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Are Video Games Good or Bad for Us?

Non-gamers tend to take a dim view of video games and their fans, assuming they’re all a bunch of sweaty man-children clutching liter bottles of Mountain Dew between Cheeto-dusted fingers and screaming racist obscenities that diffuse, muffled, through thick neckbeard thatches into their headsets at online opponents. And a few weeks ago, even I referenced [1] the stereotypical World of Warcraft addict’s set-up of pee bottles and poop buckets. But the latest statistics [2] indicate that the popular stereotype isn’t very representative of most gamers. In fact, if you’re an American, you’re more likely to be a gamer than not:

Surely, though, video gaming is unhealthy. I mean, you’re sitting there on a couch, or in a computer chair, or hunched over a smartphone for hours at a time. If watching TV for hours is bad for us, why wouldn’t video games be bad for us?

There are differences between the two. TV is wholly consumptive. You’re sitting there, passive and placid, while the TV does the work. You just consume it. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure a Ken Burns documentary is qualitatively different than binge watching reality TV, but my point stands.

Meanwhile, gaming requires mental and physical engagement. You’re problem solving. You’re reacting to stimuli. You’re planning and strategizing and, in the case of online gaming, competing and communicating with other people. Rather than watch beautiful people do interesting things on a TV, a gamer participates in the story and drives the narrative. On the face of it, video gaming is a different beast than TV and deserves a closer, more comprehensive look before dismissal.

There’s a huge body of research examining the potentially negative effects of video games. There’s also a huge body of research examining the potentially positive cognitive effects of video games. I’ll examine the former, followed by the latter. Then I’ll give my take on everything.

Video games and violence.

This is a popular notion that arises whenever a school shooter’s personal history reveals a fondness for playing violent video games, but the actual evidence is murky. Some researchers are adamant that video games increase aggression and violence, while others take the opposing view.

In a number of studies, playing violent video games has been linked to increased aggression. Most of this aggression occurs immediately after the gaming session and lasts just a few minutes [4]. Researchers test increased aggression by having subjects play games and then giving them the opportunity to dose an unseen study participant with something unpleasant – loud noises, hot sauce, cold water. Subjects can make the dose as strong (loud/spicy/cold) as they desire. The louder/spicier/colder the delivery, the greater the aggression.

Other researchers aren’t very convinced [5] by the inconsistent results, either (PDF [6]). Like Christopher Ferguson [7], a psychology professor from Texas A&M, who frequently points out limitations and errors in studies [8] that find links between gaming and violence, publishes papers that find no relationship between the two [9], and discusses the futility of even studying “violent video games” as a monolithic entity [10] when they’re all so different from each other.

The causality may be reversed as well. An earlier study [11] of adolescent boys in the Netherlands and Belgium found that aggressive teens are more attracted to violent video games in the first place. The authors suggest a “cycle of desensitization,” whereby aggressive teens play violent video games which make them even more tolerant of real violence, but I don’t think we have sufficient evidence to show that.

A 2014 paper [12] even suggests that it’s not the violence in a video game causing the short term aggression, but the frustration from losing or failing to master the controls. That means that losing a match in Call of Duty, a round in Tetris, a game of Ultimate, or even a prized property in Monopoly could all temporarily increase your aggression. Now, I’m no video gamer. I do enjoy a board game or two when I get the time, and I can get pretty competitive and aggressive, especially when I lose. Same goes for Ultimate Frisbee [13]. It’s fun, but it’s competitive fun; anyone who’s played a game with me at PrimalCon [14] has probably noticed the subtle shift in tone when the game’s on the line. I don’t like to lose. Is that unhealthy or dangerous?

We just don’t see the evidence that video game-induced aggression is causing a wave of violence. Gaming is more popular than ever in this country and violent crime rates continue to drop [15]. If anything, increased sales of violent video games are associated with a decreased incidence of violent crime [16]. I’m not convinced this temporarily increased aggression in a contrived clinical setting is all that bad, let alone leads to long-term aggressive behavior [17].

Video games and stress.

A considerable body of evidence [18] shows that playing video games can trigger the stress response and engage the sympathetic nervous system [19]. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Video games catapult you into stressful and increasingly realistic situations – gunfights, car chases, zombie apocalypses – where people are trying to kill and/or eat you. When you’re playing online and your opponent is another human, the stakes get even higher.

Remember, though: lots of things that are good for us, like exercise, engage the stress response [20]. The key is balance between stress and recovery. Exercise is self-limiting, if you do it right. You can’t deadlift for four hours straight because your body will simply quit before you do too much damage. And when you override your body and do something like Chronic Cardio [21], you risk injuries and long term negative health effects. Gaming doesn’t have the off switch. You can easily play for hours and hours, just running with a chronic flight or fight response.

Stress isn’t bad. Too much stress is bad. Too little is also bad.

Video games and obesity.

