Video games - a hazard or a help? | Digital Culture | DW | 24.09.2016
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Digital Culture

Video games - a hazard or a help?

Violent video games often come under fire from people who say gaming turns children into lazy, aggressive loners. But some experts now claim a bit of digital violence can improve your social life - and your grades.

Many well-meaning parents have long tried to convince us that video games are a waste of time at best and actively harmful at worst. This idea appears to be borne out by much research - study after study has shown links between playing violent video games and aggressive impulses in real-life situations. Other researchers have asserted that games can propagate gender or racial stereotypes, or even encourage risky driving, in the case of racing games.

But with more and more people taking up the controller, there is a also a growing body of studies praising digital entertainment for its positive effects.

"Despite the public pronouncements of many politicians, there never really was any good evidence in research to link violent games to violent behavior (and much to the contrary!), and even the evidence linking violent games to milder 'aggressive' behavior was inconsistent at best," psychology professor Christopher Ferguson told DW.

"Unfortunately, politicians and some unscrupulous scholars made claims about links that the data could not support."

More blood on the screen, less on the street

Ferguson, who teaches at the Stetson University in Florida, has published numerous studies and articles on the positive effects of video games, including a study printed last month in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture. In it, Ferguson and his associate John Colwell examined a sample of more than 300 children in the UK, and found no link between violent video games and bullying or antisocial attitudes.

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According to the findings, players of violent video games are actually more likely to take part in civic activities, such as volunteering. Additionally, many of the children said they used video games to deal with stress.

 The US professor also rejected the links between video games and extreme acts of violence, including mass shootings. Starting with the Columbine massacre in 1999, politicians have repeatedly slammed first-person shooters for allegedly encouraging spree killers. A recent deadly rampage in Munich also re-ignited a debate on banning violent video games in Germany.

The links "between video games and violent crime were always in the minds of people who wanted to believe they were there...typically older adults who didn't play video games," Ferguson said.

The rise of video games actually coincided with a large drop in youth violence in the US, with rates of violent crime plummeting more than 80 percent in two decades, according to the researcher.

'Do your gaming before homework'

Scientists around the world found that gaming can help with multitasking and problem solving, boost reflexes and perception speed, and serve as an excellent job training tool.

Researching a sample of more than 12,000 Australian 15-year olds, researcher Alberto Posso from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology also linked playing online video games to a higher academic performance.  Students who play video games did better during math, reading and science tests given within the international PISA assessment framework.

"I find that students that spend more time playing video games score higher in all three tests, while those that spend a lot of time on social networks score lower. The difference that playing games makes is small, but statistically significant," Posso told DW.

"Basically, people that play games almost every day score about 4 percent above the average," he added.

While the research does not offer a definitive explanation of this link, Posso claims it is possible that gaming "may be improving cognitive skills by asking players to solve puzzles and think hard through problems."

In turn, people who spend too much time on social media scored 4 percent below the mean.

"This may be because students that spend a lot of time on social networks are already not academically inclined," he told DW.

"Alternatively, it could mean that social networking is a waste of time, and while gaming is also a leisure activity that we do to burn time, social networking is unlikely to be pushing kids to train their brains. Instead, social networks require people to engage superficially with each other."

Walking the trenches

At the large Gamescom fair in Cologne last month, heavy-hitting gaming companies showcased their new virtual reality (VR) hardware, praising it as the next step in the evolution of entertainment.

The same technology could also be used as "a brilliant way to learn," VR pioneer Patrick O'Luanaigh claims.

Listen to audio 29:59

Spectrum Special - Gamescom 2016

"VR is going to be great for education," he told DW's Gabriel Borrud. "If you want to learn about what life was like in WWI trenches, what better way than to actually have 20 minutes in the classroom when you can be there, look around, see and hear and feel it? You are going to learn so much more."

O'Luanaigh acknowledged that immersing yourself too deeply in a digital fantasy could be risky, but added it was no different from other forms of entertainment.

"If you spend your entire life on the phone, it is going to be bad for your eyesight. If you spend your entire life watching television, you are going to get obese," he said. "It's about balancing."

Social gamers

The US researcher Christopher Ferguson also claims that gaming works similarly to any other hobby, and can be quite beneficial for people who like and enjoy it.

"For some people, violent games are the ideal platform for reducing that day-to-day stress, and they can be quite effective," Ferguson told DW. Surprisingly enough, he says, video games are also "very effective at developing social relationships, even more so for individuals who may struggle with social skills in real life."

"They can help us meet needs...such as social needs, the need for autonomy, or to feel like you can make your own decisions, or the need to feel competent at something...needs that may be hard to get met in real life on a day-to-day basis," he said. 

Like O'Luanaigh, however, Ferguson also recommends balancing gaming with other life responsibilities.

"If you are skipping school or work, or hanging our with your friends or romantic partner to play games, it might be time to dial it back a bit."

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