“Think of the children!”—Are video games harming us?

 
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As the world went into various lockdowns over the course of last year, people turned to a variety of entertainment forms to cope with the restrictions and isolation they faced. For some, there was the comfort of a favourite television show like The Office. For others, it might have been picking up a long-lost reading habit. As we have previously covered, video streaming of all types was shown to increase drastically over the lockdown periods last year. One form of entertainment that many turned to, however, was not books or movies— but video games.

Perhaps you or someone you know was roped into the hit phenomenon Among Us. The mafia-like social deduction game—released in 2018—received a surge in popularity during the pandemic, with 3.8 million concurrent players enjoying the game at its peak. Maybe you found yourself visiting friends in town-building simulator Animal Crossing: New Horizons in an attempt to get the outdoors experience with friends that was missing due to lockdown. Or maybe you didn’t play any games yourself, and instead anxiously worried about the amount of time your child spent playing with strangers in Fortnite, the massively successful battle royale (a type of game where players fight to be the last alive in a hostile world a la The Hunger Games).

If that last situation sounds like you, then you’re not alone. Since its meteoric rise in 2018, Fortnite has come under criticism by the media for being an addictive influence which promotes violence and aggressive tendencies in the children who play it. Writers for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Daily Mail have published articles expressing varying degrees of concern over their popularity with children, teenagers and adults alike. But if this panic and outrage is sounding familiar to you, that’s because it is—this is the latest iteration of a long running debate.

A Long-Running Concern

The moral panic over games is nothing new—in fact it precedes the medium of video games entirely. Lindsey Grace, the Associate Professor in Communications at the University of Miami has noted that one of the earliest written references to games comes from the Buddha himself in 5th century BC, where he writes “some recluses . . . while living on food provided by the faithful, continue addicted to games and recreations; that is to say . . . games on boards with eight or with 10, rows of squares”. The games that the Buddha is referring to in his statement are believed to be a predecessor to chess—a “game” that is now considered to be an art form and is widely respected and studied. In contrast to the concerns from the Buddha, chess is now viewed as having a positive effect on cognitive and social development.

Similarly, the emergence of Pinball in the early 20th century triggered a strong backlash which ultimately led to a more than 30-year ban on pinball machines in New York City. Fiorello LaGuardia, then Mayor of New York famously claimed that the machines were “from the devil”—a claim that was also levied against the emergence of Tabletop Roleplaying Games like Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s. Nowadays, games like Dungeons and Dragons have experienced a resurgence, with research showing their potential to aid moral development, mental health and pro-social behavior.

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Ever since their emergence in the 1970-80s, video game use has faced intense criticism from the media and concerned parents alike over their potentially corrupting or addicting qualities. After it was discovered that the gunmen behind the Columbine Mass Shooting in 1999 had expressed love for the ultra-violent shooting game Doom, calls for regulation or restriction on games increased. This was also echoed by former US president Donald Trump in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton, Ohio mass shootings, who claimed that violent video game exposure was part of the cause behind these violent crimes.

But Trump isn’t the only policymaker to call for the regulation of violent video games in an attempt to curb real-world aggression. More recently, when discussing the criticisms of the culture in Parliament House, Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton attempted to place the blame for deviant male behaviour at the feet of games like Grand Theft Auto. It seems that every few years we are destined to have a debate over the merits of video games. But the question remains: does violent media, including some video games, lead to real life aggressive behavior, or is this another example of a manufactured moral panic?

In the present day, many of these concerns raised against other forms of games are echoed when discussing them. Beyond the previously mentioned examples worrying over their potential to corrupt the morals of the youth who play video games, there is increasing concern over the possibility of “video game addiction”. In 2018, the World Health Organization officially recognised “gaming disorder” as an addictive behaviour disorder in a move that seemed to validate the concerns of many regarding the technology.

Another piece of the puzzle that reinforces this idea is a recent report from Four Corners, an investigative journalism show produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. One recent episode and online article focused on an investigation into specific aspects of video games that have been labelled as “predatory”, focusing on “mictrotransactions” and loot boxes. Microtransactions refer to small benefits or cosmetics purchased in game through real-world money, while loot boxes are a form of in-game reward that use systems akin to gambling—each box contains a random selection of awards, with the more valuable and rarer items appearing more infrequently. These “loot boxes” can also be purchased with real-world money like microtransactions.

Both these forms of monetisation are designed in a way that encourages players to spend money, which can spiral into hundreds or even thousands of dollars spent for a small portion of players, alongside large amounts of time spent playing a game to justify the purchases. The Four Corners episode emphasised the stories of gamers who had spent thousands on games, and included quotes from psychologists about the potential addictive qualities. When looking at stories like this, it seems like the obvious response is that video games are harmful.

