It seems like gaming and video games have been blamed for societal ills since the medium’s inception. Ever since Death Race—a game where you drive a pixelated car around and score points by running over vaguely-humanoid “gremlins” that play a scream sound when hit—hit arcades in the 1970s, people have been concerned that violent games foster violent real-world behavior. More recently, people have also been concerned that bigoted portrayals of women and minorities in video games encourage players to hold, and presumably act out, bigoted beliefs in the real world. However, from what I can tell, people don’t really focus on the positives of video games.
Yes, that’s right, there are positives: socialization, cognitive improvements, even mental health benefits (note that moderation is key here. Anything taken too far has negative effects—drink too much water and you could die of water intoxication, for instance). More on that later, though.
So, Death Race. It came and went. In the 90s, the blood and gruesome
finishing moves in Mortal Kombat lead to the 1994 creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board and the familiar “E” (the game is appropriate for all ages), “T” (the game contains content inappropriate for those under 13), “M” (the game contains content inappropriate for
those under 17), etc. ratings on video games today—the alternative was that the government would regulate games, which the video game industry didn’t want. The public perception of gamers at the time was essentially “you’re wasting your time and/or a ticking time bomb because of these violent games.” When concerns over violent video games went far enough to reach the Supreme Court, people protested that games are an art form and shouldn’t be censored or banned; this was as recent as 2011, and even in 2019, people including then-President Donald Trump blamed violent video games for the El Paso shooting.
There seems to be a political split on what exactly video games are believed to promote in society; the Right says gun violence, the Left says discriminatory attitudes against women and minorities. In both cases, gamers have reacted by calling out the ignorance and flawed logic underlying those viewpoints. Where non-gamers see random violence, gamers see strategy and tactics (kind of like football or other contact sports; players know that different plays and formations are, well, different, but to me it just looks like running & tackling or evading the other team). To a gamer, particularly with fighting games, the amount of muscle or clothing a character does or doesn’t have just indicates things like “this character can dish out and take a lot of damage, but moves slowly” or “this character has low health and high speed.” Wherever there’s a game critic who focuses on the violence or bigotry players can
perpetrate against fictional women or minorities, there’s a gamer who points out that those same games permit the player to not perform those actions, or who explains the full context behind any violence or bigotry that the player can’t avoid.
Scientists on both sides of the “games cause X” debate have weighed in. Studies concluding that virtual depictions do lead to real-world mimicry have been called out for being unscientifically designed to validate the researchers’ pre-existing conclusions. There are studies that show the opposite—that video game content has no substantial effect on real-world behavior—and even studies that show benefits to playing video games.
For example, action games (the category of games that gets brought up in the media after a tragic shooting) have been shown to improve your ability to distinguish different shades of gray and sort out important stimuli from noise. If you’re playing a fast-paced game, you’ll need to make quick decisions in order to win, and this skill carries over to real life. And strategy games teach you problem-solving skills and the importance of thinking through implications and long-term consequences of your actions.
Fundamentally, games are based on a rule of “learn how to play the game, how to exploit its rules and mechanics for success, or your character will die and you’ll have to start over from the last checkpoint.” Like Bold’s article Gaming is still stigmatized says, games are “learning machines”1—even if it’s not a super-difficult game like Dark Souls or Cuphead where you die thousands of times, you’re learning tenacity and perseverance every time you fail. Any “violent” or “aggressive” behavior exhibited after playing a violent game is short-lived and borne out of frustration at failing to succeed. Dr. Kelli Dunlap, PsyD specializes in the intersection of video games and mental health/illness, and she has this to say:
“The violent video game debate is over 40 years old and has been soundly and repeatedly debunked. There’s not the same robust research around bigotry, but in general what you do in a game doesn’t start popping up in your daily life. Playing Cooking Momma doesn’t make me cook more and Need for Speed hasn’t driven me to drag racing (yet!). What would be more important than the game content is the game community. We know social pressures do have a big impact, especially on teens. So a game that promotes bigotry might attract like-minded people and a fan community could possibly form where that kind of thinking or behavior is reinforced.” In other words, games that promote bigotry attract people who are already bigots; if anything encourages violent or bigoted behavior, it’s the community around a game, not the game itself. Dr. Dunlap says that people point the finger at video games because, “it’s easier to point the finger at ‘The Problem’ than it is to understand and change long-standing, complicated, problematic social systems.” Sensationalist reporting does a lot of the finger-pointing, and the best way to fight bad reporting is with good reporting—from what I can tell, this means don’t jump to whatever conclusion draws the most eyeballs, don’t send a message that being violent or a bigot is a good way to get attention, and look beneath the surface at what factors prompted X or Y negative behavior.
Website Now This News has an educational web miniseries called Learn This. In the episode “How Gaming Benefits Our Mental Health”, on which Dr. Dunlap was a guest, she says that video games have mental and cognitive benefits at a basic level, “Video games allow us to activate parts of our brain that we don’t necessarily get to exercise in day-to-day life, but are really important to our mental wellbeing; things like creative problem-solving, teamwork, collaboration, communication. Different things that allow us to be the hero in our own story. ... We’re driven by achievement and mastery, we wanna be able to ‘do the thing,’ but sometimes we also just need to relax. I went through all this schooling and education to be able to open people up in therapy, to get them to talk about and want to experience and tolerate these feelings that people can just turn on a game and experience in, like, five minutes. To experience the full range of human emotions and to not block out bad emotions and seek out good ones is one of the most therapeutic things that games can do.”2
More than that, games “can help us fight isolation and loneliness,” hence the COVID-related spike in online gaming—players were connecting with people virtually when they had to be apart physically. Online gaming gives the anxious player a way to practice social skills in a consequences-free environment; if an interaction with other players goes poorly, you can just log off and probably never see those people again. In addition, Dr. Dunlap says that games are a “projection tool. We put ourselves into the characters that we create, and we really get to explore all aspects of ourselves.” Already, digital and analog role-playing games (RPGs) are being used for therapeutic purposes, either as a source of fun and relaxation or directly as part of therapy treatment protocols.
To hopefully put an end to the debate, video games don’t influence violent or bigoted behavior, and they have positive benefits to our cognition, social interaction, and ability to persevere or “Stay in the Game.” Calling yourself a “gamer” may come with connotations of being a hardcore competitive player within the gaming community, or a socially inept and lonely “loser” without, but everyone plays games. Chess, Monopoly, Candy Crush, Call of Duty; some of those are more casual and less competitive than others, but they’re all games. As Dr. Dunlap says, “Reminding people that games are games, no matter the format, is a way to find connection and commonality. And, at the end of the day, if someone is going to judge you because you play games, it’s likely not worth the effort to try and change their perception.”