Gamers, parents, politicians, and the press often lionize or vilify video games.
The gaming industry is one of the few sectors of the global economy that has continued
to grow during the current global recession, with worldwide sales of over $20 billion
per year and 92 percent of American children playing video games. As with the introduction
of any new medium, video games have come under fire from critics about potential
harms, and also have been praised for potential benefits. News reports continue to
come out with headlines like "Video games are good for children" (Guardian, Feb 12,
2009) or "Video games harm you in 20 minutes" (Daily Mail, Aug 18, 2006). Given the
vested interests in the "good" versus "bad" debate, we need scientific studies to
help us separate fact from opinion.
What is really true about the effects of video games?
The Five Dimensions of Video Game Effects
Ironically, both the proponents and critics of video games are usually correct. They
tend, however, to select different research literatures to make their points. For
example, critics often point to the growing literature about violent game effects,
whereas proponents often point to studies demonstrating that even violent games can
improve some visual attention skills. The problem for parents, educators, game producers,
policy makers, and researchers is that the polarizing rhetoric is damaging, and ultimately
misses the point. Video games are neither "good" nor "bad." How, then, can we best
understand the promise and the hazards associated with video and computer games?
What explains the multiple effects that games have been shown to have?
My analysis of the current research literature on video games is that there are at
least five dimensions along which games can have effects on players.
The amount of game play can have significant effects on learning, both positively
and negatively. For example, many studies document a negative relation between total
amount of play and school performance. However, video games also encourage optimal
"study" habits. The initial playing sessions are often lengthy, as the player begins
to learn the basic skills. This combination of massed practice to build sufficient
initial mastery to play the game, followed by distributed practice over many days
or weeks to prevent forgetting is optimal for developing deep automatic knowledge
structures. Amount also seems to be related to children's physical health, such
as risk of obesity or repetitive stress injuries.
The content of games (whether they are educational, prosocial, or violent) can lead
to "learning," both explicitly (e.g., learning history from Civilization III), and
implicitly (e.g., learning aggressive cognitive scripts and attitudes from Grand
The structure of the games includes the formal features the game includes that can
change learning (e.g., improving visual attention skills, or the ability to get three-dimensional
information out of a two-dimensional representation), and also includes how the learning
environment is structured to facilitate exploration and problem-solving. Thus, if
players practice the learning skills of analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and application
in a game setting, they should become better at those skills.
The context of the games may also change the other effects. For example, if the
game is structured to require or reward teamwork (such as multi-player online games,
or MMORPGs), this could either mitigate or enhance the aggression effect (for example,
although no one has studied this yet). This social context could affect social skills
The mechanics of game play can most easily be thought of as the hand-eye coordination,
as players get better at using the mechanical interfaces with games (although this
is an over-simplification).
Ultimately, I believe that the question of whether video games are "good" or "bad"
is a poor and misleading question. Recognizing that games have effects on multiple
dimensions allows us a way out of this dichotomous thinking. In fact, the same game
can have both perceived positive and negative effects at the same time. For example,
consider a hypothetical situation where a 12-year-old boy spends a lot of time playing
the violent game Grand Theft Auto:
Because he spends a lot of time playing, we might predict poorer school performance;
Because of the violent content, we might predict increased aggressive thoughts, feelings,
and perhaps ultimately, behaviors;
If he plays with other friends online, this might enhance (or mitigate) the violence
effect, and could train teamwork skills;
Because it is both a shooter game and a driving game, we might predict improved 2D
to 3D transfer skills and improved visual attention skills; and
If he plays with a mouse and keyboard, we might predict improved mouse and keyboard
skills (and perhaps improved hand-eye coordination).
Therefore, the simplistic dichotomy of games being "good" or "bad" applies only to
the extent that one focuses only on a specific dimension of a particular game. A
more interesting question to me is, given what we know about the multiple dimensions
on which games have effects, what can parents, educators, and game designers do to
increase the positive effects while minimizing any potential negative effects.
Why should we care about how the “debate” is framed?
Given all of the contradictory claims about whether games are “good” or “bad,” it
is not surprising that parents appear not to pay much attention to the game ratings.
Only 6% of parents report understanding all of the video game ratings, and only
16% say they use the video game ratings every time to decide whether a child may
get or play a video game (Gentile, Maier, Hasson, & de Bonetti, in press). This
is problematic, because high parental monitoring of children's video game habits
is a protective factor for children. When parents use the ratings and set limits
on amount and content, children perform better in school and get into fewer fights
(Anderson, Gentile, & Buckley, 2007; Gentile, Lynch, LInder, & Walsh, 2004).
For more details on this approach:
Gentile, D. A. (in press). The multiple dimensions of video game effects. Child