Issues- VG Effects

The Five Dimensions of Video Game Effects

The Issue

 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?

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 Theft Auto).

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 as well.

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).