Up until 1890 humanity was certain (mostly) that the things we observed existed in reality. With the advent of moving pictures at the Berlin Wintergaren theatre our conception of what is real was shattered.
Over 100 years later the technology has reached an apex in interactive entertainment or video games but with this new freedom, new pitfalls. The science behind what happens when primitive apes like us interact with magic screens continue to grow. Today, in honour of Mental Health Week we are speaking with members of the industry, gamers and the scientific community to determine how games effect the brain.
As more and more incidents of mass violence are blamed on our joysticks it would be dangerous to not provide analytic thought to the proposal, “Violent Video Games Hurt Kids!” fortunately someone else has already done the work for us.
Douglas Gentile is a Professor of Psychology and a researchers who has spent a majority of his professional life examining how video games effect the brain, specifically through the formative years of development and video game addiction.
-Are violent video games to blame for dangerous behaviour?
– Can Pro-Social games help kids?
– How can you prove video game addiction exists?
Interview - Douglas Gentile
[0:35 Andy] Right off the bat, what is your work in the field of video games and behaviouralism in the mind?
[0:44 Douglas] Well I’m a child psychologist, yes I know I sound older, and I study the media’s influences on children, what can be useful for healthy development, and what ends up being not such healthy development. So with regard to video games, I’ve looked at several different issues, certainly one of the hot topics has been violent video games, but also how they can be used for education or how pro-social games can actually be of beneficial use, and I’ve also looked at what’s popularly known as “video game addiction”.
[1:26 Andy] So let’s start with the violent video games, your work in that field. What approach did you bring to this kind of discovery? This has a lot of scientific rigor, you looked at this a lot of ways that pundits that come on this show don’t, so please, do share; what were some of your findings, what were some of your processes?
[1:44 Douglas] As far as processes, we’ve used several different scientific approaches. We’ve done what are true experiments, where, for example, you bring children into the lab and you randomly assign them to play a violent game, or a matched non-violent game, and then you look at their behaviour afterwards.
That allows us to understand something about causality, because they didn’t choose the game they played, they were randomly assigned it, so we know all the kids are basically equivalent, and if they behave very differently after playing the violent game, then we know it is something about the game that relates to that. What we found with those types of studies is that playing violent games certainly can increase aggressive thoughts and feelings, and also some aggressive behaviour. Now the weakness of that type of study is that we can’t use real world aggression, because it would be unethical to actually allow the kids to hit each other, so we use proxy measures of aggression.
We also studied it with what’re known as chrono-sectional correlational studies, where we give surveys, for example, to classrooms full of children. We find there that the children who play a lot of violent video games, tend to be the ones who actually do hit, who’re engaged in more bullying types of behaviours. So there we can see the real world behaviours, but of course there we can’t prove anything about causality. Then we’ve longitudinal studies, where we follow the same groups of kids sometimes for years, sometimes very large groups of kids. In one study, we followed 3000 children for three years.
What we found there is that children who play more violent video games at the beginning of the study, they changed the way they see the world, they start having what’s called, scientifically, a “hostile attribution bias”, and what that is, is…normal people who, when something annoying happens, they can shrug it off, they say, “Oh, they probably didn’t mean it”, and we also know people who take everything very personally. This is more the latter, when you get bumped in the hallway, you stop assuming it was an accident, and you start assuming the person meant to make you mad. With just that tiny little perception shift, you can see changes the odds that you might react aggressively. We also find that if they play more violent games they start seeing aggression as more acceptable, and more normal, and they also spend more time engaging in aggressive fantasies that they would like to be aggressive.
Of course, those ways of thinking show up two years later, and they become more aggressive, because of course, the way they think and feel relates to the way they behave, not in some simple mechanistic way. You take the way you think with you everywhere in the world, and so that’s the way the effect happens, and as you mentioned, pundits like to make very extreme claims, either that games are destroying the world, or that there’s no effect whatsoever, and the answer is of course right in the middle there- of course they have an effect. If games didn’t affect us, we’d call them boring.
