On addiction and video games

Opinion: Despite extensive research, scientists still aren’t sure if video games are addictive. But, as Allan Fowler asks, if they were, would that be a bad thing?

The image shows two young children secretly playing video games under the bed covers: The American Psychiatric Association 2013 defines Internet Gaming Disorder as “a persistent and recurrent use of the Internet to engage in games”. Photo: iStock
The American Psychiatric Association 2013 defines Internet Gaming Disorder as “a persistent and recurrent use of the Internet to engage in games”. Photo: iStock

In a recent article in the Washington Post, US writer and producer Amy Brill expressed concerns about how much her children, and her friend’s children, were playing Roblox, the online gaming platform that allows players to create their own games, enables masses of multi players and has its own virtual currency for in-game purchases.

Valued at US$29.4 billion, the platform now has more than 32 million daily users, two-thirds under the age of 16.

In her article, Brill worries about the addictive potential of such gaming and cites the American Psychiatric Association 2013 definition of the Internet Gaming Disorder, which defined it as “a persistent and recurrent use of the Internet to engage in games”.

What the article doesn’t mention is a more recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in March 2017. This study concluded that among those who played games, most did not report any symptoms of internet gaming disorder and the percentage of people who might qualify for internet gaming disorder was extremely small.

So, are games addictive? Judging by the mass of literature being produced on the topic, scientists don’t actually know. But if they are, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Many games are designed to motivate the player to continue playing, to get gamers hooked. Game developers use status symbols like leaderboards, high scores, badges, or rewards to keep the player playing. Playing electronic games has been shown to release chemicals like dopamine and hormones like testosterone. It might sound like some developers are encouraging addictive-like behaviour, and they might not be wrong.

Is anyone confused? That’s no surprise. Video games can definitely be used in a positive way. Several studies show that games can help with learning, social awareness, environmental awareness, and stress management. Games have been shown to help with spatial awareness, hand-eye coordination, spelling, mathematics, and physics.

I have undertaken several studies to evaluate the effectiveness of commercial video games, and in several cases, games have been shown to be an effective tool for learning. In a recent study, I asked a group of students to play the video game Gran Turismo (a car racing simulation) for 30 minutes each night for a month.

At the end of the month, I asked this group to race a performance go-cart around a controlled racetrack. I also asked a group of students who had not played the game to race the same go-carts around the same track. While the students who had played the game (the treatment group) took time getting used to the elements that weren’t part of the game (gravity, feedback, and physics), in all aspects, these students outperformed the group of students who had never played the game.

The treatment group showed an understanding of the principles of racing, they understood and used the vocabulary and could apply racing principles in practice. The treatment group looked for the best racing line, accelerating instead of braking into a curve. They used the terminology of racing when talking to each other. The treatment group achieved superior track times than the control group, and made fewer mistakes.

If we agree that games can effect change positively, then surely we need to accept that games can also cause harm?

There is considerable research into the negative aspects of excess gaming, particularly of those games that involve violence. It is no surprise that, after news of mass shootings in the US, politicians, and some media blame video games.

Many researchers and psychologists would agree that mass shootings rarely have one cause, there are usually numerous complex reasons and motivations given in attempts to explain these heinous crimes. There is anecdotal evidence that suggests, in some cases, video games helped the perpetrators of these crimes learn what to do. But while games may have been one of the influencing factors, it would be hard to argue that they are were the only factor.

Of course, this association is extreme and there are other less deadly reasons parents would have concerns about too much video gaming. For some parents there are concerns about not spending enough time engaging and relating to people offline, not doing enough physical activity, eye strain, or not spending enough time on homework.

So, while games can be good for us, like most things in life, excessive consumption can be bad for us. As a game developer, researcher, and parent, I am very cognisant of the potential effect of games or violent media on my own children.

Although it is often hard for my children to hear, they must follow the ESA ratings. For those readers who don’t know what the ESA ratings are, they are established by the Entertainment Software Association, which classifies games in a similar way to how movies are classified with their G, PG, and M labels. While many parents (and their children) may not fully understand the ESA rating system, it does provide some useful guidance.

We also limit what violent media our children can consume at home (not much). We also only let our children play video games on the weekend and only after completing their homework. We limit what games our children play. They play video games in the family room so we can keep an eye on what they’re playing and when. Many parents might think this is a bit tough, and they might be right.

So, is your child really addicted to Roblox? Probably not, but it might pay to manage the amount of time spent staring at a screen and get them to play, read, talk, bake a cake, or any other beneficial activity.

Before returning to New Zealand, Dr Fowler was Associate Professor in Game Design and Software Engineering in the USA and his research is based on using games to learn.

Dr Allan Fowler is from the Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom On addiction and video games 23 June 2021.

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