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10 Hard Questions About Aggression and Gaming

Let’s not pretend we know everything about how games impact development.

startupstockphotos / Pixabay
Source: startupstockphotos / Pixabay

I took some time recently to think about the connection between gaming—video game culture—and aggression. I thought readers might find it interesting to see me interview myself, so here it is. Please let me know whether you view this as I do or whether you disagree with every answer I give.

1. Do you believe video games cause increased aggression?

Based on the psychological research that exists right now—no. I do not think that we can say with confidence that video games alone increase aggression. The better answer is that they may be associated with aggression indirectly—and only for a specific subset of the population who might be predisposed to aggression due to other factors (see below).

2. What outside factors may be correlated to aggressive tendencies?

Aggression is a complex pattern of behavior with many underlying causes. For example, the hormone testosterone has been linked to aggression. So has the neurotransmitter serotonin. There is some evidence that individuals with lower levels of serotonin in the frontal lobe of the brain have greater difficulty inhibiting aggressive tendencies. Alcohol, maleness, and youth all play a role as well. The ultimate “aggression cocktail” likely involves excessive levels of the following ingredients: maleness, high levels of testosterone, youth, excessive alcohol, lower levels of serotonin, thrill seeking personality tendencies, and impulse control issues.

3. Do you believe first person shooter games increase the likelihood of mass shootings in those with an unstable mindset?

In the answer above, I outlined a number of factors linked to aggression. If you eliminated all of them and were left with only one risk factor—shooter games—I don’t think you would see a noticeable increase in aggression. In other words, if shooter games are a factor in aggression they are likely down the list in importance.

4. Should video games have stricter ratings or a stricter rating system?

When you have a rating system (e.g., Entertainment Software Rating Board) for any entertainment product it means that, on some basic level, people are concerned about the impact it has on health and well-being. A strict rating system could be beneficial especially if the parents, teachers, scientists, game designers, politicians, etc. who are involved are educated about gaming, psychological development, and aggression.

5. Are there any benefits to playing video games?

A number of studies have demonstrated that video games can produce an increase in socially desired skills such as communication, cooperation, teamwork, team building, enjoying success and coping with failure, and hand-eye coordination.

The data here are beginning to reveal a discouraging trend between boys and girls. Boys, more than girls, seem to be reaping the benefits of multi-player games simply because they are more likely to participate. Girls are much more likely to spend a lot of time on social media where the benefits are less clear. In fact, there is evidence that the costs of social media (bullying, shaming, social comparison, etc). are far greater for girls than boys. Since males are more likely to bully other boys physically, they largely escape the negative consequences of social media. Girls, on the other hand, have a much harder time escaping it.

One could certainly make the case that everyone, especially girls, should be gaming instead of Facebook, etc. The bottom line is that games are not as bad as people once thought, but social media might be even worse for human development than previously thought.

6. Can video games help with stress or anxiety? Why or why not?

Yes, if done correctly. There is growing evidence that video games may actually be “prescribed” by some doctors in place of taking pills. Why take pills three times a day when you can play a specifically prescribed video game three times a day? The basic idea is that when we interact with video games, or anything for that matter, we are changing the way our synapses connect brain cells. Essentially, we are changing the way the brain is wired through repeated behaviors. Therapists work to get us to repeat desirable healthy behaviors, but video games may be able to help out a little too.

7. Do you believe video game addiction should be considered a mental illness?

I am not sure. Maybe, but not because it causes violence. It may be associated with procrastination and lost opportunities for other meaningful social and physical engagement (See below).

8. How do video games stimulate the brain to make them more addicting?

For some people, but not all, video games stimulate reward centers in the brain much the same way that gambling, drugs, love, and chocolate do. As is the case with gambling and chocolate, there is a lot of individual variation in how people engage with video games. Most people can enjoy a friendly wager, a bag of Reese’s Pieces candy, or a moderate amount of gaming without it interfering with overall health and the ability to live life in a normal happy way. However, there is growing evidence that social media use and gaming are close to meeting diagnostic criteria for addiction in a number of people. If it interferes with your quality of life or your ability to live life normally on a daily basis, it may be an addition. This does not suggest, however, that gaming causes violence--the issue here is that gaming may be detracting from other important parts of life because of the time commitment.

9. Do you believe video games can be used as a coping mechanism?

Are we talking about coping in a good way or in a bad way? I do see games as a crutch for some people (this is not good). If a person has a great deal of anxiety or depression they may use gaming as an escape from reality. This form of procrastination is a way of avoiding real anxiety and depression that might need to be addressed. From this perspective, it serves the same purpose as substance abuse.

10. Do you believe those with an unstable mindset or a mental illness are more susceptible to increased aggression or violent tendencies?

Broadly speaking, mental illness is not linked with aggression or violence. As with most behaviors, I think the specific diagnostic category of mental illness is important. For example, someone who has obsessive compulsive disorder (a type of anxiety disorder) will not likely show more aggressive tendencies than anyone else. However, if someone is diagnosed with a conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder they could likely show more issues with aggression, violence, frustration, conflict, and confrontation.

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