About two billion people across the globe are estimated to play video games. On the off chance that you aren’t a gamer yourself, it is highly likely that there are folks in your social circle who are.
With gaming having become one of the most popular forms of entertainment and a major element of popular culture, one feels the need to seriously consider its impacts on the players and those around them. While there has been speculation about the desensitization effect that violent games tend to have, the popular understanding of video games remains largely stereotypical and shorthanded.
The famous psychologist Albert Bandura conducted a set of experiments in the 1960s, known as the ‘Bobo Doll Experiment’. It was to study the impact of violent media (not particularly games) on children, and it concluded that children who were exposed to the violent media knocked out the Bobo dolls presented to them more violently compared to others. This study along with several others has been a basis for the negative outlook towards the psychological effects of video games.
In this article, I attempt to inspect the psychological impact of video games on the human psyche by taking into account data from various empirical researches.
Video Games and Psychology
Video games not only have an enormous global player-base but also account for a booming industry that generated up to 150 billion USD in 2019. In that sense, video games are a commodity. They are designed with a target audience in mind, with serious regard to how they will respond to and engage with the product. Psychology plays a major role in designing and configuring video games in a way that will entertain, challenge, and fulfill the needs of the users. Before delving into the impact on users, it is necessary to explore the psychological framework of game design.
While a sandbox game like Minecraft is designed to challenge long-term memory by compelling the players to remember specific clues and sequences, racing games such as Need for Speed are designed to challenge working memory, attention, and time management.
Computer researcher Jakob Nielsen laid out a list of tenets that increased usability of an object within the computer interface. These tenets also apply to gaming usability. They include signs and feedbacks (such as in the routing of a key with the forward movement of the character in the game), clarity (ensuring that the instructions are easy to understand), form-function coordination (for example a Bowser, the villain in Mario games, has spikes on his back to denote that if Mario jumps on him, he will lose health), consistency (ensuring similar designs mean similar things) and minimal workload (steps taken to ensure that the game is challenging but not psychologically or physically stressful).
Emotional design pertains to how mentally engrossing and engaging a game might be. The engagement level of a video game can be evaluated through some concepts from psychology namely: motivation, emotion, and flow.
Motivation to perform any task can be intrinsic (based on the need for inner self-satisfaction) or extrinsic (affined towards achieving an external reward.) Extrinsic motivation is accounted for in games simply by providing points, rewards, “loot”, and also the ability to unlock some level or map that the player finds interesting. These motivate the players to play on for a long time. However, if the game isn’t internally satisfying, nobody will prefer to keep it just for the points and rewards. Thus, there is a need for intrinsic motivation.
As players continue to engage with the game, they increase their competence – which is an intrinsic motivator. With progress in the game, players can shoot more accurately or build faster, which drives them forward. The features to customize the characters in a game with different skins and outfits, among other things, provide a sense of control and autonomy to the user. This is another form of intrinsic motivation.
To excel in any activity, be it gardening or beat-boxing, one needs to be in ‘flow’. Being in flow refers to the state of being in deep concentration and action while performing a task. It is difficult to describe but can be understood, for instance, by observing passionate musicians playing the piano, where they seem to get lost in a world of their music. That is a state of flow.
Video games are designed to keep the players in that state of flow throughout. This is done through improvements in the game interface and balancing of the difficulty level so that the game isn’t painfully hard or laughably simple. In multiplayer games, flow is created through better features of coordination between the players. In online competitive games, it is ensured that players meet someone of their expertise level.
Violence and Aggression
As stated in the introduction, there have been concerns about the ill effects of video games – especially concerning violence. Albert Bandura’s studies have inspired the creation of a theory known as the General Aggression Model (GAM), which says that violent games increase aggressive thoughts and behaviour and cause players to get desensitized towards real-life violence.
A meta-analysis by Anderson and colleagues in 2010 took into account multiple research works done in the previous years to conclude that exposure to violent video games is directly associated with aggressive thoughts and a lack of empathy. However, this merely amounts to a correlation, that is to say, that even with the data that those who indulge in certain games tend to be aggressive; one cannot conclude that the violence is caused by those games.
In 2017, Hilgard and colleagues analyzed the same materials as the previous study and concluded that those games are not as much of a cause for violence as it was earlier thought. They also held that some aggressive thoughts are a result of priming, that is, when exposed to a certain media one tends to think of related things. The effect doesn’t last beyond a few moments after the exposure.
The American Psychological Association (APA), in February 2020, updated their policy to state that real-life criminal acts of violence should not be blamed on video games. However, the media psychology department of the same association displayed staunch disagreements.
Other negative effects
A study conducted by Swing and colleagues over the course of one year with a thousand children participants found a link between exposure to gaming and a lack of concentration in school. Another study by Gentile and colleagues found a correlation between gaming and low grades in exams. Once again, these are correlations and hence cannot be regarded as evidence to conclude that games reduce concentration. This could also be attributed to the displacement effect, which is the idea that the time spent on playing games is not spent on studying and thus the bad grades.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) mentions Internet Gaming Disorder; however, it is under a section that requires further research. In 2017, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it will recognize gaming disorder as a valid mental issue. These generally stem from the excessive use of games to the level of personal loss and health issues and cannot be attributed to just anyone who is passionate about games and plays them regularly.
Some studies also conclude that excessive gaming isn’t a disorder, but a way in which people cope with other issues such as depression that they might be suffering from. A study by Allen and Anderson concluded that a gamer whose needs in life are not satisfied tends to face issues, unlike a gamer who is satisfied in his life.
Several studies have concluded that playing action games is associated with improvements in visual abilities, and hence certain games are used to improve eyesight. A study by Franceschini and colleagues, conducted with 20 children with dyslexia, concluded that children who were made to play action games improved their attention and reading speed.
Various mainstream games such as SimCity or Kerbal Space have an educational mode in which gamers can build freely. Building spaceships and solving puzzles in those games helped students improve their visual abilities as well as maths, and physics skills. A study by Lane and Yi concluded that Minecraft can be used to generate inquisitiveness in the field of science.
A game called MindLight has helped children cope with anxiety. Re-Mission, a game where one shoots cancer cells, has improved the treatment process of cancer patients and has equipped them with better knowledge about what they are suffering from.
The impact of gaming on the human psyche is on disputed grounds. Studies and research lead to conflicting conclusions, and there is rarely an agreement. As we have seen, some of the popular beliefs about the evils of gamings, are merely myths with little bearing with reality. Conversely, some of the praises about the benefits of gamings, sung by the beacons of the gaming industry, are exaggerated and inflated. However, with this article I wish to have presented the nuances and complexities that arise when we begin to critically evaluate the role gaming plays in the lives of people: both its positives and negatives.
Liked Psychological Impact of Video Games? Also read: Artificial Intelligence in Games.
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