September 26, 2016

Video Games and Their Effects on Utah’s Youth

Are educationally focused games actually assisting our children into developing into normal human beings? With the Sandy Hook Elementary shooter being described as an active video game user, it has led to a recent internet bomb blaming violent video games behind the tragedy that took 27 lives. Does this argument have any weight? Well, the answer may go both ways. While video games have long been associated with social and mental problems in adolescents, new studies reveal that gaming can have positive psychological effects.

Cognitive psychologist Jerry Jordan, a professor at Utah State, maintains, “Playing video games has recently been shown to improve visual processing in a diverse array of perceptually complex tasks. Compared with non-video-game-players, video-game-players have proven either quicker to respond or demonstrate more accuracy on attentionally demanding visual tests.”

The effects of video games on the mind have been substantiated by recent university studies, indicating that action-based video-gamers are able to make decisions 25 percent faster than non-video gamers. In addition to this, highly skilled gamers have trained their minds to concentrate on up to six things at once, whereas the normal mind only processes four.

It has also been noted that any video game can yield an increase in a child’s creativity. A three-year study, conducted by Michigan State University’s Children and Technology Project recently revealed that the more hours children spend playing video games, the higher their scores on standardized tests of creativity.

Pac-Man is an arcade game developed by Namco first released in Japan in 1980. Pac-Man is an internationally recognized icon of 1980s popular culture.

Pac-Man is an arcade game developed by Namco first released in Japan in 1980. Pac-Man is an internationally recognized icon of 1980s popular culture.

Salt Lake City’s Donna Kilgore, a mother of a nine-year-old son with Asperger’s Syndrome comments that video games have increased her son’s motor skills. “Video games reach him on a level that I can’t sometimes. I struggled with teaching him how to read… but then he got interested in Spore. So, I incorporated making Spore movies into his reading/writing lessons. He went from not being able to read ‘Cat sat on a mat,’ to reading chapter books this year… Over the summer it was like someone flipped a switch. All I did was allow him more time to play his games.”

Spore is a game that allows users to create their own species and assist in their evolution into complex animals.

Local game enthusiasts also defend their decisions to play video games. Featured gaming correspondent for KSL and founder of the popular blog GameTaffy.com, Ben Davis of Ogden, plays video games regularly between two and four hours a day. “The only reason gaming is treated differently than any other media,” Davis says, “is the amount of power it gives to the consumer. When I consume other media, they are the brain, the controller. However, when playing a game, it needs me to exist.”

Gaming, Davis adds, is treated differently than other media. Many parents worry about the social impairments their children can suffer from being too involved with games.

Renee Lee, 30-year-old West Jordan mother of four, notes that her oldest son goes in phases with video game addiction, and when not consumed by his computer, he is more social with his friends and is better able to pay attention at school because he is more rested.

Adolescents and adults have reported that spending too much time playing video games helped contribute to their depression.

But while socializing with friends and getting high marks at school are always parental concerns, the public worry seems to rest primarily in the violence that video games can inspire. This controversy was reignited after it was revealed that the two teenage shooters behind the Columbine High School massacre were avid weapon-based combat gamers.  With this year’s Dark Knight Rises shooting in Aurora, Colorado, CNN criminal profiler Pat Brown believes that while playing violent video games will probably not turn a normal person into a mass murderer, it can add motivation to those who are already likely to be killers. Though to be fair, friends of movie theater shooter James Holmes have gone on record to state that he was not into violent video games and that he preferred non-violent Wii games and Guitar Hero.

Still in 2003, the American Psychological Association (APA) reported a link between high levels of aggression and youth delinquency caused by violent video game exposure. An official APA statement reveals that, “Violent video games are significantly associated with: increased aggressive behavior, thoughts, and affect; increased physiological arousal; and decreased prosocial (helping) behavior.” It has been reported that aggressive behavior can also increase when playing non-violent family-friendly games.

In addition, a Harvard study found that avid gamers experience increased levels of dopamine in their brains, the chemical associated with addiction. In this case, it was especially true with games involving control reward and learning.

Nevertheless, Davis refutes this notion as hogwash. “I think there is a substantial correlation between violence and video games: The more people play video games, the less violent they are. Studies have proven that games (like all violent media) will cause an unusual amount of tolerance to acts of violence, but these same studies show that games (unlike all violent media) give the audience a clear sense of right and wrong. Even games that allow players to control the villain make it very clear that these actions are wrong.”

A still shot from Grand Theft Auto

A still shot from Grand Theft Auto

Grand Theft Auto chastises players for committing random acts of violence by alerting authorities or by ending the game if a non-character is killed. Also, violent games such as BioShock reward players for good behavior by offering alternate endings.

The argument has been made that violence and video games is correlation and not causation. So far, every United States court has refused to allow into evidence studies that have “proved” video games lead to spiked levels of aggression. The courts argue that most of the studies suffer from admitted flaws in the research methodology and their conclusions lay rooted in correlation rather than causation. If some of these studies were taken for granted, they also conclude that raised aggression levels from playing video games is roughly the same that is produced by exposure to violence in other media.

Video games are socially dangerous in the sense that all things addictive are dangerous. They can indeed cause one to become socially withdrawn and awkward in the same way that watching television or any act that requires solitude can. But do they really influence violent behavior?

Contradictory studies could indicate that the violent effects of video games is still an ongoing debate and perhaps a little too new to reach any bona fide conclusions. With gaming currently a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry, second only to adult entertainment, and 69 percent of the world’s population playing, could it be perhaps that criminal profiler Pat Brown is correct in her assessment that video games are only dangerous in the wrong hands? Does watching sports contribute to similar levels of aggression? It is just a few examples make the entire society of gamers look bad? Probably. Violent video games alone don’t seem likely to turn a child or adolescent with no other risk factors into a maniacal killer. However, in those with many risk factors, the size of the effect may lead to violent behavior.