Playing video games is perceived as an exciting aspect of the media landscape and has experienced much expansion in recent years. There has been a rise in the number of children who use video games in many parts of the world, particularly in the United States (Hagan,et al. 2002). Among children in the United States, playing hours of video games have increased from 4 hours every week in the 1980s, to about 13 hours per week in recent years. Video games have also taken the attention of the public, particularly by the controversies regarding first person shooter games (Anderson, Gentile & Buckley, 2007).
Various studies have shown that violent content in video games desensitizes players, especially children, to real-world violence. When players become desensitized, they tend to increase their aggression and decrease their empathy. Other researchers have indicated that playing video games among children does not lead to significant aggressive behavior, since the magnitude of the effect in the meta-analysis may be an outcome of publication bias. Despite pressure from various societies, many video games contain a considerable amount of violence. Violent games are seen to promote feelings of excitement, satisfaction, and empowerment among players (Hagan, et al. 2002). However, Przybylski et al, carried a study on video games and concluded that the desire and enjoyment for future play were linked to competence and the experience of autonomy in the video game, and not the level of violence. Different scholars have argued about the negative and positive effects of playing video games among children. This research paper will discuss the various effects that playing video games have on children. They impact children’s lives socially and they increase violence among children (Sherry, 2001).
The debate on whether video games have social effects and cause violence among players, especially children, can be traced back to 1976 when a video game entitled Death Race was released on the market. The main aim of the game was to run over screaming gremlins using a car which would then turn into tombstones. The pace of the game was pedestrian and the gremlins resembled human figures. There was a public outcry over this video game and eventually its production ceased. There were other violent video games that were produced later in 1993, such as Night Trap and Mortal Kombat, which were followed by public outcry. In the same year, a board was established in the United States to look into video games and rate them according to their content (Siwek, 2007). The board is known as the entertainment software rating board (ESRB). The other video game that attracted media attention was Rapelay, produced in 2006 (Siwek, 2007). The video game required players to rape and stalk a woman and her two girls. Such video games are said to cause behavioral change among children.
There have been several incidents that are linked to video games, such as the massacre at Columbine High School that claimed 13 lives. Laws have been enacted to ban or control the sale of video games. For example, on the 27th of June 2007, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned the law in California that banned the sale of video games to minors (Siwek, 2007). The court ruled that the law violated the freedom of speech even though the state has an obligation to protect kids from harm. Another aspect that should be noted regarding video games is that boys spend more time playing than girls. Not many girls are interested in playing video games, hence they are not affected as much as boys of a similar age (Anderson & Bushman, 2001).
The Drawbacks of Children Playing Video games
Most of the negative effects as a result of playing video games among children can be blamed on the violent scenes contained in these games. When a child spends an extended amount of time playing such video games, they becomes socially isolated. This means that a child does not have enough time to interact with other members of their society (Anderson & Bushman, 2001). The child who spends many hours a day playing video games will have little time to meet and make new friends. They may in turn become more depressed and lonely in their homes. Children will also spend little time on other activities such as sports, reading, and doing homework. The child becomes socially inactive since they do not get involved in social activities.
Some video games teach children wrong values (Gunter, 1998). Most of the children who spend much of their time playing video games are likely to perform poorly in school. A solid number of video games are addictive. Rather than studying or completing homework, a child spends time playing video games. As a result, poor performance will be seen at schools. Video games reduce a child’s imaginative thinking as well. This means that a child who ends up spending most of their time playing video games does not get a chance to think creatively or independently. Imaginative thinking is crucial in developing a child’s creativity. By fostering isolation, video games may also affect a child’s health. Since they do not get enough bodily exercise, children who spend the majority of their time playing video games are likely to suffer from video-induced seizures, obesity and skeletal, muscular and postural disorders like tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, among others.
Video games promote children to associate happiness and pleasure with the capability to cause pain to others. They develop the feeling that in order to be happy, one has to make other people suffer. Children who play video games tend to develop selfish behavior (Anderson & Bushman, 2001). Video games teach the player to be dependent and since the child is often left alone while playing a video game, he or she can develop selfish behavior. A certain study that was done at a Minneapolis-based national institute for media indicated that kids can get addicted to video games and exhibit social phobias. The interactive quality of video games is quite different from passively viewing movies or television. The games allow players to be active participants in the script. The players who are able to benefit from acts of violence are then able to proceed to the next level (Sherry, 2001).
