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.