Will on-screen violence make you violent in real life?

Video games may not deserve their bad rep.

As established by popular media, drilled into the heads of parents, video games are bad for you. In particular. violent ones are frowned on by the public as it is often said that their effect on young impressionable children is not healthy. Its use is lumped with violent media and they are said to cause violence and even addiction. Parents are at a loss as their children sit in pitch-black rooms with their eyes glued to televisions, so its not a surprise that they are quick to place blame on games. This gives way to the popular spiel “video games rot your brain!”, that parents shout around the world as they yank controllers, remotes, and devices from their kids’ hands. But do they actually rot your brain? Should parents be taking away the Playstation from kids, or lining up at the store for the newest ones? There is actually no evidence that they “rot your brain” or cause aggression, in fact they have many surprising benefits from health to intelligence. Gaming does not deserve the sensationalized detriments that the media portrays it gives, instead, it should be emphasized and praised for the numerous benefits to society that it provides.

Video games get their bad reputation from the abundance of violence in all of the popular titles. From Call of Duty to Skyrim the ‘best’ games out there are becoming realistic war-zones, and some people fear that as games become more and more realistic the step from killing in video games to real life will become even easier. With the recent string of shootings, like Sandy Hook, it would seem that impressionable young adults are becoming violent because of their excessive playing.

The true culprit of school violence

In the case of Adam Lanza, who was known to be a bit of a computer nerd, did the video games he played actually cause him to go and shoot up a school? Many people fail to realize just how prevalent games are in America. At least 7 in 10 households play them resulting in about 69% of the population. If they were the cause of this display of violence, then there should be a lot more shootings going on. Looking further into Lanza’s life we find that he has been diagnosed with Aspergers and more importantly SID. SID or Sensory integration disorder can be linked with empathy deprivation and provides an explanation as to why Lanza was unstable. This does not only apply to Lanza, serial killers in general suffer from some sort of mental illness or recently suffered some trauma. Video games cause none of these problems, so it cannot be what creates these killers.

Video games may not cause excessively violent crime, but they could make people more prone to aggression. Aggression in everyday life would lead to problems with how growing children develop social connections and interact with their peers. Numerous studies including one by Ohio State professor Brad Bushman has shown that playing violent video games can have short to long term effects on aggression; however this study, at the forefront of the debate, does not provide concrete evidence for three reasons.

Firstly, other studies show that there is no correlation between violent games and increased aggression levels, and many inconclusive cases were thrown out as researchers assume that something must have gone wrong.

Secondly, the method that they use to measure aggression involves the application of a noise test where the victor of a simulation is allowed to blast an unseen opponent with an unpleasant noise for a time of their choosing. This noise test was found to be highly subjective, allowing researchers to pick and choose what results that fit best with their hypothesis. This calls into question whether researchers results are unknowingly being manipulated in favor of their bias.

Even in the supreme court case of Brown vrs. The Entertainment Merchants Association a judge ruled that there were “no conclusive link between video games and aggression” because “[the video game studies] suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology”. It is impossible to conclude that videogames have a significant impact on aggression based on this evidence.  

The dark side: video game addiction

We may not be breeding the next generation of serial killers, but its hard to condone video game usage when some children spend hours glued to screens, and often forsake more important things. In Taiwan a 18 year old teenager died from playing 40 hours of Diablo III straight; obviously his death was “harmful”, but is this the result of an addiction? Video games are created with the purpose to be as addicting as possible so that companies can make the most out of the game itself, so logically it makes sense that they would be extremely enticing. Addiction is a powerful argument against game, but the meaning of addiction must be re-evaluated. To be addicted is to have the compulsive need for and use of something, or the repeated use of a substance known to be harmful; however, what exactly is it that makes games attractive?

Three aspects influence the addictiveness of a video game: A sense of independence, achievement, and connection with others. Instead of harming the user, they provide essential interactions that humans need; in fact, in this study, players who enjoy their experience show increases in well-being, vitality, and self esteem after playing. The games can provide opportunities to interact with others or master challenges that aren’t available in the real world. Some people argue that “the compulsive need or use of” games take away from real world experiences, but a study shows that subjects who have a harmonious rather than obsessive relationship with video games report greater satisfaction. Video game addiction does not exist, because while they're enticing, they themselves do not create an actual physical need. That is, they are not the cause of addiction, but rather they are addictive because they can fulfill basic needs that the real world can’t in some kids.