As a negative result of playing video games, violence in children has shown an increase. “Anderson and Dill found that males who were high in aggression and irritability, showed the strongest association between video game play and aggressive behavior” (Lillian Bensely & Juliet Van Eenwyk, 2001). There are many incidents of violent behavior among children who play violent video games worldwide (Gunter, 1998). One of the high-profile incidents is the Columbine High School massacre that was caused by 17-year-old Dylan Klebold, and 18-year-old Harris Eric. The massacre happened on the 20th of April, 1999, at Columbine High School, located in Jefferson County. 12 pupils and a teacher were killed by two pupils. It was later revealed that the two shooters in the massacre were frequent players of weapon-based combat games. It was also noted that the two shooters used to play Wolfeinstein 3D and Doom, games which are violent. After the incident, many newspaper articles claimed that the key cause of that incident was violent video games.
Another incident occurred in April, 2000, when Jose Rabadan, a sixteen-year-old Spaniard, killed his parents and his sister using a katana sword, claiming that he was Squall Leonhart, the main character in the video game titled ‘Final Fantasy V111,’ on a mission of revenge. This was a consequence of playing the game too much and fantasizing about what he saw in the video game (Williams, & Marko, 2005). In 1997, there was the case of a thirteen year old, Wilson Noah, who was killed by his friend using a kitchen knife. The mother of the deceased claimed that Noah was stabbed because of the obsession his friend had with the video game known as Mortal Kombat. She alleged that the child who killed Noah was obsessed with the game, and thought he was one of the characters in the game named Cyrax. In the game, Cyrax uses a finishing move whereby he grabs the opponent and stabs him in the chest. It was alleged that this was the move that motivated the killing of that child. There are many other incidents that were caused by the effects of playing video games. A report that was compiled by the FBI in the year 2006 showed that the playing of video games among children was one of the behavioral traits linked to school shootings. The report outlined several factors behind school shootings of which playing violent video games was the most obvious (Anderson & Bushman, 2001).
According to Gentile and Anderson, playing video games increases the aggressive behavior of the player, since the acts of violence are continually repeated during the game (Gentile, & Anderson, 2003). “Although heightened physiological arousal (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure, skin conductance) can be beneficial in certain situations, physiological arousal produced by violent media (or by other sources), can be linked to an increase in aggressive behavior, especially when that arousal can be erroneously attributed to another provoking event, rather than to the violent media. Repetition of an act has been considered an effective teaching method, reinforcing learners patterns” (Barlett, Harris & Bruey, 2007).
The games encourage the players to roleplay or identify with their favorite character (Gentile & Anderson, 2003). The increase in physical bullying in many schools can also be linked to the popularity of video games that contain violent content. A study done in 2008 indicated that about 60% or more of middle school boys ended up striking or beating somebody after playing at least one mature-rated video game. The research also showed that about 39% of boys who never played violent video games were not involved in any form of violence. When playing video games, players are rewarded for simulating violence. This enhances the learning of violent behavior among the children who find pleasure in violent video games. When violence is rewarded while playing video games, players tend to develop aggressive behavior. As noted earlier, video games desensitize players to real-life violence. The exposure to video games causes a reduction in P300 amplitudes that are contained in the brain. The child will later experience aggressive behavior and desensitization to violence (Bartholow, Bushman & Sestir, 2006).
After children experience violence while playing video games, they are likely to develop a fear of becoming victims of violent acts. According to the report compiled by six leading national medical associations in 2000, children do not trust their fellow children and hence will develop violent, self-protective measures. The exposure to cruel video games also leads to reduced empathy among the players. From a survey conducted by Jeanne Funk in 2004, video games are the only media linked or associated with low empathy. Empathy is described as the capacity or ability to understand other people’s feelings. The level of empathy plays a noteworthy role in evaluating a person’s morals. Empathy also controls aggressive behavior among individuals, especially children (Bartholow, Bushman & Sestir, 2006). After lacking empathy as a consequence of violent video games, these children are likely to be violent. Repetition of actions when one is playing a video game affects the subconscious mind, hence a behavioral script is developed. An example of a behavioral script is that developed by drivers. It urges the driver to first get into a car, fasten their safety belt and then start the car. Similarly, video games induce a child to develop a behavioral script that urges them to respond violently to certain situations (Gunter, 1998).
