What really is the harm in playing video games? So far, we have focused mostly on the effects of playing violent games which I believe can be hurtful when played frequently and over a long period of time. I also believe that highly violent or sexual games such as those that show gruesome and bloody killing can be harmful even in the short term. 1 I am also convinced that the context of violent video games can be harmful. For instance, is the violence unjustified? Are acts of violence rewarded such as in gaining “extra lifes,” more power, or better weapons? How are women and children depicted? And, what types of graphics are being presented (e.g., blood, gore, mutilation, torture, etc.). As a summary, the National Institute on Media and the Family (see http://www.mediafamily.org/facts/facts_effect.shtml) suggests the following potential negative effects of inappropriate video games:

  • Over-dependence on video games could foster social isolation, as they are often played alone.
  • Practicing violent acts may contribute more to aggressive behavior than passive television watching. Studies do find a relationship between violent television watching and behavior.
  • Women are often portrayed as weaker characters that are helpless or sexually provocative.
  • Game environments are often based on plots of violence, aggression and gender bias.
  • Many games only offer an arena of weapons, killings, kicking, stabbing and shooting.
  • Playing violent video games may be related to aggressive behavior. 2
  • More often games do not offer action that requires independent thought or creativity.
  • Games can confuse reality and fantasy.
  • In many violent games, players must become more violent to win. In “1st person” violent video games the player may be more affected because he or she controls the game and experiences the action through the eyes of his or her character.
  • Academic achievement may be negatively related to over-all time spent playing video games.

Of course, not all games will adversely affect your child in all the ways listed above. However, some games can have a negative influence in at least one of these ways. These potential problems or risks should serve as a checklist of possibilities to consider. Next, I want to pay special consideration to the issue of violence and desensitization.

Violence and Desensitization

Desensitization is one process that counselors and therapists use to help clients reduce their excessive (and often irrational) fears of things like heights, flying, spiders, snakes, blood, and public speaking. After being “desensitized, ” the person no longer reacts to the object or condition of fear and instead essentially can ignore it. This process can be very helpful when the condition is an important and necessary part of someone’s life. For example, desensitization to distressing sights, sounds, and smells of surgery is necessary for medical students to become effective surgeons. Desensitization to battlefield horrors is necessary for troops to be effective in combat. However, desensitization of children and other civilians to violence may be detrimental for both individuals and society. One of the ways that we can determine the level of desensitization to a certain stimulus or condition is to measure someone’s heart rate, perspiration levels, and rate of breathing while they are experiencing the stimulus. That is, a person’s level of physiological arousal to a situation can help us determine how sensitive they are to that situation.

Some evidence exists to suggest that as little as twenty minutes of playing a violent video games can cause people to become less physiologically aroused by real violence. This can cause problems. For a child who may be at some level desensitized to violence, they may not have strong negative reactions to violence in the real world which may lower their motivation to help or intervene during a violent incident. Lowered sensitivity to violence may also lower the inhibition for being violent as well. This is one reason why researchers believe that the more we are exposed to violence the more we are apt to behave violently in the real world. What may also be worrisome is how children may be exposed to increasingly higher dosages of violence across many media as they get older. They may start by experiencing violence packages on television with non-threatening cartoon-like figures and the total absence of blood and gore. Then, their violence exposure continues to be more realistic, sophisticated, and vivid.3

To combat desensitization, we must limit or prevent high levels of exposure to violence across all media including television, movies, and video games. 4 And when children do view violence, we must role model appropriate reactions as if we were watching it for the first time. This is especially true for boys who seem to show greater tendencies to be aggressive and to seek out higher media violence exposure.

Gaming Addictions

Consider the following cases ... On Aug 9, 2005, Reuters reported that a South Korean man who played computer games for 50 hours almost non-stop died of heart failure minutes after finishing his mammoth session in an Internet café. 5 The report goes further by saying that the 28-year-old man planted himself in front of a computer monitor to play online battle simulation and only left the spot over the next three days to go to the toilet and take brief naps on a makeshift bed. A police officer commented that, “We presume the cause of death was heart failure stemming from exhaustion.” In a different case, another boy named James often played video games for five hours a day during his summer break, sometimes even more. He boasts 60 games in his room and three consoles — GameCube, PlayStation 2 and Nintendo 64. When his family drags him out of the house, he pockets his portable Nintendo DS, plus his cellphone for playing “Tetris.” 6 Then there’s a another boy named Will, when during his high school freshman year, he chose a different approach in dealing with his mother’s frustration about his pursuit of a very popular virtual reality online game. He ignored her, as his grades plummeted to straight D’s in middle school. Will calculated that the hours he spent playing one character equaled “three months and two weeks.” One evening, “My mom got my cable cord ... she pulled it and ripped it out,” says Will, still a bit wide-eyed at the memory. Later, his mother knocked down a locked door. “I’ve learned not to mess with my mom,” he said.7

For most people, computer use and video game play is integrated into their lives in a balanced manner. For others, time spent on the computer or video game is out of balance, and has displaced work, school, friends, and even family.8 Video games have been proven to lead to a type of addiction among some users. Counterculturalist Timothy Leary was one of the first to liken computers to LSD, noting the mind-expanding, mesmerizing and ritualistic similarities between the two. In 1998 at Hammersmith Hospital in London, Dr. Paul Grasby performed a study that showed that playing video games triggers the release of dopamine in the brain. During the study dopamine levels doubled in the subjects’ brain when they played video games, a level of dopamine equivalent to an injection of amphetamines or Ritalin.9 Dr. David Walsh, a long-time expert and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, reports of some children playing over 43 hours a week of video games. 10

