Over the last two weeks I’ve seen articles in the press about scientific studies showing that computer games increase aggression and that they decrease aggression, that they improve concentration and that they give you a short attention span. The only conclusion I can come to is that we need to stop picking on computer games.
First let’s have a reality check on this aggression thing. It may well be that playing violent computer games does increase aggression, but I’m waiting to see the study that compares that to playing violent sports. So it’s bad that a computer game stimulates the aggression centers in the brain, but good when rugby league does the same? The only real difference I can see is that one of those two also trains the player’s body to do real damage. It is strange that you don’t read of professional video-gamers beating up their girlfriends or strangers in drunken frenzies, but it’s depressingly easy to find the same stories about professional sportsmen. So maybe before we pick on computer games like they are some new way of strangely influencing our youth, we need to literally compare them to real-world games and sports. Or even, and here’s a thought, to the effect of watching violent sport.
Playing computer games is something that should be viewed through the same lens as any other activity. Too much gaming is bad for you, so is too much surfing or playing rugby, or reading or, well, anything. There are some people who fail to maintain a balance and the activity causes them problems, but for most people that’s simply not the case. Some people who play computer games do violent things – that does not prove causation. Reports of people going on shooting sprees in the USA having played popular games are statistically fatuous – how many mass shooters have driven cars in heavy traffic, how many people playing the same game have done nothing?
Look, even without the benefit of an MRI scan it’s obvious that games do affect your brain, why would anyone play them if that wasn’t the case? But so does reading a good book, watching a movie, or screaming invective at the referee who just awarded a penalty against your team. Some computer games are ugly and deal with unsavoury themes, some are misogynist, and violent – but, again, so are many other things we seem to find acceptable and never examine in detail. Once again I’ll point to the activities of male sporting teams.
All of this is really indicative of a wider issue: Why is there all this attention on computer games? The simple answer is because a lot of people spend a lot of time playing computer games. A generation ago that wasn’t the case, and so society’s ills must be caused by the new thing. Hasn’t it ever been so? Parents in the 50 and 60s saw rock music, something they could not engage with, tearing down the society they loved and understood and railed against it. But as the demographic shifts, that scary new thing becomes the much-loved old thing. So to with computer games; as the demographic of players shifts steadily upward, and it is, it becomes harder to sustain the idea that gaming will ruin our children and society.
That day is clearly not here yet though. And in the meantime it would do everyone a service if researchers and the media started putting gaming into a context that validly compares it to other activities. When I see one of those brightly coloured brain scans with an arrow pointing to an aggression center for a gamer sitting side-by-side with the same scan for a rugby league player, that’s when I’m going to start taking concerns about gaming and aggression seriously.