Playing video games teaches children that violence is an acceptable way of solving their conflicts. Those who play video games, especially games with violent content, do not develop the belief that using non-violence means can solve a problem. They tend to be less forgiving when compared to those children who play non-violent video games (Sherry, 2001). Children tend to confuse real-world violence with video game violence. After fantasizing about the violence in video games, children are likely to fight in schools and in the streets. New video games allow a lot of physical interaction with the players. Some video games train players on how to be a killer. For example, in 1996, the Marine Corps in the United States authorized the release of Doom 11, which was a violent video game. The game was previously used to train marine soldiers. Such games can train children to be high-profile killers. Also, most video games have portrayed a negative attitude towards women. Violence against women is likely to increase in a child who plays brutal video games (Gunter, 1998).
In any life situation and with any sort of problem, there are those who disagree with the majority. Likewise, there are researchers who present various counter arguments to support the idea that video games can be beneficial for children. The first counter argument against the side effects of video games is the fact that children are not isolated, as they have online gaming communities. Children who are unable to associate with others do not feel isolated since they can play video games. For example, a child who is not physically fit to play with others can turn to video games during their free time to reduce boredom (Dietz, 1998).
It has been noted that violent juvenile crimes have been decreasing in the recent years, yet the popularity of video games has been increasing. For the period from 1995 to 2008, the rate of the arrest of juvenile murderers decreased by 71.9%, while the overall arrest cases concerning juvenile violence decreased by 49%. In the same period, the sale of cruel video games increased by almost 4 times compared to the years before. From these statistics, one can conclude that there is no direct correlation between violent juvenile crimes and video games. There has been no scientifically-proven link between violent behavior among children and video games. Most of the surveys carried out on video games are affected by design flaws. The surveys are done within a short duration of time and do not follow kids for any considerable period of time. After a short observation, conclusions are drawn (Barlett, Harris and Bruey, 539-546).
The other counter argument against video games is that children learn real life-skills when playing video games. Players of brutal video games are able to learn how to regulate their emotions when playing (Anderson, Gentile, & Buckley, 2007). The level of control developed while playing video games in terms of directing actions and pace are prudent ways of regulating the emotional state of children. The perception of being in control of actions minimizes emotional and stressful responses to events. Aggressive and angry feelings can be relieved by playing video games. When a child plays video games, it is one of the best ways of relieving aggression and depression. Many children play video games to relieve anger while others play video games to relax their bodies. Children are given healthy and safe opportunities to virtually explore the rules and consequences of violent behavior when they play video games (Bartholow, Bushman & Sestir, 2006).
After playing videogames, especially ones that contain violence, children are able to develop ways of escaping violence. The form of violence can be affected by video games, but does not necessarily lead to the occurrence of violence. Through the challenges faced while playing some video games, children are able to learn how to avoid violence, or how to escape from violence. Those who hold the view that video games do not have negative effects on children indicate that video games do not lead a child to violence, but instead, violent children are the ones who are interested in video games (Anderson, Gentile & Buckley, 2007).
