Video Gaming: Harmless Hobby or Health Hazard?

It may come as a shock to realize that video-gaming is almost 50 years old! The first such game was the “tennis for two” oscilloscope, which debuted in 1958.

Since then video games have proliferated in number, type and media. These games can be played on TVs, PCs, dedicated consoles, arcade machines, mobile phones and even some calculators. The three largest producers of games also happen to be the main customers, the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom, in that order. Males in the age range of 15-25 represent the most rapidly expanding number of gamers but, with the advent of more “communal” online games involving relationships, the number of female gamers is growing significantly.

There are undisputed benefits of video games both in treating illnesses and in certain training situations in the fields of aviation, education, medicine and the military. Flight simulation is one example. Also, certain games can be helpful in the treatment of diabetes, asthma and phobias.

Violence in Video Games a Cause of Aggressive and Violent Behavior 

At the other end of the scale, the increasingly graphic and gratuitous violence of some games has led to various attempts—most notably in the U.S.—to proscribe certain types of violence: such as torture, mutilation, cannibalism and sexual violence. There is currently a system run by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) that has seven ratings for video games from EC—Early Childhood, to AO—Adults Only.  Some argue that this system is overdue for review as it is more than a decade old.

An impressive body of research dating back as far as the 1970s links various kinds of exposure to violence in the media to aggressive and violent behavior. Independent research indicates that there is a similar effect from violent video games that includes a certain element of social withdrawal. Not altogether surprisingly, research commissioned by the gaming industry itself tends to deny or minimize these effects. Most reports, however, conclude that the increase in aggression is particularly noticeable in children.

Is Heavy Gaming an Addiction? 

Heavy gamers are defined in the recent “Report of the Council on Science and Public Health” [Khan, Kanof, 2007] as those playing more than two hours per day. Around 90 percent of American teenagers play video games and as many as 15 percent (5 million) may be addicted, according to this report to the American Medical Association (AMA). The online multiplayer gaming “universe,” however—playing what are technically referred to as MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role playing games) —is a group whose players are predominantly adults. (60 percent are over 19, Griffiths, Davies & Chappell, 2003).

Still, the age groups spanning children to young post-teen adults consume the most hours playing video games; with research suggesting that this peaks around the early 20s and reduces somewhat thereafter.

The recent science and public health report to the AMA—debated in June 2007—went so far as to recommend that Internet and video-gaming addiction be formally regarded as a disorder. Although doctors backed away from using the addiction label, generally agreeing that more research was necessary, this does not mean that there are no other voices warning of addiction-like symptoms. Another study commented: “the findings relating to excessive play here suggest that some online gamers may be experiencing addictive-like experiences similar to findings in other types of video game play” (Griffiths, Davies & Chappell, 2003).

Gaming Violence as Entertainment: The Results Are In 

As for the effects of playing violent video games, another research paper states unequivocally that “exposure to violent games is significantly linked to increases in violent behaviour . . .” with a definite link to serious and real-life aggression (Anderson, 2003). In particular, this research identifies five areas where “exposure to violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, increases arousal, and decreases helping behaviour.” It also cites 10 documented examples of gratuitous violence in the U.S.—including mass-murders on college campuses, as well as other crimes in Japan and Germany—all perpetrated by avid players of violent video games.

Further, adolescents are far more attracted to violence than adults and are far more likely to be excessive gamers. Thus the young are likely to be—simultaneously—both victims and perpetrators.

As never before in history, violence is an entertainment staple for many—in all its many media manifestations. In the West, we live in increasingly aggressive and savage societies where violent entertainment and violent actions feed one another, yet are never satiated. A rather poetic biblical description seems to capture that cycle:

"Forge a chain! For the land is full of bloody crimes and the city is full of violence" (Ezekiel 7:23, English Standard Version throughout).

The link between video game exposure and aggressive behavior is much stronger than the evidence that exposure to passive smoking at work is causative of lung cancer. Impressionable children risk taking up the notion—implicit and explicit in violent video games—that aggressive, brutal behavior is a viable and even desirable means of solving conflicts (Robinson, Wilde, Navracruz, Haydel, Varady, 2001).

There is more than enough robust evidence to warn people, particularly parents, to be very cautious about allowing themselves or their children to be drawn into a world that can be very difficult to retreat from. Considering the flickering screens in those otherwise darkened rooms where these games are played, there is some irony in a statement about the mission of Jesus Christ:

"To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace" (Luke 1:79).