We may never fully know how video games affect our well-being

by Massimo Barnett
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The moral panic around video games has stuck in a way that previous entertainment-fueled panics such as those around rock music and TV haven’t. But the evidence isn’t there. 

Media reports that the perpetrators of mass shootings from the mid-1990s onwards were avid gamers, coupled with a slew of studies starting in the early 2000s, fueled concerns that violent games made people more aggressive. These reports found that participants “punished” opponents for longer, gave taste testers larger doses of hot sauce, and were more likely to guess aggressive words such as “explode” in a word completion task after playing violent games. But other researchers have since questioned how effective these studies really were at measuring violent behavior. 

A 2020 meta-analysis in Royal Society Open Science, which reexamined 28 studies from previous years, found no evidence for a long-term link between aggressive video games and youth aggression. Lower-quality studies that didn’t use standardized or well-validated measures, it found, were more likely to exaggerate the effects of games on player aggression, while higher-quality studies tended to find negligible effects. 

The same pattern has repeated with respect to studies linking video games to poor mental health, which tend to report smaller effects once they use objective data on game duration (as the OII study did) rather than relying on subjective self-reporting from participants, says Peter Etchells, a professor of psychology and science communication at Bath Spa University, who thinks the past 20 to 30 years of gaming studies haven’t had a consistent handle on what they were trying to measure or how to do it.

“New studies like this one can help to draw a line under this whole ‘Are video games good or bad for us?’ line, because it is and always has been the wrong question to ask,” he says. “It’s like asking ‘Is food bad for our waistline?’ It’s a stupid question.”

“My hope is that we can get better at not thinking about it in terms of ‘Are video games, are video games bad?’ but thinking about that gray area in between,” he adds. “Because that’s where all the interesting stuff is.”

Przybylski was among a group of academics who wrote to write to the WHO in 2016 arguing against the “premature” inclusion of gaming disorder in its ICD guidelines, citing the low quality of the research base and the fact that scholars had failed to reach a consensus. Six years on, not much has changed, and researchers are still divided over the extent to which being addicted to games could differ from addiction to substances or gambling, for example.

An interesting next step would be to focus on any participants demonstrating problematic behavior in the OII’s study to see how they can be coached or supported, says Tony van Rooij, a senior researcher at the Trimbos Institute in the Netherlands who focuses on gaming, gambling, and digital balance. Another worthwhile area of study, he says, is the predatory business models that game makers use to exert pressure on players’ behavior, including encouraging them to make microtransactions to skip frustrating levels, play at fixed times, or log in daily to avoid missing out on something.

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