Compared to sitting around doing nothing for an hour, playing games for an hour increases short term energy intake [22].Violent games may have more of an effect, causing an increase in blood pressure and calorie intake and a preference for sweets [23]. My take is that gaming can be stressful – as we’ve already shown – and stress tends to increase food intake [24]. But so does reading an essay and writing a short response [25] to it. It doesn’t help, of course, that it’s logistically tough to eat healthy food while gaming. You’re not going to pause your game to tuck into a braised lamb shank with whipped butternut squash, but you will cram a fistful of Doritos into your mouth without skipping a beat.

Okay, what about the beneficial effects to cognition that don’t get nearly as much press as the bad effects? Let’s take a look.

A recent review of the evidence published in the American Psychologist found that playing commercial video games (especially the “violent” ones that involve shooting and quick decision-making) has a number of cognitive benefits (PDF [26]):

Just recently, a study [27] comparing Portal 2 (a first-person puzzle game) and Luminosity (the most popular and widely used brain game) found that Portal 2 improved cognitive skills in the short term more than the game designed to do it. Speaking of brain games, they might not even really work [28].

And after two months of playing Super Mario [29], a side scrolling platformer designed purely for fun, gray matter in certain regions of the brain increased, indicating structural neuroplasticity. The researchers think similar video games could be used as therapeutic tools for mental disorders that cause these brain areas to shrink.

Furthermore, another study [30] found that lifetime video gaming history (called “joystick years”) was associated with increased brain volume in areas linked to navigation and visual attention; logic/puzzle games and platformers (like Super Mario) had the strongest effects.

In women who never or rarely gamed, playing the real time strategy game Starcraft for 40 hours over six weeks increased cognitive flexibility [31], or the ability to quickly switch from one task to another.

It also has great therapeutic potential that’s already being realized. Video gaming has been used to help the blind learn to navigate [32] through unfamiliar environments (in the real world), dyslexic students learn to read [33], and stroke patients regain lost motor skills [34], for example.

I have a few reservations, though.

One genre of video game I’m fairly suspicious of are the social media games. They’re time suckers, wallet drainers [35], and according to a leading game developer [36], are designed to be “negative” and “draining” experiences that invade your thoughts, disrupt your waking and sleeping life, and keep you in a heightened state of stress and unease. Many of these games penalize you for taking breaks; your crops will wither and your livestock will die if you fail to log in and water and feed them. And most contain sticking points that require real-world cash in order to progress and keep playing. I’ve heard about marriages dissolving because of a partner’s addiction. They’re whipping them out at dinner, in the middle of conversations, checking in during sex [37]. They’re draining their bank accounts.

Massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, like World of Warcraft, may also be problematic for many of the same reasons. Although the majority of players aren’t letting their kids starve [38] or locking them in trash-filled RVs for years [39], the incidence of marital, financial, social, employment, sleep, health, and family problems among heavy MMO players is high [40].

Gaming is only going to get more realistic as time goes on. The uncanny valley is already flattening [41] thanks to video game developers taking advantage of the increasing processing power available, and pretty soon the opponents you gun down in Call of Duty will be indistinguishable from the real thing, at least visually.

And with the coming wave of virtual reality headsets like Oculus Rift [42] and Sony Morpheus that promise to immerse gamers in three-dimensional virtual game spaces, gaming will move from the living room/office to the inner space. Gamers should eventually be able to live out full-blown Star Trek holodeck-style simulated realities with total sensorial immersion. If that’s the case, and a video game warzone feels almost exactly like a real-life warzone (except for actual injuries), and your nervous system assumes that yes, a velociraptor really is coming for your throat, it’ll be tough to remain in rational, normal headspace. That could be problematic. We’ll just have to wait and see.

For now? I see nothing wrong and a whole lot right with gaming, if that’s what you’re into.

Gaming can be social, whether you’re playing with friends online or on the couch next to you.

Gaming can be competitive. It’s good to feel the pulse of adrenaline as you go toe to toe with someone else, even if that someone else is a non-player character generated by the game.

Gaming can be creative. Perhaps the most popular game right now, Minecraft [43], allows players to construct complicated structures and build entire worlds out of the game’s raw materials.

Gaming can be relaxing [44]. It’s not all guns and dwarves and aliens.

Bottom line: gaming is play. And play is a good thing [45]. As long as you don’t let gaming take over your life and crowd out or disturb your physical activity, your relationships, your eating habits, your sleep [46], your sunlight [47], your nature exposure [48], your green space [49] time, your exciting and fun and meaningful pursuits out there in the real world [50] – why not play a little?

Seeing as how I’m not a gamer myself, and this is mostly just an academic interest, I’d love to hear from all you gamers out there. Does today’s post jibe with your experiences? Did I miss anything? Got any recommendations for Primal people who might be interested in gaming? Let’s try to avoid any console wars, though, okay?

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