Tragic events such as the massacre at Columbine and the Aurora movie theater shooting have put the spotlight on the role of video games in promoting antisocial and violent behavior. Media outlets have examined the question in gory detail, but the truth is that there is no strong evidence to link animated gore to real-world violence.
With video games becoming more and more realistic, thanks to the use of technologies such as motion capture software, advanced animation tools, and rendering farms, you might expect that such a link would be obvious. In fact, there is some evidence that playing violent games can create short-term hostile urges and mildly aggressive behavior, but that should not come as a surprise given the raised adrenaline levels. However, there is little or no evidence that video games lead to violent crimes such as murder, assault or rape – and such incidents are sufficiently rare that it would be impossible to establish a statistically significant correlation.
There have been some studies that show violent gaming leads to an increase in things such as schoolyard fights, but the effect is quite small. Furthermore, it is not clear whether violent video games actually cause aggression in these circumstances, or whether children who are more aggressive naturally tend to play violent video games. In other words, it is not clear which is the cause and which is the effect. On the other hand, studies of violence on television, such as that carried out by Christopher J. Ferguson, Associate Professor of Psychology at Texas A&M International University, have found no linkage between observing violence and committing it.
On the other hand, the violence of some video games unfairly overshadows the broader industry – including nonviolent games – and the benefits this may bring. For instance, one of the major criticisms of television is that it is a passive medium, which children watch without being engaged. In fact, the passive nature of television is one of the reasons why the AMA recommends that parents limit the amount of television that children watch. On the other hand, video games are fundamentally active, making children engage and become intensely involved. Video games may also teach skills that are essential in our modern world, including the ability to gather and analyze data, and to collaborate with others. In fact, similar to other activities such as browsing the Internet, gaming may fundamentally rewire a child’s highly plastic brain, creating and strengthening the links that engender these skills.
Apparently, the positive impact of video games is not limited to children. For example, it may have a profound impact on hand-eye coordination in adults. Dr. James Rosser of Beth Israel Medical Center carried out research all the way back in 2004 that investigated the link between playing video games and dexterity in surgeons. The results were astounding and highly conclusive. It turns out that if a doctor spends at least three hours playing video games each week, they make 37% less mistakes when performing laparoscopic – or keyhole – surgery. Not only that, they also carry out laparoscopic surgery 27% faster than their colleagues who do not play video games.
It also appears that playing video games has a good effect on us as we age. A study published in July, 2013 by researchers at North Carolina State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology looked at 140 independent senior citizens with an average age of slightly more than 77 years. Within this group, 60% were either regular or occasional gamers. The research found that playing video games had a positive impact in a number of areas, including sense ofwell-being, social functioning, depression and negative affect – our tendency to experience emotions such as disgust, anger, guilt and fear.
Video games also have a number of therapeutic applications. For example, a nonprofit company called HopeLab has developed a set of free online video games targeted at children who are suffering from cancer. These games not only educate the children about their disease, but also put them in simulated situations where they try to destroy cancer cells with white blood cells and other weapons. It could be argued that this too is video game violence – although much less realistic than in games such as Grand Theft Auto – but it appears to have a very positive effect. Children who play the games are more likely to persist with their chemotherapy. They also view the unpleasant side effects as a sign they are defending themselves, rather than seeing them as something that is inflicted upon them.