We need to level up our understanding of video games

Gaming has a reputation for warping young people's minds, but the data doesn't back this up, says Dr Peter Etchells

video games teachers data not as bad as you think

How often have you cursed the creators of Fortnite, Call of Duty and the like? 

When you have a class full of students who’d rather be flossing, waging Modern Warfare, or simply sleeping after a long night of gaming than engaging with lessons, it’s easy to do. 

And when the World Health Organisation classifies gaming disorder as an addiction, it’s even easier. 

Yet, according to Dr Peter Etchells – a reader in psychology and science communication at Bath Spa University and author of the book Lost In A Good Game: why we play computer games and what they can do for us – the picture is far more complex than it may appear.

“One of the annoying things that came out of that announcement around gaming disorder is that, if you look at the science behind it, we don't really know how many people are addicted to video games, but it's going to be a very, very, very low number,” he says on the latest episode of the Tes Podagogy podcast.

“So, the first thing to say is that if you're worried about your kids playing video games, chances are they're probably not addicted to it.”


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A big part of the problem, Etchells suspects, is that gaming isn’t well understood by those who don’t do it. 

“If you don't play video games and you watch somebody playing them, it looks like a really jarring experience,” he continues. “It looks like they're completely absorbed by this thing and there's nothing else that's relevant to them around them. So, it looks as though it's not good for you, like it’s unwholesome in some way. 

“But if you're actually playing the games, you might be talking to people around the world or playing with friends. It's a very different social experience.”  

And the difficulty for adults trying to engage with games is that they have a “high bar to entry”, he explains. He compares it with films: whereas you can easily turn on the TV and watch something together, getting into gaming requires wires and wi-fi and updates and controllers, and then actually playing a game, which can be tricky. 

Moral panics

It’s in this lack of familiarity, Etchells goes on, that media scare stories about the dangers of the medium can thrive, particularly when it comes to the relationship between violent games and violent behaviour. 

Just two months ago, Donald Trump linked mass shootings to video games in a press conference where he said the US must “stop the glorification of violence in our society” including “the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace”. 

A hashtag #VideogamesAreNotToBlame quickly spread across Twitter in response, and researchers pointed out that the numbers simply don’t stack up (with one saying that the links between bananas and suicide are about as conclusive). 

Etchells, too, is frustrated by the constant return to this question of the link between violence and video games.

“It’s tiny, it’s weak, it’s not worth worrying about,” he says. “It's something that has captured the attention of psychologists for about 30 years now. I would say about 90 per cent of psychological research into video games covers this topic, because it's so salient and divisive. 

“But it's deflected away from more interesting questions that we could have been asking about video games – even the basic things about why we play them, what motivates us to play them. There is some good research out there, but not much. 

“I get why people are focused on this. When we have these mass acts of societal violence, usually in the US, it's human nature to want to try and find a reason behind it.

"So, you delve into the perpetrator's past and, because lots of people play video games, it will crop up at some point. So then causal influences are made, usually in the media. 

“Trying to figure out whether there are some people out there for whom playing a certain type of video game, under certain conditions, will mean a higher risk of hurting themselves or hurting somebody else is an important societal question. The problem comes in terms of how you actually try to tackle that question in the lab.”

Technical difficulties

In the podcast, Etchells explains the myriad technical difficulties presented by designing such studies, from the challenge of finding a proxy for violence and aggression without harming participants, to the ways that the data can be sliced to reinforce researchers’ existing ideas.  

As a result of these difficulties, he explains, there is little in the way of reliable, hard-and-fast advice for parents and teachers. Setting strict time limits appears to have a negative effect, while making gaming a shared act can be positive. But, ultimately, his advice is “not to be scared of them”.  

“There's an inherent assumption that video games are unhealthy or unwholesome in themselves, which is not true,” he says. “If you can find games that are culturally meaningful, or speak to you on a personal level, they can be quite powerful experiences. 

“One of the benefits that I talk about in the book is [games’] ability to allow us to explore – what I say in quite a grandiose way – what it means to be human. It allows us to explore different facets of human emotions in a relatively safe space.” 

He also explores other positive benefits, such as the recent British Esports Association championships taking place in schools around the country, offering “an outlet for some students who aren't traditionally sports-minded”. 

“That's not to say that everybody should be playing video games all the time – everything in moderation," he concludes. "But I don't think that they're the big bad that we often make them out to be. We shouldn't be too worried.”

You can listen on the player above or via your podcast platform (including Spotify) – just search for ‘Tes - The Education Podcast’

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