Post No.: 0542
There was once a stigma if you liked playing videogames but weren’t male and adolescent or younger. But people of all genders and ages can openly admit to enjoying them nowadays. So the typical stereotype of a gamer is thankfully dissolving – you don’t have to be considered a ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ who stays in their bedroom all day. There are more indie developers than ever, and some AAA games gross higher than blockbuster movies. Online gaming connects people together. Social media additionally opens conversations, offers support, information and is an integral part of many people’s lives now.
But is there such a thing as ‘gaming disorder’ or ‘social media addiction’?
Well we can reframe it. Do there exist problems where people can play videogames or be on social media so much, where they cannot seem to stop playing or being on them, that it negatively impacts their life e.g. their physical health, mental health, schoolwork, job or relationships; and this lasts for more than a few weeks?
Furrywisepuppy and I love playing videogames so no one’s saying all videogames are bad, or that no one should be on social media at all, but we understand that it can go too far for some – just like no one’s saying food is bad but obesity-related diseases certainly exist. No one’s saying that video gaming or being on social media a lot is on its own a problem either – only when it negatively impacts someone’s life.
If someone experiences no problems then there’s no problem whatsoever, but if someone loses a healthy balance in their life then they might have a disorder. A person who eats 5,000 calories per day can still be healthy if they’re training hard as an athlete, but if they’re not healthy for eating that amount then we cannot deny the reason. Therefore people are attacking a straw man if they think it’s an attack on the activity of video gaming or being on social media itself. (Sometimes we’ve got to parse through sentences carefully and ask ourselves ‘forget what I assume is being implied – is anything that was actually said false?’ before we start attacking what wasn’t claimed.) Just like no one’s saying that we shouldn’t eat, no one here is saying we shouldn’t play – yet we must acknowledge that some people find eating behaviourally addictive, and some people find videogames or being on social media behaviourally addictive. People have drowned in water but water needn’t be vilified, yet drowning is a real problem and risk we cannot dismiss as imaginary, even if it’s a small risk. We don’t need to stick external substances into ourselves to have an addiction – lots of other activities give us consistent, rewarding spikes of dopamine too. And ‘plenty of other things can cut you too’ also doesn’t mean we should therefore cease to be careful with scissors, analogously speaking.
So yes, gaming disorder and social media addiction do exist. Some of the most popular videogames are designed to be addictive by continually targeting the brain’s reward centres – the term ‘gamification’ when making non-game activities rewarding is no coincidence. It’s not good when even the researchers and designers themselves say they worry about their own creations, or say they don’t use them and try to keep their children away from them too e.g. the designers of social media user interfaces, who know they designed them to be as addictive as possible to keep users constantly on them. Post No.: 0499 already discussed children and social media reasonably extensively.
Yet there’s more evidence that gaming disorder comes after other mental health problems manifest e.g. as a kind of self-medication for depression, like some abuse alcohol after PTSD. But this doesn’t mean that gaming disorder, or alcohol abuse, therefore aren’t health problems themselves. It does suggest though that they’re not always the root problems.
And not all videogames are the same – videogames can be educational, social, creative and stimulating, and they can teach empathy and problem solving. Videogames can offer some cognitive benefits, improve spatial skills, and help with improving finger/thumb dexterity too (although we must be aware of the specificity of such skills i.e. being quick at pressing buttons on a game pad or keyboard and furry mouse may not necessarily translate to being quick at, say, typing). What types of benefits can depend on what games we play because there’s such a wide variety of videogames and they shouldn’t be generalised e.g. first-person shooters on consoles versus puzzle games on phones, where within these categories contain an enormous variety themselves.
Videogames such as the old Final Fantasy or The Legend of Zelda games helped increase literacy because there’s a lot of reading and interaction. Well videogames are precisely about interaction and are therefore great and fun ways to learn things. They’re the opposite of a passive medium if you play them; which means that merely watching other people play and solve puzzles isn’t quite as good for testing our own brains (although we’ll admit that we occasionally watch some ‘Let’s Plays’ in our spare time with our favourite streamers – meow).
Most games nowadays do away with having to read much dialogue though. And playing any type of game should still be limited to only a few hours maximum per day, especially for children, because too much time spent on them will mean too little on other healthy activities such as (other types of, particularly non-virtual) social interactions and (non-screen-based) physical activities. Physically active videogames exist but the overwhelming majority of games played are sedentary.
People who play violent videogames tend to be more aggressive. This is however just a correlation and we don’t yet know the causal direction or if there’s a third contributing factor? And it could be more about the competitive nature of some games rather than the violent content e.g. playing sports simulations can increase aggressive behaviours as much as shooters. Studies do consistently show that short-term aggression or a lack of empathy towards others increases immediately after playing violent videogames – but this could be due to frustration, with any game, rather than violence in videogames, that makes people temporarily behave more aggressively?
