A New Book Aims for a Smarter Conversation About Video Games and Behavior

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Photo: Henrik Sorensen/(c) Henrik Sorensen

We’re still debating video games in a pretty superficial way. Sure, Jack Thompson–like figures are on the wane — it’s increasingly uncommon for broad, radical arguments linking video games to real-world violent behavior to be taken seriously. But there’s still a lot of scaremongering, and it’s not just occurring on hyperventilating cable news. Back in August, for example, the American Psychological Association released a statement on the connection between violent video games and aggression that many researchers who study these issues found to be oversimplified and lacking (more on that in a bit).

At this point, so many people play video games in so many different ways (think about the difference between Bejeweled and intense first-person shooters) that it’s clearly time for more complex theories about how this multi-billion-dollar industry affects those who partake in its wares. That’s what video-game researchers Drs. Rachel Kowert and Thorsten Quandt are hoping to deliver in their recently released book, The Video Game Debate: Unravelling the Physical, Social, and Psychological Effects of Video Games. In co-editing the book’s collection of articles, which cover subjects ranging from the effects of educational games to game addiction, as well as co-authoring the concluding chapter, Kowert and Quandt sought to expose readers to the increasingly vibrant academic conversation going on about gaming.

Kowert spoke to Science of Us via email about the book and the broader video-game debate.

When it comes to human behavior in general, it seems there’s a general appetite for simple cause/effect stories that leave out moderating factors. That’s muddied the water a bit in terms of the messages the public gets about video games and their effects, right?
That is absolutely true! The relationship between video games and their effects is almost always discussed as a direct cause/effect relationship. The assumption is that there is one kind of “blank slate” player and the input from the game affects them all in a similar way (for example, games with violent content make players more aggressive or violent). This is an oversimplified (and erroneous) way to put it. People are multifaceted, games are multidimensional, and together the effects are varied, in both positive and negative ways.

Let’s take factors like unemployment or loneliness — how should we weave them into the story about video games and their effects? Is it simply that if you’ve got a lot of bad stuff going on in your life, video games are more likely to have a negative influence of some sort or another?
When discussing the social implications of online video-game play, researchers tend to fit in one of two camps: They either argue that online game play leads to poorer social outcomes because it displaces time spent in offline social situations (i.e., social displacement theory) or that online game players are less socially adept (i.e., more socially anxious, lonely, etc.) to begin with and it is this lack of sociability that draws them into online gaming (i.e., social compensation theory). The Cycle Model of Use argues that these two theories may not be mutually exclusive. That is, individuals who are lonely, anxious, or socially inept may be more drawn to online game play (i.e., to compensate for social difficulties) and through play may experience an exacerbation of their symptoms due to social displacement.

There is preliminary scientific support for this model, but more research is needed to validate its applicability, particularly among non-problematic (i.e., nonaddicted) game-playing populations. However, for individuals who are lonely due to social isolation or lack of social opportunity, online games could be a fantastic tool to connect them with others and alleviate loneliness.

And those social benefits are pretty frequently overlooked by researchers and pundits, right?
The positive influences of online social communities is the most overlooked area of the research. Gaming communities can be a great source of social support that enrich both the online and offline lives of players. It is not only a common misconception to discredit the value of online friends, but also to not acknowledge that the line between offline and online is fluid. As online gaming communities, such as those associated with a specific game or communities like Twitch, become more popular, online friends become offline friends and vice versa.

What do you think of the APA’s recent statement about a link between video games and aggression?
It’s quite a hot topic within the game-studies community. In fact, back in 2013, over 200 scholars signed an open letter asking the APA to retire their policy statements on media violence. Unfortunately, no known effort was made to address the concerns discussed in the open letter that the APA had previously made “strong conclusions on the basis of inconsistent or weak evidence” and the task force moved forward, eventually publishing the August statement. After the release of the statement, many scholars in the community expressed their disappointment that the group of individuals who were assigned to the task force were ones whose own research programs or personal views on violent content presented conflicts of interest. In the end, only a handful of studies were examined in the analysis, and the conclusions drawn seem to reinforce the personal views of those on the task force.

I am not saying there is not a link between violent-video-game play and aggression; in fact, small, short-term spikes in aggression after violent-game play have been well-documented. However, it needs to be made clear that playing video games with violent content has not been linked to increases in violent or aggressive behavior or long-term rises in aggression.

While The Video Game Debate … does not present a meta-analysis like the task-force report, the review of the violent-video-game-effects research in the book provides a more thorough and informative look at the research as it examines a wide range of work in this area and looks at both sides of the argument.

What do you see as some of the most important unanswered questions about video games and behavior?
As you mentioned before, I think there is still a lot to understand about the mediators between the relationships between video-game play and behavioral outcomes. A person is not a blank slate. If and how media will influence them is filtered by their individual characteristics — age, gender, personality factors, etc. As researchers become more mindful of this, we will start to get a better understanding of the cause-and-effect relationships that are so often discussed anecdotally.

Any other questions you think I should have asked or points you want to make?
Video games are almost always discussed in the popular media in terms of their presumed negative influences — for instance, links between violent video games and aggression or online gaming and social ineptitude. While too much of anything can absolutely be detrimental (for instance, video-game addiction comes with a range of negative consequences), nothing is all black or all white. The sooner we can all agree on that the sooner we can begin to shift our research towards video games’ potential to positively influence players and their daily lives.