The principles that lead to gaming addictions are not very different from other types of addictions such as gambling. Similar to casino slot machines, playing video games may be highly sustained, both in frequency and duration, due to the way that the games are programmed and experienced. First of all, like Las Vegas style slots, video games use multiple forms of stimuli including high levels of touch (vibrating gamepads), sight (amazingly realistic and vivid video), and sounds (i.e., sound effects and popular songs) which eventually become associated with rewards. Similar to money, free drinks, and more chances to win at the casino, video games offer its players rewards such as finding hidden areas of the games, getting to advanced levels, earning points, getting on the top player list for others to see, and acquiring badges of achievement. Sometimes, these rewards are easy to earn and can be accomplished in very few attempts. At other times though, the process is difficult and requires extensive practice. Some moves result in “bells and whistles” and other moves don’t result to much at all. Sometimes the outcome relies on skill, sometimes chance, and other times a combination of these (do you see why some folks are addicted to playing golf?). The gamer may not be quite sure of how any given maneuver translates into a corresponding result. In behavioral psychology, this is known as a variable interval or variable ratio schedule of reinforcement. 11 Similar to gambling, electronic gamers may find themselves continually playing until they get to that next reward which may or may not come. The faster and more intense you play, the better your chances. Meanwhile, watching others play and win can also be reinforcing (this is called social or vicarious reinforcement) and influence how much we play. Given that both casino games and video games can be played with many other people over the Internet, this analogy is even more relevant and powerful today than ever before. 12

Other Problems with Overindulgent Video Game Playing

Other problems are sometimes associated with playing video games, whether they are violent or not. For instance, when students play for longer than 1 hour per day or, on the average, 7-10 hours per week, they may be sacrificing needed homework and study time which could negatively impact academic performance. Relatedly, there is more to life than video games. Kids may not play outdoors, read, or have fun with family and friends in other ways. Like anything else, video games should be played in moderation. Another potential problem is the effect of excessive play on physical development. Watching a screen for prolonged periods can cause vision and eye problems. Sitting in one place for a long time can cause problems in the bones, joints, and muscles (e.g., carpal tunnel syndrom or repetitive stress injuries). Of course there is the issue of how playing video games contributes to a sedentary lifestyle which leads to children being overweight or even obese (not to mention all the snacks they might eat while they play). Games played on the computer or gaming appliance such as PlayStation or Xbox allow the player to connect with others over the Internet with text, video, or voice. This capability introduces some of the same risks that come with other such connections such as being the target of a sexual predator or, at the very least, being negatively influenced by other peers.

End Notes

  1. For example, see Video Game Violence: The Savage Se7en, an article that “take a trip back in time and revisit seven of the most ‘controversial’ titles in video game history.” http://www.gamestar.com/11_04/features/fea_savageseven.shtml. Also, see Digital Death: The 10 Best Video Game Kills Ever at http://www.games.net/features/108181_1.shtml.
  2. Anderson, C. A. and Dill, K. E. (2000). Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 78(4), p. 772-790.
  3. Gentile, D. A., Lynch, P. J., Linder, J. R., and Walsh, D. A. (2004). The effects of violent video game habits on adolescent hostility, aggressive behaviors, and school performance. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 5-22. Available online: http://tinyurl.com/3bnr5e. Also see other publications from Dr. Gentile at http://tinyurl.com/2vnqr6. Carnagey, N.L., Anderson, C.A., & Bushman, B.J. (2007). The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 43 p. 489–496. Available online: http://tinyurl.com/3aedwb
  4.  There is evidence to suggest that people who watch violent television are more likely to play violent video games and that media violence in general is related to aggressive diagnoses. For examples see Kronenberg, et al. (2005). Media violence exposure in aggressive and control adolescents: Differences in self and parent reported exposure to violence on television and video games. Aggressive Behavior, Vol. 31, pages 201-216.
  5.  BBC News. (August 10, 2005). S Korean dies after games session. Available online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4137782.stm
  6.  Brody, L. (August 19, 2006). Can you be a video-game “addict”? The Record. Available online: http://tinyurl.com/2j35ou
  7. Thompson, S. H. (November 3, 2002). Clicking the habit. Tampa, FL: The Tampa Tribune.
  8.  Computer and Video Game Addiction Fact Sheet. National Institute on Media and the Family. Available online: http://www.mediafamily.org/facts/facts_gameaddiction.shtml.
  9.  Sanchez, L. M. . August 23, 2002. Violent Video Games and Operant Conditioning: Physical and Psychological Effects. Maxwell School. Available online: http://tinyurl.com/2jwhb2
  10.  National Institute on Media and the Family. Available online: http://www.mediaandthefamily.org
  11. To learn more about schedules of reinforcement, use a web search engine with the phrase “operant conditioning.” Visit http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/behsys/operant.html as one place to begin.
  12. For more information about gaming addiction, check out Computer and Video Game Addiction from the National Institute on Media and the Family website at http://www.mediafamily.org/facts/facts_gameaddiction.shtml