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Are Video Games Dangerous?

For many years now, researchers have been trying to prove that video games are bad. Much of the attention has focused on the violent content of some of the games, and many dozens of studies have been done in attempts to prove that playing violent video games causes real-world violence. This past year, the US Supreme Court was faced with the task of evaluating that research, in the case of Brown versus Entertainment Merchants Association. After much testimony and study, the court concluded, "Studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively." In 2010, the Australian government - faced with petitions to ban or restrict video games with violent content - reached a similar conclusion after evaluating all of the evidence. And social scientists who have scrutinized the studies and conducted meta-analyses of them have also come to that conclusion (see The Many Benefits for Children of Playing Video Games).

Perhaps the most well-designed research study to date aimed at finding a causal effect of video game violence on real-world violence is that by Christopher Ferguson and his colleagues, at Texas A&M International University.1 Ferguson's group followed a sample of 165 young people over a three-year period, assessing their video game play and various other aspects of their lives. They found no relationship at all between exposure to violent video games and real-world violence committed by these young people. They did find, however, that their subjects' real-world violence was rather strongly predicted by the real-world violence they were exposed to in their daily lives. Kids whose parents or friends were violent were, no surprise, significantly more likely to engage in real violence themselves than were kids whose parents and friends were not violent. Video gaming, no matter how "violent" the game, had no effect at all. Ferguson's study and many others lead to the conclusion that, while real-world violence causes more real-world violence, pretend violence does not.

In my last essay, I outlined some of the social and cognitive benefits that young people experience from playing video games. Far from being isolating, video games generally draw young people together and help them learn to get along with one another. Far from being cognitively stultifying, video games - especially the newer, online multiplayer games - are extraordinarily challenging to players' mental powers and promote cognitive development. Now, however, I want to take on the question of "video game addiction." Next to claims about violence, claims about addiction have accounted for most of the bad press that video games have received.

The flawed analogy between gambling addiction and "video game addiction"

Addiction is a word that is used in a variety of ways, but generally it refers to a compulsive drive to take some substance or engage in some activity that is clearly not good for us and may even be ruining our lives. The clearest examples of addiction, of course, are chemical addictions, where people become physiologically dependent on some chemical - such as alcohol, nicotine, or heroin - and experience painful or debilitating withdrawal symptoms without it. But increasingly, and with some good reason, psychologists have begun to apply the term addiction to harmful behaviors that seem to become compulsive even though no chemical is consumed. Perhaps the best example of this is addictive gambling.

Many people suffer - and their families do too - because they can't seem to stop gambling. They gamble away all of their money, and then they borrow and gamble more and go deeply into debt; and then, when they can't borrow any more, they might steal and gamble that away, too, in a desperate, doomed attempt to get out of debt and save themselves and their families from ruin. People who feel compelled to gamble may do it because they see no other possible route out of their debts and/or because of the thrill that comes whenever they win, which motivates them to seek that thrill again.

Many if not most researchers who support the concept of video game addiction draw an analogy between video game playing and gambling. In fact, much of the research purporting to assess the prevalence of video game addiction - including the much-touted recent study conducted in Singapore2 - has employed the same questionnaire that is used to assess the prevalence of gambling addiction, changing only the word "gambling" to "video gaming." The analogy may be tempting to people who don't know much about video gaming. From a distance, playing a video game looks a little like gambling at a video screen in a casino. But think of the differences!

First of all, most gambling games - especially the ones that people become addicted to - are pure games of chance (for all except the very few who figure out some way to cheat). They are rigged in such a way that over the long run you will always lose, but in the short run you will sometimes win. There is excellent research indicating that the random, unpredictable nature of these rewards operates on the brains of some people to promote behavior that might reasonably be called addictive.3 The irrational "thinking" that accompanies the behavior and cannot be refuted is this: "The very next time I pull the lever I could hit the jackpot, so I'll pull it one more time." And then one more time, and one more time, and one more time, and so on.

In contrast, video games are games of skill. They are like chess or any other game in which success depends on perseverance, intelligence, practice, and learning, not chance. The rewards are not random; they are earned. To move up to the next level you have to work hard. Moreover, the rewards in video games, as in chess, are purely in-game rewards (unless you are competing in a tournament for prize money). They are rewarding only because they signal mastery. Winning in these games doesn't produce real-world riches; and, more to the point, failing in these games doesn't lead to debt. This is why video games and chess are truly play, while gambling is not.

