In this paper I will address the ongoing debate on the impact video games have on young people. Whilst discussing the perception of negative impact, I aim to illuminate that video gaming has a positive effect and that concern for video games is a result of a lack of digital comprehension and narrow perceptions of what the medium represents. To begin I will briefly address the noted physiological impact that has been attributed to video game participation. The major focus will then be on the theorised impact on sociological identity development and understanding in young people via methods of role-playing and experimentation.
In understanding the concern raised against video games, it is salient to note the physiological detriment that can be experienced from exposure to video games. To that end Straker, Pollock, Zubrick & Kurinczuk (2006) provide a longitudinal study of 1600 Australian 5-year-olds and the recognition of eye strain, headaches to migraines and spinal, postural damage are noted from over exposure to video games, It should be stressed that over exposure is not the responsibility of the medium but rather the individual or the individual’s guardian. These issues are not unique to digital media and can be applied to analogue technology and printed media (Straker et al., 2006) However, when applied to video games these symptoms are representative of an excessive consumption of all digital media and should not be an exclusive criticism of video games.
To counter the critics of physiological symptoms created from an over exposure to video games. Long term physiological benefits have been noted in individuals that frequently involve themselves in gaming. Studies have shown hand eye coordination develops stronger in gamers, facilitating improvement within the digital landscape of video gaming but also transcending those boundaries to improve life skills in the real world (Page, Barrington, Edwards & Barnett, 2017). A cognitive priming towards newer technological learning obstacles has also been noted in gamers, two or three-dimensional problems, the user interfaces and communication indicators allow for a transferable readiness and comprehension which extends not only to other games but other digital frameworks (Perini, Luglietti, Margoudi, Oliveira & Taisch, 2018).
The above examples represent video games as a relatively simple product of use and effect, whereas the value of the debate on the impact of video games on young people is internal in nature. The fundamental question is whether video games shape and/or affect who we are and/or what we become, with a vocal part of society presuming not only that it does but that shaping/changing effect is exclusively negative. The leading argument is that exposure to violence in video games develops violence in children (Coyne, Warburton, Essig, & Stockdale, 2018). This will be the focus of the following paragraphs.
The unprecedented level of interactivity that video games offer leads cause for concern born from digital behaviour (Lin, 2013). A view of violence being developed is in recognising that violence portrayed in the digital realm equates to violence in the real. Thus sociological concepts suggest role-playing and role models come into consideration. Ibarra (1999) notes that experimental play is key towards identity construction as it reinforces culturally appropriate norms and values. However, compared to the real world, the moral neutrality of digital worlds allows young people to experiment and role-play with deviance to a greater extent than the real would allow. Additionally, with the positive reinforcement of reward-based game models such as experience from kills, digital funds from drug deliveries etc, a link can apply real world value to the same actions (Cruz, Hanus & Fox, 2017). This experimental play can be reinforced by role-models, as young people have access to a range of fictional characters that tangibly exist beyond the precedent of literature or analogue media. In this they can see, interact (to a degree), resonate and aspire to be the villains thus reinforcing deviant ideals and behaviour. So too, in what can be seen as an identity loop, young people can aspire to be more like their digital avatar, they perform the actions of deviance as the game prescribes, resonate with the role-model that is their “other” self and adjust accordingly in the real (Sah, Ratan, Tsai, Peng & Sarinopoulos, 2017). Role models can also be found in other players, that in online settings, can provide the same social influences of the real world; bullying, peer pressure and notions of prestige applied to certain actions.