Andy: Very fascinating. Why do you think that, even as a starting point, this type of media is so effective at changing young minds if it’s violent? Why do you think video games are something that can do that? Just for someone coming into it that doesn’t understand the power that is in a gamer, maybe they don’t understand.
[5:28 Douglas] Well, I don’t think it’s specific at all to violence, I think this is why people are talking about using games in education, or games for good, or games for social change. Games are fantastic teachers, they do many of the things an excellent teacher does. For example, a good teacher can adapt her lesson to, first of all, the level that the individual student is, and to the pace that student learns at.
Of course, in a classroom of 25 people that’s really hard to do, but games are fantastic at that. And then, a good teacher can also give immediate feedback on how well they’re doing, and offer lots of opportunities for practice, to the point where they not only learn the material, but they master it, it becomes automatic. Of course in the classroom, that’s very hard to do, you don’t usually have that much time, you don’t have enough opportunities to really give children the opportunity to truly master the material, but games again, this is the way kids play them, so that they’re learning and…the human brain, it learns effortlessly, you don’t need to be listening to this program with an intention to learn, you don’t say, “I’m going to go listen to a radio show and learn something, and sit there and take notes”, and yet, after hearing it just once, you’ve learned. If you hear things over and over again, you learn them very well, to the point where they become automatic, and so any content in games that gets repeated will get learned, there’s no way you can’t learn it, just because that’s the way the brain works.
[7:13 Andy] Again, speaking with Douglas Gentile, Professor of psychology at Iowa State, about how video games affect the brains of young people. Absolutely fascinating, and I think you touch on a great point there; the effect of media can be so subversive that we don’t really consider it.
You mentioned before that you look at other forms of media, and how they have affected people; are there any other forms of media that’re comparable, or are video games kind of that real hard jolt, in your studies and examination, that has these lasting effects?
[7:47 Douglas] In my studies actually, I don’t find that games are especially better at it than say television or movies, but there does seem to be something very different between screen media, where there’s a visual, and say music.
The effect doesn’t seem to be nearly as strong for music, or for books, but when the visual is presented, then it seems to be a pretty strong effect. It doesn’t seem to be much stronger for video games than for T.V or movies, which is somewhat surprising, because video games, you have to take the point of view of one of the characters, you’re an active learner rather than just a passive observer, so there were a lot of reason we though games would be more influential than games or movies, but I’m not finding that really in my studies.
[8:40 Andy] On this program this week, we spent a lot of time talking to developers or gamers themselves, that have used these tools later in life, to deal with a lot of mental illness and behavioural issues. We talked about it a little bit earlier, but you examined also some of the benefits that games can do socially. I’d love to hear a little bit more about your work in that field.
[9:04 Douglas] Well again, we’ve done this now in I think 8 different countries all across the world, and we find that people who play pro-social games, so games where you’re actually trying to help other characters, you’re caring about other characters, you’re taking care of other characters, and I don’t really mean, “I help you by shooting someone else”, although that is a form of pro-social behaviour, it also includes the aggression, but even if we include those types of helpful games, when people play those games, they seem to gain in empathy, which then shows up in more helpful and co-operative behaviour.
For example, we saw this with 3000 children followed across three years, that the kids that were playing the most pro-social games actually increased their empathy for other people and were more helpful and co-operative in the real world two years later.
[10:00 Andy] What’re some examples of pro-social games? For a lot of gamers the idea that there’s a game that doesn’t have violence is a very difficult one to find. We’ve spoken to a lot of parents that’re gamers themselves, and they’ve had difficulty trying to find something to introduce their kids into this thing they love. What were the exemplars that you used?
[10:22 Douglas] Well we allowed the children, actually, to rate them themselves, tell us how pro-social the games were, so it’s all types of games, we weren’t giving specific exemplars. Some of the ones that come to mind though for me are, The Sims, where you’re trying to take care of your family, a personal favourite in my household is Animal Crossing, if you don’t know this game and I tell you the plot you’re going to think this is the worst game ever. The basic plot is, you’ve just moved away from home, you go to a town where you don’t know anyone, you’re forced to buy a house and get a job to pay off your mortgage. That’s the plot.
