Video Games as the Future of Entertainment
There is no denying that video games are a major player in the entertainment industry. A report from Forbes showed that in 2019, gamers averaged 7 hours of gaming each week – a 20% increase from 2018 . Some industry reports estimate that the video games market is worth 2.5 times the size of the movie and music industry combined. Others project that the video games market will grow by 12.9% from 2020 to 2027 . As a testament to the broad appeal and reach of video games, consider a comparison of the revenue generated between video games and movies. The much-anticipated Avengers: Endgame movie netted USD853,373,00 in its opening weekend in April 2019. The movie went on to make approximately USD2.79b. But even the epic conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe was eclipsed by the USD6 billion in sales for Grand Theft Auto V – a video game released back in September 2013 . A more recent example, sales of the popular Nintendo Switch gaming console netted the Japanese gaming giant more than a 400% increase in profits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nintendo sold 5.7 million consoles during this time – a 166.6% increase compared to sales in the previous year . Sales of the console during this time was partly due to the demand for a life simulation game, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which kept gamers indoors – but connected and interacting with friendly animal characters.
The Effects of Gaming: Why all the Negatives?
Amidst the growing popularity and acceptance of this form of modern-day entertainment, there have been studies highlighting the negative psychological effects of playing video games. Numerous published studies have shown video games – particularly those with violent content, to lead to desensitization to violence, thereby increasing aggression. A meta-analysis by Chris Anderson and colleagues, for instance, assessed the effects of violent video games from 136 published studies, with a total of 130, 296 respondents. Anderson and colleague found that violent video games do lead to increased aggressive cognitions and behaviours. They argue that exposure to violent video games causes plays to see the world as hostile; violence being an acceptable means of resolving real-world conflict. Exposure to violent video game also leads individuals to experience more aggressive feelings, decreasing their empathy and prosocial behaviours .
Research by neuroscientists shows that one way in which violent video games affects undesirable and destructive behavioural changes is through desensitization. One study showed that when participants played a violent video game, they showed lower brain activation when later exposed to violent images . The researchers concluded that exposure to violent media in any form can lead one to be desensitized to violence, increasing aggression and hostility. The increased emphasis and concerns about violent video games may in part, be attributable to incidents of gun violence and notably, school shootings in the United States. This had led to an ongoing debate on the hazards of violent video games on adolescent’s psychological functioning. Supporters for greater restriction and the banning of violent video games cite psychological research on how violent video games lead to aggression, while detractors saying that the furore over video games and violence reflects more a case of moral panic. Critics also state that claims of the violent video-game aggression links are overstated, one based primarily on experimental studies that do not translate to a real-world cause for concern .
Prosocial Video Games Increase Empathy
But perhaps it is time to change the tune on video game research. As video gaming becomes an increasingly popular pastime and as the new types of games are released into the market, psychologists have also noted that there may too, be some positive effects of gaming. The harmful effects observed in previous studies may also be limited in that they focus exclusively on violent video games – games that reward the (virtual) harming of games’ antagonists and rivals through aggressive means. Recent meta-analytic results also suggest that the violent video game-aggression link may be over-stated. A review of 101 studies, sampling 106,070 children and adolescents, showed that there were minimal negative effects of video gaming on aggression, prosocial behaviour, or even academic performance . The results show that while violent video games have a small (but still, statistically significant) relationship with real-world aggressive tendencies, this is what one might expect if we base our conclusions on violent video games alone. And, if we were to induce aggression in controlled laboratory settings, the aggression observed could simply be due to short-term ‘priming’ effects. Thoughts of aggression, feelings of anger and intentions to behave aggressively are brought to the fore in such short-term inductions of aggression – but there is no certainty that participants will take their aggressions out to real people outside of the laboratory.
If anything, recent studies have also shown how video gaming can make participants more prosocial and empathetic. This series of studies, lead by Tobias Greitemeyer and colleagues, provides evidence telling us that when we play certain video games, we can also learn to play nice with others – and this may even translate to real-life positive changes. Contrasting the effects of violent video games, a series of four experimental studies showed that when participants were primed with prosocial video games, they were more likely to engage in prosocial behaviour themselves. And, interestingly, this effect translated to real-world prosocial behaviours as well. In the study, participants who played the prosocial video game – a game called Lemmings, were more likely to engage in helping behaviour. They were more likely to assist another seen as experiencing a mishap, volunteer to help the researcher’s additional experiments and were more likely to intervene when observing an individual being harassed . Another study showed how prosocial video games lead to increased feelings of positive affect, increased empathy and also reduced feelings of schadenfreude – all factors essential for improved interpersonal connections with others . There is also evidence suggesting that prosocial video games’ effects extend across culture and has long-term effects. Sampling middle-school children from Singapore and Japan, along with undergraduate students in the United States, a longitudinal study by Douglas Gentile and colleagues showed that youth, adolescents and young adults who played prosocial games were more cooperative and helpful than those who played neutral or violent games. The analysis also indicated that prosocial video games predicted subsequent prosocial tendencies – that there is a long-term effect of empathy and prosociality from playing such games .
The results of these new studies indicate that if we were to focus on violent video games alone then surely, it would be unsurprising that we find them associated with some aggressive tendencies. But the effects of these short-term primes for aggression don’t necessarily extend beyond the laboratory setting – violent video games are not the sole determinant for the gun violence or juvenile crimes we see reported in the media. The growing range of video game titles also suggests that games with minimal (or comical mischief) aggression may have little to no adverse consequences on individuals’ behaviours. The recent research on the positive side of video gaming – prosocial games, in particular, indicates that we (and our children) can enjoy video games that can have a positive effect on our empathy and interpersonal skills.