The presence of videogaming matters in scientific papers has, of late, become a somewhat depressing prospect. With both formerly respectable/respected scientists making unsupported claims without evidence, and published papers basing conclusions on woeful errors and contradictions, the one place where you'd think you could look for balanced, reasoned thought on a subject sometimes seems to have abandoned us. But there is light. Nature, surely the most respected and popular scientific journal, has published a "Viewpoint" discussion on the subject of gaming's effect on the brain in its Nature Reviews Neuroscience journal. Brains On Video Games is a collection of leading experts looking at the published material and discussing the matter with open minds.
Things begin with a discussion of the positive effects of gaming, starting with a perspective from Professor of Psychology at the University of Geneva and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester, Daphne Bavelier, along with C. Shawn Green, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and faculty member of the Games+Learning Society at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"Although the popular media has a strong tendency to produce breathless headlines about the effects (or lack of effects) of video games, it is worth noting that the term ‘video games’ is far from a single construct and thus, has almost no scientific predictive power. One can no more say what the effects of video games are, than one can say what the effects of food are. There are millions of individual games, hundreds of distinct genres and subgenres, and they can be played on computers, consoles, hand-held devices and cell phones. Simply put, if one wants to know what the effects of video games are, the devil is in the details."
Just to see the subject not trivialised in the opening moments is worryingly refreshing. They go on to point out that the majority of the studies have focused on action games, ignoring vast swathes of what gaming offers, but then observe that these action studies have shown that "playing this type of game results in a wide range of behavioural benefits, including enhancements in low-level vision, visual attention, speed of processing and statistical inference, among others." In fact, they add,
"Properly controlled training studies have repeatedly demonstrated a causal link between video game playing and enhanced abilities."
Doug Hyun Hun (Professor of Psychiatry at the Chung Ang University Hospital, and Director of online game clinic and research centre of the same) and Perry F. Renshaw (Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine, and Director of Magnetic Resonance Imagining for the Brain Institute of the same) point out that while studies have shown improvements in visuo-spatial capacity, visual acuity, task switching, decision making and object tracking in healthy individuals, those studies also have weaknesses, and most significantly, when non-gamers are recruited for tests, they don't tend to show enhanced performance on "higher level reasoning and problem solving tasks."
Michael M. Merzenich, Emeritus Professor in the W. M. Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California observes that some games can "be expected to drive positive neurological changes in the brain systems". He adds,
"There is growing direct evidence that intensive use of video games results in significant generalized improvements in cognitive function. Video games are controlled training regimens delivered in highly motivating behavioural contexts. The documented gains in processing speed, attentional control, memory, and cognitive and social control that result from playing specific games are expected. Because behavioural changes arise from brain changes, it is also no surprse that performance improvements are paralleled by enduring phsyical and functional neurological remodelling."
He adds that regular gaming by children has been shown to cause a downturn in academic achievement, citing the time spent gaming being "stolen" from time spent reading and studying.
Finally there's Douglas A. Gentile, Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology at Iowa State University, where he also directs the Media Research Laboratory. He mentions Bavelier and Green's research into action games, once again listing all the discovered benefits, especially perceptual and attentional skills. However, he observes that these skills are not necessarily transferable.
"One recent study, for example, found that although experienced video gamers were better at spatial navigation in computer-mediated tasks than non-experienced players, they were not better at the same type of navigation in a real-world environment."
He also mentions studies appearing that demonstrate that social gaming leads, in only the short-term, to more "helping" behaviour, while violent gaming leads to more "harmful" behaviour. And adds, "In a longitudinal study, we found that children who played more pro-social games early in a school year demonstrated increased helpful behaviours later in the school year."
So there's the positive. But what about the negative? Bavelier and Green say there is "no doubt" that violent video games can lead to increases in measures of aggressive thoughts. However, the say, the subtleties of this are mostly lost. "Violent video games alone are unlikely to turn a child with no other risk factors into a maniacal killer. However, in children with many risk factors, the size of the effect may be sufficient to have practical negative consequences."
They point out again that the matter of "reduced attention" is also a matter of nuance. No, games certainly don't lower one's ability to "rapidly and efficiently filter visual distractors" - in fact they greatly enhance it. But studies are showing that gaming may make it harder to pay longer-term attention, say in class. They say, it's impossible to say that games do one thing or the other, but rather they have a myriad of behavioural effects.
