Are Video Games Bad For You?

Video games are often viewed in a negative light in news and media. From violent gamers to neglectful parents. But are video games the cause of these issues or do they attract the kind of people who are predisposed to these outcomes? We’re going to take a look at some of the worst effects that video games can have on players.

This is a sister piece to our Are Video Games Good For You? article where we look at the great effects games have on people. Make sure to check out both to get the best picture of how one of the biggest and most widely consumed media formats change the way people feel and behave.

Video Games and Violence

Violence is one of the most often commented on effects of games in the news. Everything from anti-social behavior to murders have been associated with games as news outlets comment on how the offender enjoyed playing shooting games. But roughly 80% of households in the US own a gaming console of some kind, so is it really unusual for a criminal to enjoy games or is it the same as saying he likes reading or watching TV?

A 2002 study by the US Secret Service showed in a study of 41 school shooters that 12% of them enjoyed violent video games, 24% of them enjoyed violent books and 27% enjoyed violent movies. This actually shows a greater correlation with books and movies than games and actually shows a lower percentage of violent video game enjoyment than the general non-violent public.

Image result for god of war
God of War – Santa Monica Studios

That being said there is a very large debate about the effects of violent video games with many studies supporting both the notion it makes people more violent and the idea that it has no effect whatsoever or even might be effective as a safe outlet for such feelings. As more studies come out we will hopefully have a better idea of the long term effects of video games.

Video Games and Anger

Video games don’t have to make someone violent to have a negative effect on their mental health. They have the ability to make players feel a large range of emotions, arguably more viscerally than any other form of media due to the connection the player has with the game. These include the highs of great achievements and the lows of depressing moments. They also have the ability to cause great anger, so much so that ‘rage games’ have become a whole genre of themselves.

The rage game Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy
Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy – Bennett Foddy

As long as there are games with enough challenge to generate that feeling of success that gamers strive for then there will be enough of a challenge to cause frustration and anger. Even back in gaming’s earliest days of the arcades, games were designed to be intentionally difficult in order the extract more cash for the user’s pockets.

It is important to note, however, that the feelings of failure and frustration are the main causes of bursts of anger while playing video games and not the violent nature of the games themselves, as shown by researchers from the University of Rochester. A player can be just as angry about losing progress in a management simulation game as they are when being killed in an online shooting game.

Cyber-Bulling Online

More games are online and have multiplayer features than ever before. With the increase in internet speed and the number of people connected around the world, games are striving to build strong online communities. The benefits to developers range from near limitless replayability to giving the players incentive to spend money on cosmetic items. Unfortunately, they come with a downside as well. It’s impossible to ensure that all of the communication between as players is friendly.

Cyber-bullying is becoming a huge problem across society. As we become more connected online we also have the ability to communicate with people behind the veil of an avatar and with no way of the other person being able to respond other than through voice and text. While the majority of gamers are nice and helpful there will always be a vocal minority that will intentionally ruin peoples day.

League Of Legends, a game known for a rather toxic community.
League Of Legends – Riot Games

Whilst most people can accept it for what it is or just mute the players, it does mean that players will inevitably come across a toxic player that can ruin an otherwise fun session. We also have to be incredibly careful with people who are more vulnerable to abuse such as children and those susceptible to mental issues. Prolonged bullying can have profound effects on people’s mental health and people that may be used games as an escape from bullying in the real world can be left with nowhere to turn.

Video Games and Stress

The feelings that video games can make people feel can also have a large effect on their physical bodies. Most gamers will be able to remember a time when their heart rate increased during a tense moment. Many others will recall a time when a horror game has elicited a pure fight or flight response to the danger presented.

A study showed that video games have the ability to exhibit stress responses in the body including changes to the users’ heart rates and blood pressure, muscle activity, skin conductivity and increases in cortisol levels. After a particularly intense moment, players may also find it difficult to concentrate due to the cortisol and norepinephrine levels in the body. Over long periods these can cause the same impact to overall health levels as other everyday life stressors.

Some of the long term effects of chronic stress include cardiovascular issues such as high blood pressure or heart disease, obesity, digestion issues and mental health problems such as anxiety or depression. This is not an issue if you play games in small amounts as occasional moments of stress are fine. The issue comes with a constant state of stress which can come from prolonged sessions of gaming and repetitive playing day after day.

Video Games and Addiction

Video game addiction is a phrase that’s been thrown around for a long time now. Gamers will often say they are addicted when playing a game for a long time. However, as of June 2018, the World Health Organisation now recognizes it as a genuine condition.

This is not to say gaming is dangerous. Only a very small percentage of people the play games will go on to form some kind of addiction, much in the same way that most people can enjoy alcohol without issue but it can lead to issues for some people. Similarly to other forms of addiction, those with pre-existing mental health issues may find themselves more vulnerable to it.

