by Toni Grosvenor

I’m sure at least the majority of you are familiar with this question, and the massive debate it has sparked throughout the years. You might have even had to deal with the gruelling lectures from your parents about the nonsensical way your computer or console transforms your brain into a mindless mush, or how every act of teenage gun violence in America is a direct result from hours and hours of flicking controls to shoot fictional NPCs. But, is the link between video games and violence really reliable, or is it just another reminder that correlation does not equal causation? Well, there’s no need to quarrel with your parents any longer, Gamers, because in this month’s edition of Let’s Get Brainy, I will be investigating why video games are a unique variety of storytelling compared to books and television, the effects of video game addiction, as well as finally resolving the heated debate of video games and violence once and for all!

First and foremost, video games are far different from many other types of media that people enjoy, and it seems like that ultimately comes down to one crucial aspect of the medium: Agency. The ability to fully interact with the characters, the setting and the plot of the game, allows players control over what occurs in the adventure they immerse themselves in. This increases with every click of a button, and as an alternative to the comparable passiveness of reading or watching a programme, players learn game mechanics that can arguably have real world advantages. 

An example of this is in the fourth chapter of a 2018 platformer called Celeste, a game that tells the story of a woman named Madeline who struggles with her mental health and is attempting to climb a Canadian mountain that is inspired by the real Mount Celeste in Vancouver. Towards the end of the chapter entitled “Golden Ridge”, Madeline and her friend, Theo (whom you meet in the first chapter of the platformer) become trapped in a gondola, and not the kind that swims around the flooding Italian city of Venice. This results in Madeline experiencing a panic attack, and requires players to try and calm her down; Theo recommends that we attempt to control Madeline’s breathing by making the feather slowly float up and down in synchronisation with its steadying rhythm, which successfully results in ending the panic attack. 

We can argue then that the high player agency in this scene enables the player to learn not only the game mechanics to calm Madeline in future scenes, but to also calm a real life anxiety attack, as deep breathing actually stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (the branch of the nervous system that dominates the “Rest and Digest” conditions whilst the sympathetic nervous system dominates during the “Fight or Flight” conditions), and the vagus nerve, which is responsible for bringing your heart rate back to normal after a particularly stressful situation. Undoubtedly, the high levels of interactivity and control that the player has in this scene further cements the coping technique into their brains, as active media allows the player to either consciously or unconsciously learn this strategy, which is an ability that is extremely specific to the medium of video games. Hundreds, if not thousands of people who, like Celeste’s protagonist, struggle with anxiety, have found a valuable calming technique in this little five minute cutscene.

Behavioural research in this area has found that video games have both positive and negative effects on the brain. For instance, two studies both conducted within the same month by the American Psychological Association (APA), provide evidence as to how video games, especially video games where the story is predicated on violence, are connected to increased aggression. The first study involved 227 participants, all college students, who completed a measurement of how aggressive they were, and then reported both their video game habits in addition to their actual aggressive behaviours in their recent pasts. The results of the study showed that, according to Anderson – the lead author of the APA article and from Iowa State University – “Students who reported playing more violent video games in junior and high school engaged more in aggressive behaviour,” and “We also found that amount of time spent playing video games in the past were associated with lower academic grades in college.”

The second study only consisted of 210 college students, who either played a violent video game (Wolfenstein 3D), or a non-violent video game (Myst). After a short span of time, the students who played Wolfenstein punished an opponent, receiving a noise blast with varying intensity, for a longer period of time in comparison to those who played Myst. Dr Anderson eventually reached a result that identifies a correlation between video games and violence, as he stated that, “Violent video games provide a forum for learning and practising aggressive solutions to conflict situations. In the short run, playing a violent video game appears to affect aggression by priming aggressive thoughts. Longer-term effects are likely to be longer lasting as well, as the player learns and practises new aggression-related scripts that can become more and more accessible for use when real-life conflict situations arise.”

On the contrary, studies have also proven that video games can bring out several benefits for your brain. For example, video games increase the amount of grey matter in your brain, which is associated with muscle control, memories, perception and spatial navigation, thus heightening these functions and boosting brain connectivity. Past research involving children also concluded that children who played video games were more likely to have better social skills and build better relationships with peers due to the collaborative nature of numerous genres of gaming, which seems to contradict the studies which suggest otherwise.

However, irrespective of the truth behind the link between video games and violence, it is difficult to deny that addiction of any kind is often a pit of despair which you do not want to fall down, no matter how innocent, innocuous and enjoyable it initially seems; video games are no exception. Despite the fact that it hasn’t been classified in the DSM-5 (the most up to date edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is a book that American psychiatrists consult when diagnosing patients with psychiatric disorders), the World Health Organisation added “Gaming Disorder” to their medical reference book in 2018, “International Classification of Diseases.” The best treatment for a gaming addiction is to see a therapist, as you would with any addiction, as a type of therapy called CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help you alter your thoughts and behaviours, to minimise the impulse to keep playing a game for hours on end, and so the issue doesn’t escalate and subsequently result in strained relationships, poor academic performace and other, more damaging mental health problems.

Symptoms of video game addiction include:

  • Excessively thinking about gaming
  • Feeling bad when you cannot play
  • Needing to spend more and more time playing to feel good
  • Not being able to quit or even play less
  • Not wanting to do other things you used to like
  • Having problems at work, school or home because of excessive gaming
  • Continuing to play despite these problems
  • Lying to people close to you about how much time you spend playing
  • Using gaming to ease bad moods and feelings

In conclusion, there are advantages and disadvantages to playing video games, but it is something that should be approached with caution. Despite the fact that violent games can cause increased aggression, this does not necessarily mean that the person playing it will commit a serious, violent offence even after years of playing. In addition, although many people hypothesise that the increased player agency will teach the player how to act violently in conflict situations, player agency, as Celeste explicitly demonstrates, can help players empathise and learn valuable life skills that many other forms of media cannot teach as effectively. Furthermore, the structural changes your brain undergoes, like the increased amount of grey matter in your brain, have tremendous benefits in regards to muscle control and spatial navigation, just to name a couple of benefits. Therefore, whether you’re just a casual gamer or an enthusiast, as long as you balance the time you spend invested in these pixelated, incredible universes with the time you spend living in this equally incredible one, it won’t harm your brain to play every once in a while. If you do think that you or someone you know may be struggling with video game addiction, though, don’t be afraid to seek help. 

Further reading:

Below are links to all of the video game scenes, as well as the studies I have referenced in this article. Be sure to stay happy and healthy, and tuned to read the next edition of Let’s Get Brainy!

Celeste panic attack scene – https://youtu.be/p84U0Yum-Jg 

APA studies – https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2000/04/video-games 

Positive effects of video games – https://www.geico.com/living/home/technology/9-reasons-to-give-video-games-a-try/#:~:text=Video%20games%20can%20increase%20your%20brain’s%20gray%20matter.&text=Studies%20have%20shown%20that%20playing,perception%2C%20and%20spatial%20navigation.) 

Video game addiction symptoms and treatments – https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/video-game-addiction