[11:04 Andy] That’s called life for most people.
[11:10 Douglas] But the gameplay is, you walk around and meet your neighbours, and they ask you for little favours where you carry this to so and so, or you take this to that person, and then they give you a little reward for doing it. So it’s this community building gameplay that’s really, surprisingly fun. So games like that I think would be truly pro-social games, but that said, you can take a violent game, like Call of Duty, or World of Warcraft, and play the medic, or play the healer, and your goal is, even though you may engage in some violence along the way, you’re actually playing with a pro-social motivation, you’re trying to help your team.
We don’t actually know whether that’s the same thing as playing just a truly pro-social game. It might be that by being a team based game it enhances the aggression effects, because you’re getting social support from your friends for behaving aggressively in the game, or it might be it totally mitigates this, because you have these pro-social motivations during gameplay. So there’s a good dissertation for someone listening to this, that’s the cutting edge of the science, we don’t know the answer yet.
Before the break we talked about violent video games, and the connection to aggressive behaviour, and from that pro-social games, and the connection to a more caring behaviour, that there is a real effect this media can have. In either case you’re playing a lot, you’re going to do a lot of things that’s looking at a screen, and that can lead to addiction. Again, thank you for sticking around… What is the most dangerous thing, in your estimation, of video game addiction?
[0:41 Douglas] Well the most dangerous thing about it is that we don’t take it seriously. I can understand why, because I didn’t for many years myself. I started studying it back in the 1990’s, because even back then we were talking about, you know, “My kid being addicted to games”, and I always thought, “Parent’s just mean that metaphorically”, all they really mean is, “My kid spends a lot of time playing and I don’t understand why”, but that’s not really an addiction, an addiction doesn’t mean doing something a lot, it means doing it in such a way that it damages your life, that it is dysfunctional.
That’s real addiction. I thought, “There’s no way games are doing that”, and so I started studying it from this more clinical perspective, and it turns out I was wrong. There are a substantial number of children that are harming their lives in multiple ways based on the way they play. In fact, in a national study I did with Harris Polls, so this beautiful national study, we found that about 8.5% of youth video gamers 8-18 would classify as addicted by this clinical definition.
[1:53 Andy] Fascinating. So again, we talked about your process in the previous works, how did you determine video game addiction?
[2:01 Douglas] Well at that time we created a measure based off of the measure that’s used to screen gambling addiction, and we hypothesized that these both are games, and they both start as just something that’s entertainment, or a coping strategy, and perhaps they can both take on a life of their own and get out of balance, and start harming your life. So we used the exact way we would measure gambling addiction, and just changed it from being about gambling to being about games. The way the American Psychiatric Association (APA) says that you do these diagnostic screens is, if you have at least 5 of the 10 symptoms, then you would count as being dysfunctional enough that that’s clinically relevant, and should be getting help. That’s the way, for example, depression is defined, the same way, 5 of the 10 symptoms and you’re in the club. So that’s the measure we used, and we gathered this data nationally, and I thought no kid was going to rise to that level, and it turns out I was wrong. 8.5%, is that a big number? Is that a small number? That means 92% of gamers aren’t having this problem; that’s good news, right? But if there are 40 million children in the U.S. and 92% of them play video games, and 8.5% of them are addicted, that’s over 3 million children, today who’re taking serious damage to their lives because of their gaming, and they probably should be getting help, but because we haven’t seen this as a real mental health issue yet, there isn’t help for them to be had. That’s why I think that’s really the problem, we don’t have the resources in place to, first of all, notice when kids are starting to have a problem, and keep the problem from getting worse.
[4:12 Andy] Is there comparable sorts of care to addictions to other forms of media? Because video games are, in relative terms, a new way that people experience fun; are there similar numbers, in your estimation, in T.V., movies, music, the same kind of addiction cycles?