Han and Renshaw take the somewhat peculiar route of quoting three or four exceptional stories of those with "internet addiction", which appears to conflate gaming with gambling, as their evidence for negative effects of gaming. None of these are studies, of course, but rather anecdotal examples of individuals with complex backgrounds beyond their time spent gambling or gaming. But they conclude that, "We believe that there is strong evidence in support of the view that excessive internet use or game play is associated with adverse consequences on behaviour in some indivuduals."
Merzenich discusses the potential negative effects on cognition of intensive game playing. He says,
"Fast action games, on a play level that applies to the average regular gamer, has been shown to contribute to an increase in ADHD-related behaviours."
He then repeats his point that time spent gaming is time spent not studying, and that heavy game play is "inversely correlated with academic, occupational and social success." And adds that violent games, which he unhelpfully delineates as being "particularly addictive", can reduce empathy, and reduce the stress associated with observing or initiating anti-social actions - in other words, desensitising. He also firmly believes that games can be addictive, and recognises the issues of the "special destructive class of neurological and social burdens" that accompany this.
Gentile takes a different view, pointing out that if the positive effects of gaming are learning effects, then we can learn the wrong things. "Whatever we practice repeatedly affects the brain, and if we practice aggressive ways of thinking, feeling and reacting, then we will get better at those." He notes that violent games don't necessarily cause violent behaviours, "because human aggression is complex and multi-causal." However, he adds that there is a "hostile attribution bias" that is increased by violent gaming, which causes a player to become more biased toward attributing hostile intentions to others' actions. Most damningly, he adds,
"The most comprehensive meta-analysis conducted to date included 136 papers detailing 381 independent tests of association conduction on 130,296 research participants. The analyses found that violent game play led to significant increases in desensitisation, physiological arousal, aggressive cognition and aggressive behaviour. By contrast, pro-social behaviour was decreased."
The size of these effects, however, is a matter of some disagreement Gentile continues, especially whether it's of sufficient practical significance. There is much weaker evidence that gaming can cause criminal or serious violence, but much stronger that it causes low-level, everyday aggression.
The discussion continues on much further, going on to look at evidence for gaming addiction, gaming as an educational tool, and what challenges lie ahead for researchers in this field. But I've already nicked quite enough from the paper, frankly.
So what can we conclude from this? I think the most crucial aspect to get a grip of is the complexity involved. While it is obviously the wont of newspapers and TV news to grab a wildly generalising headline, it is never appropriate to say, "Games Do X". Games, as many of the discussion's authors point out, are multifarious and nuanced. "Games" don't do anything in particular. But types of games, even specific games, have specific effects, both positive and negative. The broad consensus appears to be that games can improve our perceptional skills, but that this can have a detrimental effect on our ability to pay long-term attention. It's also agreed across the board that violent gaming can influence aggressive behaviour in players. However, as must always be understood when discussing these matters, the severity of these effects are extremely under-studied and currently unknown. Yes, gaming may increase bias toward aggression, but the question we, and the wider press, always forget to ask is: by how much? And that's crucial. Scientists will measure for a change in something and look for a cause, but where they say "increase" we tend to hear, "devastating change". They could just as easily mean, "negligible increase, but increase all the same", and it's crucial that we remember to ask first.
Although, as Douglas A. Gentile points out in his comments about how aggressive changes appear to be only low-level, and not criminal levels of violence, that's not to diminish the significance either.
"As a developmental psychologist, I care deeply about this everyday aggression (verbal, relational and physical), whereas critics of the research seem to be mostly interested in criminal violence."
It really is time for a sensible, calm reaction to the facts. We obviously won't get it from our tabloid newspapers, who will continue to screech horror and nonsense, but we also must challenge ourselves and not assume the worst when we see a study reporting negative findings. We are guilty of a form of inverse sensationalism, where we're too quick to dismiss criticism. That's obviously not helped when a frustrating volume of that criticism is so poor, but again, it's about rising above it to seek the truth.
Big thanks to Laura for getting us the full paper, and Bad Bonobo for alerting us.