In addressing how video games positively impact young people it is salient to address a misconception and generalisation by the public. Not all video games are violent (Video Games and Violence Infographics, 2018), deviant representations and interactions in video games do not equate to real world deviance and it is through context and critical analysis that video game impact should be assessed. Thus I will provide examples from successful, accessible video games that represent real world deviance, yet reinforce positive social values. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt Red, 2015) presents a quest to the player that ends in the choice of killing a new born (a moral absolute) or giving it to a demon to live a life of servitude and pain. This violent decision represents more than the physicality of the action, in this moment the player experiences the conflict of morality, to address the immediate evil of their actions over the larger evil of allowing another to suffer, creating discourse with what society prescribes as acceptable yet still creating a morally good understanding. Regardless of the players choice, the moment and its significance, through storytelling and interactivity, is exposed to the player. Another example is through the deviant act of drug taking. A game called We Happy Few (Compulsion Games, 2018) requires the player to inject narcotics to proceed beyond the initial level. If we naively take this at a physical level this conforms with the idea of video games exclusively suggesting deviant behaviour, as the Australian Ratings council did, thusly banning the game. However, in understanding the context of the game, the mandatory drug use reflects commentary on a dystopian society governed by corporate control over citizens by readily providing narcotics to escape the unsettling reality of their existence. After a large outcry from the public and the games developers the Council upon re-assessing the content, allowed for the distribution within Australia (Australian Government: Classification Board, 2018). Noting that the social commentary and moral perceptions towards drugs outweighed the physicality of its presence.
Now by applying critical analysis and recognising the context of video games, the use of role-play and role models in video games is a positive avenue for impact towards young people. Similarly, aspiration towards deviant game characters can be partial and reflective, appreciating only the social presence of the villain, rather than the criminality. Video games are not an alien invading force, they are simply media working in the same capacity media has always worked, which is a conjunctive aid to the processes already established in the real (Slater, 2007). Further to that point, the perception of deviant behaviour in game resulting in real world deviance ignores a fundamental element of childhood learning, which is experimental playtime. By the same notion that a toddler knocks over a tower of bricks, coming to understand cause and effect, creation and destruction (Lally & Gordon, 1977) an individual allowed to role play in a consequence free setting can fully understand the actions and reactions of deviant behaviour. Murder isn’t just murder in video games, it’s the economy to buy the gun, planning to get away with the crime, avoiding legal recompense, seeing the social fear, loss and anger illustrated by other characters which all reinforce what not to do in the real. This role-play and experimentation also allows for an unprecedented exposure to gender roles, sexuality and a finer understanding of morality (Richard, 2017). Young people can interact and role-play to further understand themselves with behaviours that in the real could be considered deviant or at the least not supported by family and institutional structures. Namely individuals experimenting with their sexuality or gender can find acceptance and guidance in digital spaces where they could not in the real. Even in video games that glorify socially deviant behaviour, it’s through a lens of satire with an expectation that the user has a comprehension, or digital literacy to understand that the content: is not real.
In addressing this issue, I want to apply the recognition that the term “video games” reflects a large and dynamically evolving technological framework with vastly differing themes and requirements of interactivity, resource management (financial, temporal, technological etc.) and legality. The historical argument of video games has always been macro in perspective, generalising (erroneously in my opinion) the medium and pick-and-choosing arguments and examples against. The concerns that video games negatively impact young people is born from situational complaints and a lack of comprehension as to what the medium truly represents and consists of. Thus video games as a whole framework represent an avenue of positive impact for young people, allowing a depth of social understandings at a younger age than previous generations were exposed to.
CD Projekt Red (2015). The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, [Software]. Poland: Piotr Krzywonosiuk.
Coyne, S. M., Warburton, W. A., Essig, L. W., & Stockdale, L. A. (2018). Violent Video Games, Externalizing Behavior, and Prosocial Behavior: A Five-Year Longitudinal Study during Adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 54(10), 1868–1880. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1191903&site=eds-live&scope=site
Compulsion Games (2018). We Happy Few [Software]. Canada. Sam Abbot
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Ibarra, H. (1999). Provisional selves: Experimenting with image and identity in professional adaptation. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44: 764–791.
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Lin, J.-H. (2013). Do video games exert stronger effects on aggression than film? The role of media interactivity and identification on the association of violent content and aggressive outcomes. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 535–543. https://doi-org.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/10.1016/j.chb.2012.11.001
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Straker, L. M., Pollock, C. M., Zubrick, S. R., & Kurinczuk, J. J. (2006). The association between information and communication technology exposure and physical activity, musculoskeletal and visual symptoms and socio-economic status in 5-year-olds. Child: Care, Health & Development, 32(3), 343–351. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ccm&AN=106306274&site=eds-live&scope=site
Video Games and Violence Infographics (2018, September). Retrieved from https://videogames.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=003627