[4:36 Douglas] So I have met some of the people who’re on the APA panel on behavioural addictions; there’s a bible called the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that the APA puts out, that basically says how every mental health disorder should be diagnosed. So for the most recent revision that came out a couple of years ago, they put together a panel of experts to review all of the research on every type of behavioural addiction other than gambling, because we already know a lot about that, and so they looked at the research on T.V. addiction, on sex addiction, on shopping addiction, on internet addiction, on video game addiction, and a couple others, and they decided that the research was only strong for video games.
So they proposed that in the DSM 5, that internet gaming disorder, which is what it’s called by the APA, would be included in the appendix as a potentially problematic issue that we need a little more research on before we make a final decision about whether it should be included as a true diagnosis, but they didn’t include T.V., they didn’t include cellphones they didn’t… no other media seemed to have enough research to suggest there was a real problem other than games, and especially when games are internet connected, that seems to them to be perhaps the most addictive, if you want to use that word
[6:11 Andy] What do you recommend then to parents, to people that use these kinds of things for enjoyment, to ensure that this doesn’t happen, because anyone who’s listening, they might just think, “Yeah we’ll keep them away from violent video games”, but to know that there’s a similar sort of concern as they would of any other addictive quality. I imagine it would be a little bit alarming.
[6:32 Douglas] Well first of all, I’m not a commission, and I don’t know that I really understand enough about how addictions happen, because I’m not an addiction specialist, and I don’t know how they’re treated very well, so I don’t have a….certainly a final word on this, but what I’ll give you is my opinion. My opinion is that this is going to be seen as a type of impulse control disorder, that you know you should go to sleep, but you’ve just got to keep playing, you know you should do your homework, but you just need one more level. So the good news is impulse control disorders are very treatable, one of the ways they treat it is, you teach people to recognizing when they have the impulse, and then put a break in there, don’t get into it immediately, check to see, “Okay, have I done my chores, or have I got my homework done, have I spent some time with my family?” If the answer is yes, go ahead and play, give in to the impulse, and if not, go do those things first. That’s all about balance. It’s not saying games are bad, it’s not saying games- I don’t even like using the term addictive with games, because that treats them like a substance, and I don’t think they are like a substance.
I think the problem isn’t with the games, the problem is with the gamer, that the gamer has allowed it to get out of balance to the point that it’s damaging his or her life. So the solution is to put it back in balance, so I don’t say you need to go cold turkey once you’ve had a problem, I think you just need to figure out how to play in a way that isn’t harming other areas of your life. So how do you help get your kids to that level? Well, the research is pretty clear that when parents set limits on the amount of time that kids spend with games, or with media in general, that’s a powerful protective factor for kids. When parents set limits on the amount of content, whether it’s violent, or sexual, or whatever that family cares about, when they’re setting limits on the content, that’s a powerful protective factor for kids. What we see in some studies there, for example, we followed 1300 families across a school year, and we found that the families who set more limits on their children’s screen time, and content, had this amazing ripple effect out into the future, that those kids were getting better sleep by the end of the school year, which means that they gained less weigh, so they were at lower risk for obesity.
They were getting better grades in school. They were showing more helpful and co-operative pro-social behaviours in the classroom, as rated by their teachers, which is remarkable, because the teachers don’t know what the rules are for children’s screen media at home, but they can see the change in behaviour, and they were less aggressive, again as rated by teachers. This is remarkable for two reasons to me, one is: those are not the same type of variable, that’s physical health, and school performance, and social wellness. Those aren’t the same kind of outcomes, and yet the simple act of setting limits on the amount and content of media influenced all of them, but the thing that’s more interesting to me is that no parent will ever know they’re having this effect, because you can’t tell that your child gains less weight than he would have. You can’t tell that your child is more pro-social than she would have been, you can only see what your child is. So this is why parents feel they’re powerless, because they can’t see what effects their rules are having, they just see the fight they have to maintain them. It takes someone like me, who comes in from the outside, and can study thousands of families, to be able to see, “Oh, those rules are having a huge effect, and are really beneficial for your kids”, and they’re worth the fight.