies by another person yielding any type of gun who do you blame, the gun or the person who used it? I think games are neither good nor bad, they are just tools. They are entertainment and their variety matches the human cultural variety. Yes you have games where violence is prominent but you also have movies where violence is prominent, in fact there is nothing but violence. Do the people watching Friday the 13th slashers end up crazy murderers? No, because in our minds we have clear pathways in terms of what is reality and what is fantasy. We are beings who can somehow, and for a short while, transfer to other worlds/universes/situations/whatever and exist there in our fantasy using the story delivering medium as a form of entertainment. And that’s what games are. Entertainment like movies, books, anything.

    I know there are people who believe that the only way of protecting someone from becoming a bad person is make sure they are not exposed to things like violent games but these people are missing the point. You can’t protect someone from getting ill by closing them in a sterile bubble, you only damage them and for real getting them killed if the bubble bursts and their infantile immune system proves unable to cope with the smallest of viruses. In the same way letting human beings grow naturally and experience all forms of entertainment without limitations means you respect their right to grow and evolve in their own natural manner and way.

    Finally, I believe that the labelling of any form of entertainment in an effort to objectively categorise things that are subjective by their nature is the biggest fallacy of people defending such polar opposites. I call the “50 shades of grey” book and movie “50 shades of abuse” because my own abusive past is triggering reactions inside my mind and yet someone else will enjoy both the book and the movie and may even call them art. Who is wrong? None. It’s a subjective matter and if I try to globally enforce my views then I am nothing but a fascist who is on a trip to “save” everyone else.

    I’ll finish this veeeeery long answer (sorry) saying that human beings are using many things that create addictions. Food, coffee, cigarettes, etc. Are game addictive? Yes, no, who cares? Again it’s subjective and it’s none of our business to try and save everyone else.

    • wallcat says :

      Some very good points. I don’t like how we seem to look for scapegoats when something goes wrong. That person did that, games must be to blame. It’s like saying people don’t have to be responsible for their own actions. As you say, the gun is just a tool, but the person chose to pull the trigger. I was previously advised not to copy what I see in my games, which I found a little offensive as it’s implying that I can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy, or that I perhaps don’t have control over my own actions. I’ve often found ratings to be stricter on games than movies, even though the gore in films actually unsettles me more. I think because we’re just a passive observer in a film, while in a game we’re more engaged and in control, which could mean that they have a stronger influence over us (or some people believe.) In my case, I find the focus on gameplay distracts me enough not to really think too deeply about the violent visuals.

      I actually prefer my games to be a little grittier. I like adult games (they do have a rating after all) and as an adult I feel like it’s my choice whether I want to be subjected to that or not. I don’t really like being made to feel bad about that choice plus if there are side effects then I accept full responsibility for making it. Being too protected actually feels kind of suffocating, because you need to be able to express yourself and learn how to deal with the darker aspects of life too. Its bothered me in the past when people made decisions on my behalf for what I’m allowed to see. I find that what some people consider as ‘violence going too far’ might actually seem quite tame to me. Then again, maybe that’s because I’m desensitised; The world is full of so many real tragedies that I think it’d be difficult to cope if we didn’t have a way to filter it out anyway.

      I couldn’t always understand why people had an issue with my gaming; I didn’t think it mattered so long as I was happy and didn’t let the other parts of my life slip by. You’re right, people become addicted to many things for various reason; I’d add TV and social networking to the list too. Yet for some reason some things get a worse reputation for it than others. I think it suggests more about the current state of living than it does for the chosen method of escapism. Games give our minds what we want, so how can we use that to improve the way we do things in real life? What can we learn from games to help people to feel more engagement from their work? I prefer to think about the positives of furthering our understanding, rather than using it as a way to discredit something or telling people how to be.

      It annoys me too when people try to pass off subjective values as fact. Very few things in the world are black and white and our upbringing and past experiences can heavily shape our viewpoints. Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to form opinions and then only look for information that supports that while discounting or twisting everything else. We can also be pretty stubborn and anything that opposes us can feel like an attack on our values, causing us to strengthen them further. I think this is how these debates with such extreme sides often arise. I tired of getting involved in them as most wouldn’t consider what others had to say anyway. I prefer to exchange ideas in the hopes of widening my own viewpoint. Thanks for sharing yours and sorry to hear that you have had abuse in your past.

      • Aura Eadon says :

        You’re welcome and I forgot to say that this is a brilliant and very balanced post. And I hear you about expanding our views by exchanging them with other people. Such a joy to do that, love it. 😀

      • wallcat says :

        Thank you. I find that if people are too defensive and unwilling to listen it just leaves me feeling riled up, so I prefer to try and discuss ideas with an open mind. I find it more enjoyable that way too :D.

  2. j3w3l says :

    I’ve seen a few of those studies, wrote a paper as well during the psych degree and while some can look rather conclusive it tends to really depend on the bias of the writers.

    For instance in those brain studies the evidence is shown as a non response in the Amygdala but even then for a fear response, even

    • j3w3l says :

      Oops didn’t finish haha
      Even a depressed one I’d expect more activity within the whole limbic region, like the hippocampus, and we don’t see that either. This tends to tell me not that it suppressed but it doesn’t register as violent… Not in the same way real world violence does. Same with movie…

      Funnily enough (if I remember right) the area that does light up is the lateral frontal region. An area often used for imaginative and creative means.. As well as several other spots.

      Yes it is what you are used to but I’m guessing if you hooked someone up who wasn’t used to say, horror and some of those true crime novels they’d probably elicit a limbic response.

      • wallcat says :

        Thanks for sharing. That’s really interesting. I find it fascinating learning about how our minds work. I suppose we’re able to register real from fantasy if we’re use to it, but to others that may not be the case. Bias is one of the issues with doing research, asking the right questions and knowing how to interpret it. If you’re not careful you can accidentally overlook the parts that are not related to the thing you’re looking for, even though they may still be influential.

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