Unfortunately, the reality of the situation isn’t as simple as this.

The Truth About Video Games

Despite this classification by the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Four Corner’s report, there remains much scepticism over the labelling of video games as a unique form of addiction. While the WHO states their classification of gaming disorder is “based on reviews of available evidence and reflects a consensus of experts from different disciplines and geographical regions”, there is one discipline of experts who do not agree with this assessment—that is, the people who study video games, or who study their production and their players.

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Scholars have criticised WHO’s classification of gaming disorder as drawing on theoretical assumptions as opposed to empirical observation, as well as problematically using the framework of substance abuse or gambling addiction to define the disorder. More importantly, independent and empirical research seems to disprove the notion that video games are uniquely addictive. While many parents may be concerned over the amount of time that their children spend playing Fortnite, research seems to show there is little that sets apart video game consumption from other forms of media, at least when it comes to its addictive properties. As Dr Marcus Carter, Senior Lecturer in Digital Cultures at the University of Sydney puts it, “We wouldn’t call someone ‘addicted’ to books just because they wanted to read another chapter of Harry Potter after bedtime.”

Similarly, dozens of papers have highlighted there is little to no link between video game violence and an increase in violent behavior. These papers extend back as far as 1985 and range all the way to 2019. In fact, some research shows positive effects of violent video games. One report by psychological science professor Christopher Ferguson showed that violent video game play decreased negative emotions in the players. In contrast to promoting aggressive thoughts, they calmed hostile feelings and had a positive effect on cognition. While Peter Dutton or Donald Trump may claim that media violence in video games are behind a decline in morals or the cause of violent behavior, research seems to show that this isn’t the case.

Even when it comes to the issues of microtransactions and games being created to specifically encourage spending, the reality is more complicated. Scholars acknowledge the potential for problematic video game consumption patterns and behaviour, which can be driven by these predatory designs present in almost all the biggest games on the market like Fortnite or Call of Duty. These microtransactions are a reminder that while games can be an enjoyable pastime, the harsh reality is that many of those creating them are often beholden to corporations more interested in making money than the interests and wellbeing of players.

What is missing from much of the discussion on these problems, however, is an understanding of the ways in which these practices are not unique to games. While Four Corners may frame these practices as an insidious part of the gaming industry, there are many games that avoid them entirely. Additionally, many of the so called “predatory” practices can be seen in other everyday industries. Supermarkets engage in similar psychological tricks to encourage more spending. Disneyland uses scent machines to drive purchases of cotton candy and candy apples. Even social media giants like Facebook use targeted ads to encourage users to buy more (though whether this works is in question). Such strategies are not unique to games, but a symptom of capitalistic desire to increase profit margins through any means possible, no matter how ethical. Despite this, video games are uniquely singled out for criticism.

It is also important not to view video game addiction as a unique pathology. Instead of being a problem in and of itself, many scholars note that video game addiction is likely a symptom of other issues. And while microtransactions can be a risk factor for some players who do end up investing large amounts of time and money, the majority are not influenced by them. Similarly, while we should be vigilant and aware regarding the predatory practices and fight against them where we can, we must acknowledge the games that do not fall into these traps and assess them on their own merits.

Games – the good and the bad

The reality is that games are like any other form of entertainment media. While “video game addiction” may not be a unique pathology like the WHO claims, they do have the potential to be overused or abused. When it comes to young people playing them, moderation is important—just as it is with any other recreational activity or form of play which they may engage in. Just like Netflix can be both a great way to relax with a friend over a film or a dangerous time-sink that you can spend a whole day glued to, video gaming can facilitate both positive social interactions and avoidance of important issues or tasks.

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Similarly, being aware of the ways that games can attempt to squeeze more money out of you or your child is important. The use of parental controls or similar software to restrict purchases can help prevent excessive or accidental spending. Similarly, while video game play can be a valid form of social interaction for young people, parents may want to restrict screen time until after chores, homework or other important things have been completed—as they would with any type of game.

It’s important to cultivate a literacy about the content of games, just as it is other forms of media. Instead of condemning something a game like Call of Duty because it does not shy away from violent content or the horrors of war, we should aim to understand what it is the game is trying to convey by tackling these issues. While some games may appear to engage with objectionable or questionable content, and this content is not suitable for everybody (as noted by the ratings they have), by engaging with them we may find ourselves in conversation with perspectives and attitudes we might otherwise miss. Like all art or entertainment, games have the potential to teach us more about the world and all its messy, complicated inhabitants—or to cause further issues or conflict if we mishandle them.

 

Ryan Stanton is a journalist and Media and Communications Graduate whose honours thesis examined the broadcast of Tabletop Roleplaying Game play. He is currently starting a PhD examining the intersection between podcasts and gaming content creation.