It's hard to imagine why anyone with a grain of intelligence would spend lots of time gambling unless something irrational was driving him or her to it. Considered as a game, gambling is just dumb. It requires no skill or intelligence whatsoever. You just keep doing the same stupid thing over and over again and sometimes you win and usually you don't. There's no legitimate sense of mastery. I can imagine some healthy people - who have extra cash to throw away and can't think of anything better to do with it - gambling occasionally, just as a lark; but to spend hours a week at gambling is almost by definition pathological. So, it is reasonable to posit that otherwise intelligent people who spend lots of time gambling must have some sort of irrational compulsion to do it, for which the term "addiction" may be an appropriate label.

Not so for video games or chess or other games that depend on skill and knowledge. The more you play these, the more skill and knowledge you gain, and the better you get at the game (and at anything else that uses similar skills or knowledge). You learn from your mistakes, and the more you play, the better you get. So, playing these games a lot does not necessarily imply addiction; it just means that you are really into the game and enjoy it and are trying to get better at it.

Some researchers have based their claim for the addictive nature of video gaming on brain research. Yes, indeed, functional brain imaging studies have shown that certain so-called "pleasure pathways" in the brain light up when gamblers hit the jackpot, and these same pathways also light up when video gamers achieve some goal within the game. Well, of course they do! If they didn't, that would just mean that hitting the jackpot or achieving success in a game isn't pleasurable. Everything that is pleasurable is so because of activity in pleasure centers of the brain.

The teams of psychologists and psychiatrists who create the official list of psychological disorders for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association, after careful study, decided to add gambling addiction to the next edition of the manual, but decided not to add video game addiction, despite much pressure from practitioners who would like a new disorder to treat. I think they made the right decision in both cases.

Still, of course, some people let their dedication to video gaming - or to chess, or to skiing, or to anything else - interfere with other aspects of their life, and that can be a problem. Lots of us need to learn time management, especially as we reach adulthood, in order to do what we want to do and still fulfill our obligations to others. But, let's not stigmatize any of this by calling it an addiction. Let's just call it a time management problem and figure out constructive ways to deal with it.

In some cases, though, great amounts of time playing video games (or doing any other single thing) can be evidence of something missing in a person's life

In some cases people engage in an activity not just because of their enjoyment of it, but also because it is an escape from something painful in their lives or is the only route available to them to satisfy basic psychological needs. This can occur for adults as well as children. The activity that seems to become obsessive might be video gaming, or it might be something else. For instance, some adults devote far more time to their careers than they otherwise might, because that allows them to avoid an unpleasant family environment. Some kids say they play video games at least partly as a means of escape, and some say they do so because it is the only realm of activity in which they feel free.4 In an age in which children are often not allowed to play freely outdoors, and in which they are more or less constantly directed by adults, the virtual world of video games is for some the only realm where they are allowed to roam free and explore. If they were allowed more autonomy in the real world, many of them would spend less time at video games.

So, if your child or another loved one seems obsessed about video games and unhappy outside of the games, don't jump to the conclusion that the games are cause of the unhappiness. Instead, talk with your loved one and try to find out what might be missing or wrong in other aspects of his or her life and whether or not you can help to solve that problem.

1 C. Ferguson, C. San Miguel, A. Garza, J. Jerabeck. "A longitudinal test of video game violence influences on dating and aggression: A 3-year longitudinal study of adolescents." Journal of Psychiatric Research, 2011.

2 D. Gentile, H. Choo, A. Liau, T. Sim, D. Li, D. Fung, & A. Khoo (2011). Pathological video game use among youths: A two-year longitudinal study. Pediatrics, 127, e319-e329.

3 I describe some of this research in my textbook: P. Gray (2011). Psychology, 6th edition. pp 194-195.

4 (a) Olson, C. K. (2010). Children's motivation for video game play in the context of normal development. Review of General Psychology, 14, 180-187; (b) Stevens et al. (2008). "In-game, in-room, in-world: reconnecting video game play to the rest of kids' lives. pp 41-66 in K. Salen (Ed.), The ecology of games: Connecting youth, games, and learning. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation series on digital media and learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor of psychology at Boston College, is a specialist in developmental and evolutionary psychology. He is the author of an introductory textbook, Psychology, and Free to Learn, a book about children's natural ways of educating themselves, and how adults can help (Basic Books, 2013). For more information and articles, visit his blog Freedom to Learn.