Whilst not everywhere recognizes this as a legitimate issue, many countries around the world such as South Korea and China have set up treatment centers to help those inflicted by gaming addiction. There have unfortunately been a number of reported instances of people dying in front of their games after suffering such as one man in South Korea who reportedly played Starcraft for 50 hours straight in an internet cafe before going into cardiac arrest.

Starcraft, and addictive game very popular in South Korea.
Starcraft – Blizzard Entertainment

There is also the story of a 16-year-old boy in the US that shot both of his parents after they took his copy of Halo 3 from him. Whilst these instances are no doubt tragedies and have a strong link to video games it is most likely that existing mental health issues that combined with video game addiction to form a deadly mixture. Luckily instances of these things happening are fairly few and far between but it is important that game addiction is properly recognized and treated.

Video Games and Gambling

Another area where addiction is a serious problem that is increasingly included within video games is gambling. The obvious cases of this would be gambling and bingo games themselves, but gambling has found its way into many of the most popular games of today.

Loot boxes have become a popular addition to many games today. They allow the user to unlock items and customize their games as well as earn a constant stream of money for the publishers after release. Whether loot boxes are a good or bad thing is a much larger debate but as of 2018, the Netherlands decided to acknowledge loot boxes as a form of gambling and many other countries have various laws that restrict loot boxes to varying degrees.

Loot crates within Overwatch, considered by some to be gambling.
Overwatch – Blizzard Enterainment

This may seem like an over-exaggeration but there are numerous stories of people blowing gigantic amounts of money buying in-game currency and loot crates. Famous stories of this happening include a 5-year-old son who spent £1700 on in-game purchases for the game Zombies vs Ninjas and the 8-year-old boy who spent £1000 on The Simpsons: Tapped Out.

Video Games and Personality Disorders

Video games work as a great form of escapism, this can have its benefits and who doesn’t like to relax in front of a Playstation and shoot some monsters to let off some steam after a tough day at the office? Some people can use this to an extreme though and it has been noted in a study that the percentage of men suffering from internet addiction who have personality disorders is significantly higher than the general population, with 29.8% of this with internet addiction showing signs as opposed to 9.3% of the general population. There is also an increase in the female test participants but it is less pronounced than with the men.

It’s worth noting here that it is not just games that were included in the study. The average for gaming based internet addiction was 28%, the same as social media addiction. The ‘other’ category showed 33% of users having a personality disorder. Whether those with personality disorders are attracted to what the internet has to offer or whether internet addiction is causing these traits, the correlation is pretty striking.

Video Games and Sexism

Video games are slowly becoming more inclusive as they acknowledge the fact that not played entirely by young white men but they still have a long way to go. Video games still often portray women as mostly eye candy or plot objects rather than actual characters.

Whilst I believe games like Dead Or Alive that use overly sexualized women as a selling point can be fine it mustn’t be a driving force for the industry as a whole. Modern-day body issues are largely a result of how all-encompassing media is in our every-day lives. This used to be primarily down to the TV and movies but games have to be mature enough to recognize that, as the largest media industry in the world, they largely influence people’s every day lives for good and bad as well.

Dead Or Alive Xtreme 3, a game that portrays unrealistic expectations of females.
Dead Or Alive Xtreme 3 – Team Ninja

Women have also been portrayed as plot objects for a long time, going back as early as Princess Peach in the Mario games. We’ve had a fair number of strong female characters in games but they fall into the minority when compared with the number of damsels in distress that need saving. We’re definitely seeing and improvement recently but games still have a way to go before they provide women with the same number of strong figures to look up to.

Adult Content

Despite the stereotype of gamers, many games have been made for adult audiences even back in the days of Doom. Unfortunately, due to the perception of them being made for kids, parents will often not take heed of the age ratings or will bow down to pressure from their children who want to play that game that everyone else at school is playing. This exposes them to content that is inappropriate for them.

Doom 1993, a violent game that helped popularize the first person shooter.
Doom – iD Software

Whilst a 90s kid may have been exposed to some pixelated blood while playing Mortal Kombat, the modern incarnations of these games are much more realistic. One employee working on the latest Mortal Kombat even claims to have received treatment for PTSD, hardly the kind of thing you want your kids experiencing whilst still in a young and easily influenced age.

Mortal Kombat, a series know for it's extreme gore and violence.
Mortal Kombat – NetherRealm Studios

Whilst this can be argued to be a problem with parenting more than game development it is something that has to be acknowledged. I don’t believe the solution is to not make games targeted towards adults as they make up a large and diverse group of games. We do however need to raise awareness of the effects that they can have on children.

The Blurring Lines Of Realism

As games become more realistic many of these problems become more pronounced. With improvements in VR accelerating at an amazing pace the lines between reality and games are becoming more and more blurred. The more real the actions you take in a video game the more real the consequences.

The worry of people becoming desensitized to violence increases when the person they are attacking responds more realistically and the player is swinging their weapon around by hand in VR.

As realism advances, these are real concerns that the games industry will have to think about. How we decide to tackle these issues could have profound effects on society.