As a male in my early 20s who still enjoys indulging in video games, I will try my best to present this topic from an unbiased standpoint. I have seen and played a reasonable number of video games since the PS1 days, and my beliefs on this topic reflect my current standpoint. I seek to be mostly informative in writing this article, which presents a number of trends and observations which I have noticed over the years, and I provided my overall stance on the mental and physical health impacts.
Disclaimer: there is no real organization to this article. Rather, I’ll simply be providing some free-form commentary on the current status of video games.
Video game violence
I’ll start off by talking about what is perhaps the most controversial aspect of modern video games – violence. Video game violence is unfortunately not uncommon; most popular online multiplayer video games today involve the destruction of an opposing team’s buildings or players. The competitive nature of these games has also led to various immature in-game actions, such as “tea-bagging” and “gorilla jumping” 1. In the realm of single-player or campaign games, the popular “first-person shooter” (FPS) genre essentially revolves around a player character carrying a weapon, moving around a map, and shooting enemies. Even if you’ve never touched a single video game in your entire life, you’ve probably heard of either Halo, Call of Duty, or Counter Strike; they are all popular first-person shooters. Many trendy role-playing games also contain particularly violent or bloody scenes, some of which are directly scripted into the game. The list of violent RPGs is endless, and while I would’ve liked to see more passive, story-driven video games, the unfortunate truth is that violent video games are highly marketable.
Ultimately, it’s up to parents to ensure that their children are not exposed to such violence until an appropriate age. Parental control has been in effect for movies and TV shows for a long time, and the Entertainment Software Rating Board seeks to mimic such content-based ratings for video games. Since the motion picture rating system seems to be working well for movies, one would imagine that ESRB-based ratings work reasonably well. Yet, opponents of video games still seem intent on portraying video games as instilling “dangerous” and “unhealthy” thoughts, all while conveniently forgetting the recurring violence in movies and TV shows. I personally know a teenager whose parents forbid him from playing Counter-Strike, which contains no gore or foul language, but allow him to watch Game of Thrones, which contains copious amounts of female nudity, sexual violence, and graphic content. Such is the hypocrisy of activists such as Jack Thompson, who seek to discredit and blame the video game industry while overtly ignoring the analogous effect of consumable media.
I am not saying that video games aren’t a part of the problem; rather, I’m simply saying that they should not be considered the only problem. Parents know their kids best, and it should be up to them to control their kid’s consumption of various forms of pop culture. And while video games and movies/shows are indeed two different beasts, those who blindly condemn video game violence without looking at the bigger picture are fooling not only fooling themselves, but also those that they influence.
Most video games also indirectly strengthen stereotypical perceptions of male and female beauty. Male characters are often tenacious, physically large or strong, and maybe have a battle scar or two. By a similar token, most female characters are slim, somewhat large-breasted, and, depending on the genre, highly nimble and athletic. Unlike male characters, female characters were often relegated to the role of a sidekick or aid to the male protagonist. They are also almost always human or human-looking (hello, Mass Effect).
These observation are likely a result of the fact that the video game base is predominantly male. Fortunately, as more and more female gamers have appeared in clans, communities, and forums, the character gender balance in video games has also been slowly improving. Next-gen video games now incorporate female playable characters, and non-human female characters are now more prevalent. Although this is likely a subliminal response to the increased diversity of the video game base, it may also be purely for the sake of parity (though the former is more likely than the latter).
As an example, I’ll examine League of Legends (LoL), a popular online multiplayer video game which involves picking and playing as a certain character, or “champion”, if I were using LoL-speak. Although this game is only one of many games in its genre (and the genre itself is one of many in the broad set of video games), you’ll often see this general ideology repeated between well-known video games. On the left hand side, I show a randomly sampled set of eight male LoL characters along with their respective primary and secondary roles. On the right hand side, I show eight female characters sampled under the same conditions.
Yes, this is a generalization, but I think the associated conclusions are nonetheless quite damning.
Online multiplayer games
Most video games combine elements of strategy and reflex. Early turn-based games, for example, relied on the player making appropriate decisions and moves in order to progress. The reflex part —–, and can be attributed to a huge rise in the computational power of state-of-the-art computers and networking systems. These advances have led to which has allowed for millisecond response times through the internet. Matchmade multiplayer games – games where a player is randomly assigned to a lobby of other players – are now commonplace, and many of the predominantly single-player game franchises now have an online multiplayer component.
The huge rise in these types of games (League of Legends is one of them) has prompted somewhat of an evolution in the gaming world. Tournaments with cash prizes are now held around the world for a variety of different multiplayer games. The sudden rise of e-sports has prompted a change in the methods of consumption for such media as well. Video game streaming platform Twitch.tv, which is dedicated to livestreaming various entertainers playing video games, was ranked 4th in peak internet traffic in a February 2014 study, behind Netflix, Google, and Apple. Valve, an online video game management and community platform, was ranked 7th, just barely behind Facebook. These figures have been growing at a rapid rate over the past year.
The increasing popularity of e-sports has proved to be worrisome for many parents, who fear that the increase in such online video games will lead their kids to lead more sedentary lifestyles. This is especially true now that players can connect with friends through such platforms. As such, many parents limit the amount of time with which their children can play these games, citing their mentally addictive properties and potential health issues. Others say that video games promote dangerous fantasies (cue all the Grand Theft Auto haters). My parents limited my video game time every week when I was in elementary and middle school, primarily so I could learn self-control and time management when I grew older. Regardless of what you believe, there is an undeniable truth – the video game industry has blown up with the advent of the modern transistor, and will continue to grow as its audience expands beyond the stereotypical group of “nerdy and young adult males”.
The bottom line
At this point, you probably believe that I have somewhat of an aversion to video games. After all, they can be violent, enforce gender stereotypes, and don’t seem to immediately contribute to one’s career. This belief could not be further from the truth. Let me explain why.
I am a firm believer in moderation. With the exception of truly toxic/dangerous elements and objects (such as lead, arsenic, and Big Macs), consumption of everything should be in moderation up to a reasonable amount. This amount can often be determined through common sense and/or experience, and the consumption of video games are no exception. Like sugary drinks and mobile phones, video games have received heavy criticism due to their “overconsumption” by adolescent and young adult gamers. I believe that, while there are indeed lots of issues surrounding video games, they can also be excellent tools for relieving stress, staying mentally sharp, and connecting with friends, provided that they are played in moderation. In this sense, video games will not dominate one’s day, and it henceforth becomes easy to separate fantasy (video game world) from reality (real world), i.e. the division which exists between them no longer becomes thin and worn out.
My general rule of thumb is as follows: if you spend t hours per week engaged in physical activity, you should not exceed t hours of video games in that same week. Although I don’t strictly adhere to this rule, I believe that this holds true for myself when averaged out over several weeks. This policy has worked quite well for me, and has allowed me to focus on my daily work and errands while still staying physically fit and happy.
As a final word, I encourage you to read future articles about the negative effects of video games with a grain of salt. An open-minded reader will understand that most of them are written by middle age men and women who likely do not fully understand the nuances of video games. Terrible journalism such as this article is what makes me truly lose faith in news stations and online newspapers. Not only is the title misleading, but the conclusions of the study itself violate the very foundations of causation-correlation. I’m not saying that the conclusion is false – it’s just incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to wholly understand the effect of video games on adolescents. Having played violent video games myself, I’d like to think that I turned out just fine.