Take, for example, a high-schooler in today’s society. The pressures to obtain the best grades, the best SAT scores, in order to get into the best college can put him or her under a lot of stress. Then couple that with neglectful parents who are not necessarily at fault but, as a result of a divorce, fail to put the needs of their child over their own. Maybe he or she is bullied at school or is unable to make lasting friends because he moves from district to district too often. One day he notices an ad for a online video game ‘Join millions of other players and adventure the world of The Burning Crusade”. This ad entices him, and as he connects to the online world he is amazed as he makes friends with people all around the world; more than he ever had the chance to make in real life. He makes up for his lackluster academics with in game medals, and relieves the stress of school relaxing through fantasy quests. While his parents think he’s up late night studying, he is instead on his computer playing games until he collapses from exhaustion.

This student joins the 12% of gamers who show signs of addiction most of whom began to play games because of boredom. The problem does not originate within the video game itself. A lack of essential elements in a person’s life causes them to turn to something to fulfill it. When games become the only way to obtain these elements it can lead to symptoms of addiction, however this is because of the lack of essential values in real life and not the game. Real problems that aren’t dealt with can manifest in an addiction, but the symptoms are not the cause. The therapeutic benefits are clear; where immediate goals may seem like insurmountable walls to young adults, video games can alleviate both stress and anxiety in healthy amounts. Additionally, they can even reduce depression, showing “significant positive effects on the moods and anxiety levels of people". With a proper balance between entertainment and life, they are beneficial to mental health overall, rather than detrimental.

Surprising benefits

The benefits that video games hold are often overlooked by the public, especially in the case of the most controversial violent genre. Male brains have always been known to be more prominent in the fields of science and math, because their brains are naturally attuned to spatial reasoning or the ability to visualize three-dimensional objects. Video games are statistically played more by males than females,  so could they be the cause of this gender disparity?

A group of university students were divided by their gender into pairs. One person in the pair played an action game Pacific Assault, while the other played Ballance, a three-dimensional puzzle game that involved steering a ball through obstacles. You would think that the puzzle game would allow the participants to score higher on mental visualization challenges, but this was not the case as the action-gamers improved by 10-15% while the puzzle-gamers saw no change; additionally, females improved the most in a category where males were thought to be dominant. So it turns out that video games, at least partly, account for the gender difference in spatial reasoning. In a period where new scientific advances are happening every day action games become more and more useful.

If playing video games become encouraged, we could be training the next generation of, not only, scientist, but also surgeons. A study comparing the skills of gamers to those with medical background showed that hours on a game controller provides skills necessary to perform better on advanced robotic surgeries today. Not only will they provide you with the skills necessary for future jobs, but there are positive aspects for everyday life too. Studies show that actions games both increase your visual ability and your ability to multi-task. The act of managing multiple controls to make quick decisions challenges has obvious benefits in the real world from driving to concentration. In gamers, visual ability, or the ability to see detail, is greatly enhanced as they are able to pick out details in cluttered environment; this is an essential skill for reading. The benefits of video games have long been tucked away by the popular media, but with proper use they could become the tools that we use to train the younger generation.

Video games not only have the potential to educate skills in certain areas, but they also have benefits in long term mental health. In the face of the media they are portrayed as violence inducing obsessions, but this is simply not true. Even currently there is not enough research being done about the benefits of video games, because of the opposition and stigma against it. However, as technology gets more advanced their potential only increase. There are many beneficial aspects of video games that are waiting to be discovered. We already know they improve the handling skills of a surgeon and spatial reasoning, but in the future they could train engineers, fighter pilots, or architects. The first, most important step, is to look past the dramatization of the media to see the intrinsic benefits of video games, because who knows? Maybe the next great inventor or world class surgeon is being trained right now, as we speak, over a game of Halo.