The argument about whether video games have negative or positive effects on children is broad, and depends on one’s philosophical views. “Most of the research projects that have been conducted on the authentic effects of media brutality on behavior of children have included small, often unrepresentative samples and unique examples of media violence” (Dietz, 1998). This paper has compiled some of the negative effects of video games among children. Some of the negative effects include children feeling isolated from their society, becoming more violent and aggressive, as well as lacking communicative skills. When playing video games, children spend extended periods of time by themselves and do not have much interaction with other children, except for the virtual ones. As a result, children who play video games excessively do not develop effective communication skills with others, since hours, if not all their spare time, is spent on video games. There has also been a rise in violence among children who play video games, the Columbine High School massacre being one such example. Injuries and fighting at home and outdoors have risen because of children playing brutal video games (Anderson, Gentile, & Buckley, 2007). Some researchers however argue that video games can and do have positive effects on children. They point out that children are not isolated, as they develop online gaming communities. Children are also able to learn real-life skills while playing video games, as well as learn how to escape violence. However, what both sides agree upon is that parents should guide their children on the outcomes of playing video games. Personally, I think that video games can be allowed when selected with caution and are not played frequently. As long as virtual reality does not replace a child’s real-life communication, video games can become a great option for a child’s leisure.
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Writing a General Research Paper
Video games have rapidly become a universal aspect of child development (Lenhart et al. 2008), and their quick rise to prominence has stimulated scientific inquiry and public concern (Ferguson 2013). With researchers stressing that children may be particularly susceptible to the influence of video game playing (Bushman and Huesmann 2006; Lobel et al. 2014a), the effects of video games on children’s psychosocial development remains highly debated. Video games have thus been widely studied as a potential cause for aggressive cognitions and behavior (Anderson et al. 2010; Carnagey and Anderson 2004), emotional problems such as depression (Tortolero et al. 2014), and hyperactivity and inattention (Gentile et al. 2012). In these lines of research, video games are seen as a compelling entertainment medium whose clever use of feedback loops and positive reinforcement schedules train unhealthy habits of mind (Gentile and Gentile 2008a, b).
Conversely, researchers have recently begun to look at video games as a domain for training healthy habits of mind (Adachi and Willoughby 2012; Granic et al. 2014). From this perspective, many video games reward communication and cooperation as well as resolving negative emotions such as frustration. Moreover, video games seem to provide a context for the fulfillment of self-deterministic needs, thereby positively contributing to psychological well-being (Ryan et al. 2006). The current paper adds to the discussion on gaming’s positive and negative consequences with data from a longitudinal study that could address the relations between different forms of video game playing and the psychosocial development of children. Here, psychosocial development refers broadly to the psychological and social changes children undergo during development, including changes in patterns of internalizing and externalizing problems, attention, and how children relate to peers.
Psychosocial Development and Gaming
In a recent review we argued for the potential of video gaming to afford psychosocial benefits (Granic et al. 2014). This perspective focuses on gaming as a modern and meaningful form of play, and therefore as a context where children’s developmental needs can be met (Fisher 1992; Verenikina et al. 2003). Just as traditional forms of play provide positive contexts for children’s psychosocial development (Erikson 1977; Piaget 1962; Vygotsky 1978), so too video games seem to afford promise (Adachi and Willoughby 2012; Granic et al. 2014). This promise is in part due to the ubiquity of gaming; with between 90 and 97% of children playing video games (Lenhart et al. 2008), it seems that social development has partly migrated from physical playgrounds to digital ones. Moreover, video games have become—particularly in the past decade—a more social and emotionally rich entertainment medium. Thus, modern video games may provide a context for children to bond with others and learn the benefits of cooperation.
Yet despite the potential benefits of gaming for children’s psychosocial development, scant empirical work has explored these options (Hromek and Roffey 2009; Przybylski and Wang 2016). Instead, there has been a predominant focus on the potential psychosocial dangers of gaming. A recent meta-analysis identified 101 studies that investigated the effects of playing (violent) video games on children’s and adolescents’ psychosocial health. Of these studies, nearly 70 of them assessed whether (violent) video games were related to externalizing problems (such as aggression). In contrast, prosocial behavior (e.g. Gentile et al. 2009) and internalizing problems (such as depression) were each assessed in about 20 studies (e.g. Parkes et al. 2013). Just 9 studies assessed the relation between gaming and attention problems (e.g. Bioulac et al. 2008) and even fewer investigated the relation between gaming and children’s peer relationships (e.g. Przybylski 2014).