Overall, violent videogames are okay if people follow the age ratings. Although it can happen, it’s incredibly rare, according to the number of people who play these games, for someone who plays lots of violent videogames to be inspired by them and commit violence in real life. It’s also not like people who play lots of videogames have a habit of looting every house they enter for items in real life either(!) Then stash stuff up their infinite prison wallet or somewhere because that stuff somehow disappears yet is still there when they open up the inventory screen(!)
Playing violent videogames won’t likely have zero effects on people’s brains though. Basically, if something – anything – creates a memory (which is essentially a physical mark on the brain by virtue of new synaptic connections and firing patterns being formed) then it’ll potentially shape our thoughts, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, whether consciously or unconsciously. Along with our biology, we are the accumulation of the total sum of every single experience in our lives. The real question is therefore whether these effects are overall beneficial, harmful or neutral? And regarding exposure to violent media – this might reorient our attentions, desensitise us to violence to a degree, potentially dehumanise victims of violence, and teach us poor social values?
The ‘Tetris effect’, or more broadly ‘game transfer phenomena’, is when we’ve been playing a particular videogame so much that it begins to invade our thoughts and dreams e.g. people who’ve been playing Tetris for a prolonged duration can find themselves thinking about how different real-world boxed items can fit together. We might also find it difficult to get the sound effects and music out of our heads too. This effect will usually pass after a couple of days of not playing the game but it shows how playing videogames too much can affect our thoughts and mental images.
But other factors evidentially play a far greater role in encouraging or influencing violent behaviour in the real world, such as socio-economic factors, a violent neighbourhood, abuse or isolation. Most people who play violent videogames (or watch violent movies) evidently don’t and won’t commit any violent crimes. (Most people who were abused won’t commit any violent crimes either, for instance i.e. we should look at any issue holistically.)
The violence portrayed in videogames bi-directionally reflects and influences the culture we’re in. But if one wants to blame violent videogames then one should also look at alcohol, drugs, guns, poor diets, unemployment, poor parenting, genetics, education, commercials, politics, the wider culture, violence portrayed in movies, music lyrics and other media, etc. too because these all contribute at least something to shape or reinforce a culture too. Cultures shape individuals and organisations, and vice-versa, and this includes search engine and social media algorithms deciding what information should rank higher and therefore be recommended to readers/viewers. Tech giants and other providers of gateways to information, and curators of information, have immense power in shaping cultures and in turn individuals too.
This illustrates how violence is a complex, multi-faceted issue (like many other social science issues). Observing violence in other forms e.g. at home or in one’s neighbourhood, increases the likelihood of a child becoming aggressive, thus observing violence in videogames will likely have some impact too. But playing violent videogames seems to rank quite lowly as a risk factor compared to other factors like social inequality or the accessibility of firearms. Violent videogames appear to present a direct interactive simulation of ‘killing targets’ thus a link to promoting real-world killing seems intuitive – and policies can more easily target videogame sales than solve social inequality – but most people are able to ultimately distinguish between the virtual and real world. There’s evidence that playing violent videogames is correlated with aggression, but that’s not the same as murder; never mind mass murder. (I suppose hyper-realistic VR might one day make the process of killing hyper-realistic-looking humans or other animals a bit more aversive in games though? Or alternatively desensitise people to it, and therefore really start to blur games with reality?)
In theory, as long as we also provide sufficient protective factors, such as caring kindness and good role models, to fully compensate for the risk factors in a person’s life then everyone should be fine. It’s like one can eat chips every day and be fine as long as one also does enough exercise every day. So talk through the portrayal of violence in the media (and indeed any other important topic) with your children, and help put those things into better perspective, or help them to look at things from multiple perspectives, for instance.
As parents, get interested in what your children are playing and doing on social media, and use the parental controls that are available. Some parents argue though that giving them these parental controls is an industry’s way of pushing the responsibility onto parents and away from the corporations. The truth is that it must be a shared responsibility instead of constantly passing the buck. In any context – if anyone has any responsibility for something, in either a small or big way, then they must take that responsibility rather than attempt to pass it.
In conclusion, videogames are great ways to develop cognitive skills. Some people who are terminally housebound find that playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) gives them a fuller life. Videogames can be used to educate, connect people socially, conduct citizen science, rehabilitate, provide a distraction from pain (even as an alternative to a local anaesthetic), reduce the effects of ADHD, and more! They are valuable tools or pastimes – but only within a balanced lifestyle, like anything else.
Meow. Well, I’m off to play some more Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Unless anybody has any objections?..