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Are Videogames Harmful?

In recent years, videogames turned from entertainment for children into a multi-million industry, from a subculture to a major part of mainstream culture. Images and characters from videogames are as recognizable as characters or images from other traditional forms of media. Playing videogames no longer requires specific devices – consoles, gaming is possible on almost any digital equipment, from a cell-phone to home computer. Thus both casual mobile games and so called “AAA-titles” (games with budgets of more than hundred million dollars) are available for all categories of population. Videogames, good or bad, useful or harmful, are here to stay, so it is important to learn positive and negative aspects of gaming.

Most teenagers admit playing videogames. Gaming is not only entertainment; it also provides different emotional, intellectual and even physical experiences. As a piece of entertainment, videogames are in most cases successful in fulfilling their major function – to entertain. However, unlike films, books and other non-interactive forms of media, games make the user personally involved in the experience. Thus from the physiological point of view the experience is very different. This difference bares both potential benefits and harms to the user. Researchers admit that playing games can have positive effects on development of certain skills. Playing co-operative modes of videogames can enhance the players’ ability to work cooperatively on solving common issues. Being a part of a company in an online multiplayer game, the players communicate with each other, and for some of them directing the actions of the company can be a mean to develop leadership skills. In a research “The Benefits of Playing Videogames” by Granic, Lobel and Engels a number of positive effects of gaming are named. These benefits differ according to the genre and style of videogames. Shooters and other action games can enhance cognitive skills, visual recognition and reaction, games which involve creative processes, like “Minecraft” can be useful to develop imagination, puzzle games can develop logic (thus some forms of videogames are even used in education). The researchers also mention that games can have positive motivational, emotional and social effects. For the playthrough of the game to be continuous, the player must be constantly motivated to achieve new goals, to discover newer characters and locations, to move the plot of the game further. The player is motivated to win and achieve, and if these skills are projected on the real-life behavior, this effect can be useful. The same can be said about the emotional satisfaction which comes with finishing a goal in the game. As for the social effect, the online gaming community can help players to find contacts and acquaintances outside their usual circle of contacts. The gathered achievements can bring a sense of unity within the group. The researchers state that:

Video games are socially interactive in a way never before afforded. Increasingly, players are gaming online, with friends, family, and complete strangers, crossing vast geographical distances and blurring not only cultural boundaries but also age and generation gaps, socioeconomic differences, and language barriers (Granic, Lobel and Engels).

Although gaming has some positive effects, each of them have their negative side. When playing a game a person can become a part of a fictitious world, can take part in the resolution of problems, can communicate with other players. The problem with this involvement is that it sometimes creates and illusion of fulfillment, when there is none. Even if the dramatic situation in the game is resolved, in the real world there is no resolution, and understanding which can cause frustration among players, and even depression. The player can feel detached from reality, because the real world does not always provide a definite resolution or victory. Understanding that only fictitious reality can provide a true closure can force gamers to get more involved in these unreal worlds. Players become more dependant on the reality, where their existence, actions and decisions actually mean something, even if this world is not real. This problem of escapism is inherent to all sorts of fiction, but gaming is the only form of narrative where the consumer is directly involved and is not just a spectator (Chew).

Some gamers spent all their free time playing; this problem is mostly related to MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing games) like “World of Warcraft”. The players are so involved in these games that they spend all of their spare time playing and become socially enclosed. Although there is some communication within these games, in most cases, it starts and ends within the game; it has no long-term social effects outside the fantasy world. In some cases, gaming can become an addiction, which is another problem – a sickness, which must be treated as such. Game-addicts spend less time on other activities, become self-absorbed and aggressive towards their relatives, which leads to social isolation and other related psychological problems. Jesslyn Chew compares game addiction to other dangerous habits of such nature:

“Problematic video game use isn’t all that different from other types of addictive behavior, such as alcohol or drug abuse, which can be spurred by poor coping strategies.”

In a study “7 health benefits of playing video games” by Danny Gallagher, the researcher states that in some cases playing video games can be useful for health of children and people of old age. The researcher points out that playing games can help fighting anxiety and depression, improve vision and motor skills, and have other positive physical effects:

“Gamers who suffered from mental health issues such as stress and depression were able to vent their frustration and aggression by playing video games” (Gallagher).

However, most of these effects are caused by games especially designed for treatment, education and development; these qualities are not present in most casual games. These positive effects should not be ignored, but there are as many, if not more, ways games can harm health, especially for children and teenagers who are more vulnerable for outside influences. On of the most argued problems is the videogame violence. There are numerous discussions and researchers of this topic, which prove opposite points, but although graphic violence in video games can be harmful, especially for the immature personalities; it is important not to underestimate the role of the parental control over what children are playing. The ESRB (The Entertainment Software Rating Board) rating system provides the possibility for parents to control the content of the game their children play. Although this system has its share of faults, the responsibility must not be taken from parents. Instead on focusing on this much discussed problem, other dangers of gaming to health must be mentioned. According to a study “Video Games and Your Child’s Health” by Earl Hunsinger, excessive gaming can cause decrease of brain functions. Other potential harms are caused not necessarily by the games themselves, but by the way they are played – indoor, in a set position of the body, at the TV screen for many hours. These conditions can cause problems with sight and obesity:

A more immediate, and more obvious, concern is the link between the use of these modern forms of entertainment and obesity. This link has nothing to do with the content of the game or television program, but rather with the time spent in these sedentary activities. The result is a lack of sufficient exercise. (Hunsinger)

Videogames are now integral part of modern culture, much like television and movies which were also met with controversies on their social advantages and harms. It is counterproductive and practically useless to try to ban videogames and put blames of all social problems on games and gamers only. Games will turn a profit to corporations and will continue to entertain their users no matter what. What researchers can and should do, is to study all potential benefits and harms of gaming, not to use them as arguments in criticizing it as a phenomenon, but to find out how to decrease the harm and to maximize the positive effects. It is important not to be judgmental, blaming games for all evils in the world, but to concentrate on making games better. Another field of work is to address the extreme cases of game-addiction, to treat this disorder as a sickness and not just as a side effect of gaming. Programs for parents and school counselors on how to treat game-addicts and those who suffer from extreme social and psychological problems caused by games should be created. Moreover, there must be an active informational campaign, which offers other pastimes as an alternative to playing games, this information should get children interested in these activities, and should not be aggressively imposed on them.