Several methodological shortcomings are also important to highlight. First, gaming research among children has predominantly been cross-sectional in nature—64 of the 101 studies identified in Ferguson (2015) were correlational. The major limitation of these studies is that they do not allow inferences about order. Moreover, many of these studies have not controlled for relevant background variables such as socio-economic status (SES) and gender. On the other hand, while experimental studies allow researchers to draw causal inferences, the real-world generalizability of such gaming studies remain debated. Regarding studies on externalizing problems in particular, researchers have questioned the ecological validity of the outcome measures used (see Anderson and Bushman 1997; Ritter and Eslea 2005) and the extent to which these studies used well-matched control conditions (see Przybylski et al. 2014). Beyond these issues, as most of these experimental studies were run in a single lab session, these experiments do not give enough insight into the long-term consequences of playing video games.
Regarding internalizing problems, studies that examine the link between gaming and emotional problems have predominantly focused on “problematic gamers.” These are individuals who habitually play for very many hours and show other signs of dependency, such as avoiding social interactions or obligations in favor of gaming (van Rooij et al. 2011). Among adolescents, such gamers seem to have elevated depression symptoms compared to their peers (Messias et al. 2011). A recent, large scale, cross-sectional study among Canadian adolescents also indicated that video game play was positively associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety (Maras et al. 2015). These findings are consistent with the conclusions made in a review by Kuss and Griffiths (2012). These problems seem to emerge as a result of escapism; that is that problematic gamers seem drawn to gaming as an escape from real world problems. As a means of escape, gaming may offer temporary distraction, but without alleviating real world distress, excessive gaming may only exacerbate said problems. Still, the cross-sectional nature of past studies leaves open whether individuals with internalizing problems retreat to video games as an escape, or whether gaming acts as a precursor to these issues. Moreover, little is known about the relationship between gaming and internalizing problems in children due to the scarcity of research among this cohort.
Finally, hyperactivity and inattention has been investigated as a detrimental psychosocial outcome of gaming. This research is premised on the perception that video games are fast-paced and offer frequent rewards, thus potentially habituating children to a steady stream of novel, pleasurable stimuli. On the one hand, children with Attentional Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder have been shown to play more video games than their peers (Mazurek and Engelhardt 2013) and Gentile and colleagues (2012) argue that there may be a bidirectional effect between attentional problems and gaming. On the other hand, studies among adults show that action video games may confer cognitive benefits, including improvements in executive functioning (Green and Bavelier 2012). Due to these conflicting findings, and a lack of longitudinal research among children, the extent to which gaming may influence children’s attention remains largely unknown.
Prosocial Behavior and Cooperative and Competitive Gaming
The potential influence of video games on social behavior seems particularly relevant. This is because, compared to the video games of just two decades ago, contemporary video games have become increasingly social in nature (Olson 2010). Researchers such as Greitemeyer and Ewoldsen have noted that just as some games predicate in-game progress on violence, other games predicate progress on prosocial behaviors (Ewoldsen et al. 2012; Greitemeyer and Osswald 2011). For instance, many games designed for multiple players feature cooperative game modes where players are encouraged to work together with others. A number of studies support the hypothesis that cooperative gaming may promote prosocial behavior (Dolgov et al. 2014; Ewoldsen et al. 2012) and may curb aggressive behaviors (Jerabeck and Ferguson 2013; Velez et al. 2014) (although many of these studies feature the sorts of methodological shortcomings mentioned above). In contrast to cooperative gaming, researchers have also investigated whether competitive gaming promotes aggression and discourages prosocial behavior (Eastin 2007). For instance, Adachi and colleagues performed a series of studies to test the relative extent to which violent content and competitive play each promote aggression (Adachi 2015). Using experimental and longitudinal designs, these studies indicated that in both the short- and long-term, competitive gaming may be a greater predictor of aggressive outcomes than violence alone. However, cooperative and competitive gaming have yet to be researched in the way these forms of play most commonly occur in the real world—in tandem. Thus, while researchers have tried to individually assess the effects of these forms of play, they often co-occur in the real-world of gaming most children participate. This is because many competitive video games not only allow cooperative modes, but the competition in these games is often team-based. However, no longitudinal studies to date have simultaneously investigated the influence of both cooperative and competitive video game playing; this is important as many video games designed for competitive play are also team-based, and therefore allow for cooperative play as well.