Someone recently asked me, “Do you ever feel guilty for making stupid games that just suck time and offer no real benefit to anyone?” Obviously, I was asked this question online, where the rules of civility are rarely applied. However, I tried to be civil in response. I explained that, no, I don’t feel guilty about making video games. They are a form of entertainment, just as are movies, television, novels, music, and theme parks.
The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga wrote about the importance of play and society in his landmark 1938 book Homo Ludens (“Man, the Player”). He suggested that play may be the primary formative element of human culture and that:
”Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.”
In other words, to be fully human, we need to play.
Studies have shown that playing video games in moderation can be physically, mentally and emotionally beneficial for players. Here are some of the specific ways that players can benefit from playing games:
- Creative Problem Solving. Many games require players to come up with creative solutions to overcome obstacles, and such creative problem solving is a valuable skill to develop for overcoming obstacles in real life, leading to improved confidence and satisfaction, which in turn can help to boost player’s mental health.
- Improved Cognitive Abilities. Games often require players’ brains to work at their highest level, exercising such cognitive abilities as memorization and pattern recognition.
- Improved Decision Making. Many video games require players to make split-second decisions. This doesn’t just involve making the right decision, but in learning how to collect the relevant decision needed to make a decision.
- Improved Vision. While playing games, the player is forced to look for details on the screen and distinguish between different shades of the same color, abilities that are useful in the real world. Some studies have shown that when players with lazy eye are forced to play a game with their good eye covered, the lazy eye condition was corrected to the point where it was no longer a problem.
- Overcoming Dyslexia. While playing games, the player is force to concentrate for long periods of time, and this intense concentration may change the way the player brain works. Because the player often is required to read instructions, mission details, and character dialog that pops up on the screen, some researchers believe that the combination of intense concentration and reading may help players to overcome dyslexia.
- Increased Physical Activity. Many video games like Guitar Hero and Wii Fit have a physical component where players jump, dance, or even do exercise. These games can make physical activity fun, encouraging players to build their muscles, improve improve posture, and focus on weight loss. Some may even be motivated to take up physical activity in the real world.
- Weight Control. Contrary to the stereotype of gamers being overweight due to the lack of physical activity, games require players to focus on what’s on the screen, leaving little thought to eating snacks. It’s when people are bored and stressed that they tend to stuff their faces with snacks, not while immersed in a game.
- Pain Relief. While playing the video games, players are releasing endorphins, the painkiller hormone. This boosts the body’s natural ability to get rid of the pain that that player’s feel.
- Fighting Off The Aging Process. Studies have shown that playing 3-D platform or logic puzzle games can result in cell growth in the hippocampus, a part of the thought to be the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system. This may put players at a lower risk for developing the likes of Alzheimer’s and dementia in later life.
- Improved Social Skills. Chat features in online games, while often abused, do provide players with an opportunity to practice their social skills while under pressure as players are required to communicate clearly and concisely with their teammates to reach a co-op objective.
- Forging Friendships. Playing online video games with others allow players to connect with people from around the world who share similar interests. Often this can lead to friendships take take place outside of the game world, as players discuss their interests on message boards or even in the real world, at gaming conventions.
- Minimizing Stress. Not only do games allow players to unwind and keep their minds off of real-life problems, some of the other benefits gained from playing video games may help players not to get into stressful situations in the first place.
Of course, one must also be careful not to exaggerate the benefits of playing games, and as with anything else, doing so in excess can negate their benefits and even be harmful. However, when played in moderation as part of a well-balanced life, games can make that life a little more enjoyable.
Last May, a user of the social media discussion website Reddit posted a 2005 video of then-senator Hillary Clinton arguing for age regulations with violent video games. In the video, Mrs. Clinton argues that children playing violent and sexually explicit video games display “increased aggression.” The post sat at the top of the subreddit /r/Gaming, which boasts some 10 million subscribers, many of them mocking the idea that playing violent games turns users into violent people by imagining other activities similar to playing violent games and becoming violent.
Clinton’s opponent in the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Donald Trump, said almost the same thing about video games as she did, but a decade later.
Video game violence & glorification must be stopped—it is creating monsters!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 17, 2012
It is easy to see why video game players defend a favorite pastime, but why do so many others target video games when there has long been violent content in our other forms of entertainment — movies, television, sports, and even fairy tales?
The basic claim is that video games are more likely to affect people’s behavior than more passive forms of entertainment for three reasons:
- Games are immersive: when we play video games, we are not just watching violent acts, we commit them.
- Games are repetitive: while the violence within a movie or television show may last only a few minutes, the violence in video games is content.
- Games reward violent behavior: a violent criminal in a show will probably eventually get his comeuppance, but in video games give players points and achievements for committing violent acts.
Thus, opponents of violent video games say that such games train players to become violent.
It cannot be denied that players can become very aggressive while playing violent video games. According to a 2001 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, children who play violent video games experience an increase in both the physiological signs of aggression and aggressive behavior. These are findings that Mrs. Clinton alluded to in the video, leading her to state that “We need to treat violent video games the way we treat tobacco, alcohol, and pornography” while promoting the Family Entertainment Protection Act, legislation that would have criminalized the sale of games rated “Mature” or “Adults Only” to minors.
However, a relationship between virtual aggression and real-life aggression isn’t necessarily cause and effect. For example, it may be bullies in real life also enjoy being bullies in virtual life, so they play violent video games. But it was not the video games that caused the bullies to become violent in the first place. The American Psychological Association concluded in 2015 that while violent games increase aggression, there is a lack evidence to say it extended to criminality or delinquency. The results of other studies trying to decide if there is a causal link between violent video games and violent behavior is inconclusive.
So, if the relationship is uncertain, why are politicians so quick to blame video games, especially after a violent incident perpetrated by children such as with the Columbine High School shooting, after which the media revealed that the two killers played a lot of violent video games?
When a tragedy such as this occurs, the public looks to its leaders to take action and prevent such a thing from occurring again. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, the media reported that the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, played violent video games, President Obama directed the Center for Disease Control to study the best ways to reduce gun violence and asked Congress to fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds.
Unfortunately, complex problems like gun violence rather have simple solutions. And rarely do we agree on what the proper solution is. Democrats often say that the solution to gun violence is to put restrictions on gun purchases, while Republicans will say that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and arguing that a breakdown of the family and religious values is a cause of criminal behavior.
Yet violent video games seems to be a subject that both Democrats and Republicans can get behind. Beginning in 1992, the U.S Senate held hearings on video game violence and the corruption of society due to the popularity of violent video games like Mortal Kombat, causing the game industry to create the Entertainment Software Ratings Board to rate game content.
The establishment of the ESRB was a good thing for the game industry, but politicians have less noble reasons for advocating restrictions on violent video games. It gives them a cause (violence in our society) to talk about when campaigning, as well as an easy solution (banning violent video games). This makes the candidate look heroic and caring to many of their supporters and constituents.
Fortunately for game players, they do have an advocate on their side. In 2001, the United States Supreme Court struck down a California law that would have imposed a penalty to retailers for selling M-rated games. There decision that effectively gave video games the same free speech rights as books, movies or television shows. It established that video games were a protected art form.
Of course, the battle is far from over, because as I wrote above, there are no easy answers to complex issues. But that hasn’t stopped politicians from trying to find easy answers, particularly in this election.