Barely a week goes by without a team of psychologists trying to ascertain the exact effect that video games have upon the dosage of chili sauce people will serve another person in a laboratory environment (it has real-life relevance, honestly), among other questions. This week has been no exception, as two new widely-publicized pieces of research have entered the headlines claiming very different findings.
As we’ve pointed out on Game Rant before, the news media’s treatment of such research tends to revolve around three simple principles: omission, oversimplification and sensationalism. Months or even years of work and pages upon pages of complex and nuanced results are boiled down into a short, bold claim that will grab the average reader’s attention. The headline is then followed by a few paragraphs summing everything up in simple, clear terms – even when the study’s results were neither simple nor clear.
When two pieces of research collide, this can sometimes end up generating some very mixed messages. For example, according to the latest headlines, “Playing Videogames for Less than an Hour Linked to Better Social Skills,” but research also suggests that “Violent Video Games ARE Linked to Crime.” So: Allow your children to play video games and they will probably end up in prison; but on the bright side they’ll be able to get on with the other inmates quite well.
Clearly these findings warrant a slightly closer look. Despite claims from some psychologists and researchers that there’s a strong consensus on the side of video games being beneficial OR harmful, the truth is the research on the effects of video games has produced wildly differing results. The matter is made worse by the fact that the chances of publication are biased towards studies that do find some effect, meaning studies that find no effect often end up forgotten (and not making headlines).
The argument that violent video games are creating a generation of violent criminals (despite the consistently falling violent crime rates of the past few decades) is oft-repeated, with the latest headline derived from lengthy research carried out by Dartmouth College. The study’s co-authors, James Sargent and Professor Hull, interviewed 5000 randomly-selected adolescents through a series of telephone questionnaires spanning four years.
The aim was to find the effect of “mature-rated, risk-glorifying” (MRRG) games on risky, deviant, “sensation seeking” or “rebellious” behaviors.
The three games selected for study were Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto III and Spider-Man 2. According to the study’s hypothesis, such games would have a harmful effect on subjects’ behavior, “in part because they encourage identification with a deviant protagonist.” (Editor’s note: At this point we double-checked to make sure that J. Jonah Jameson was not listed as a co-author of the study).
Researchers found a statistically significant link between playing mature-rated video games from a young age and deviant behaviors such as smoking, binge drinking, getting into fights, unprotected sex and delinquency when participants reached their late teens. That’s definitely a frightening sentence – especially if you happen to be a parent – but it becomes a lot less terrifying with just a few extra details.
One of the most important details is the “effect size,” which determines the extent to which playing a violent video game is associated with the behaviors listed above. For example, adolescents who had played GTA III in their younger years were more likely to report fighting when surveyed four years later. But the effect size was only 1%, meaning the likelihood of older teens fighting was 99% due to factors other than whether or not they had played GTA III.
Furthermore, the effect size does not mean that there is a causal link between playing GTA III and the likelihood of getting into fights later in life. It could be the case that teens who are naturally predisposed to aggression and confrontation are more likely to take an interest in playing GTA III – and are already more likely to get into fights.
In short, playing GTA III at a young age probably won’t cause kids to end up looking like Charlie Sheen’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off before they even graduate high school. In fact, a little time spent with a video game controller could even end up having a positive effect.
Violent video games might be (potentially) creating a generation of thugs and deviants, but the good news is that playing them in moderation could actually improve children’s happiness and interpersonal skills. New research from the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford has investigated the relationship between the amount of time spent playing video games, and the psychosocial health of children and teens aged 10-15.
Using a sample size of about 5000 UK boys and girls, the study found that around three out of four British children and teens play video games on a daily basis. Among those who spent a moderate amount of time playing video games (1-3 hours daily) there was no observable effect on psychosocial health, but children who spent an hour or less playing every day reported better psychosocial health than those who didn’t play any games at all.
Conversely, playing more than 3 hours of video games every day was linked to a negative effect on psychosocial health, which may be attributable to these children spending more of their free time with video games than with their peers.
Before anyone decides that a simple hour of video gaming every day is enough to turn any child into a permanently cheery social butterfly, it’s important to return to the idea of effect size. In the case of this study, researchers estimated that the effect size for video games on psychosocial health was only around 1.6%. Although this easily qualifies as statistically significant, it means that 98.4% of a child’s psychosocial health will have absolutely nothing to do with the amount of time they spend gaming.
It’s clear that there’s a major difference between statistical significance and practical significance, since even the most attentive parent would probably have trouble gauging whether their child is 1.6% happier from one day to the next. Furthermore, the impact of an hour of gaming can vary drastically depending on which game is being played and how it is being played.
A child who spends an hour sitting alone in their bedroom with a Nintendo 3DS will have a very different experience to a child who plays an hour of Super Smash Bros. in a shared family room with a parent or friend.
Speaking in an interview with Yahoo News the author of the study, Andrew Przybylski, concurred with the recommendation given by a Brock University study into video game effects earlier this year: parents and teachers familiarizing themselves with the games that children are playing (and how long they’re playing them for) is more important than trying to forcibly restrict gameplay time.
It would be foolish to deny that the media we consume helps to inform and shape our thoughts, perceptions, attitudes, moods and even our personalities. One of the dangers of looking too closely at any one effect, however, is losing perspective on just far down the list of determining factors video games are situated compared to major variables like personal relationships, social background, family income, gender and upbringing.
Studies like these are a great way of looking closer at how the hobbies we love affect us in small ways, but it’s essential to think critically about how the numbers on the page translate into a practical impact in real life. Now go forth, and be 1.6% happier than you were before you began reading this article.