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Computer and video games have come a long way since Space Invaders and Pac Man. Today's games are much more complex and interesting, and the technology has advanced to the point where a gamer can become immersed in a multimedia-enabled 'virtual reality' or 'alternate world'.
Do violent role-playing games make people violent? Does spending too long at the screen cause people to become overweight and unhealthy? Do games increase skills and knowledge? These are important issues because many young people spend many hours each week playing these games.
Let's look more closely at some of the issues involved with gaming.
Video games are not all violent, but most of them are, and many of them are pretty gruesome. It has been estimated that up to 90% of games contain some violent content.
People are concerned that violent games might be causing young people to become violent - and there is some evidence to support this. Studies have shown that violent games can:
- increase physiological arousal (the 'fight or flight' response)
- increase aggressive thoughts and emotions
- increase aggressive behaviour
- reduce helping behaviour (where people become less likely to help others).
These effects seem to be stronger in young people who already tend to be aggressive. It has been argued that more hostile or aggressive young people will be attracted to violent games, and that it is not the games causing the problem. However, even taking into account the person's hostility, it is clear that exposure to violent games is linked to increased aggressive behaviour (as indicated by things like the degree to which they get into physical fights or argue with teachers).
Desensitisation to violence has been suggested as part of the problem. Desensitisation is when someone gradually begins to feel that violence is normal. When games reward players for doing violent actions, it is easy to see how this could happen.
There is also some evidence that violent games can change the way people think. One study had two groups playing games, one of them a violent game. After playing the games it was found that the group playing the violent game were more likely to:
- think it was OK to use alcohol and marijuana
- be competitive in another task
- think they were being accused of cheating in another task.
Some games, especially online role playing games, can become a substitute for 'real life', and players can become immersed in the experience of living in an imaginary world.
- Studies have shown that young people who spend too much time playing computer or video games do not do as well at school.
- Computer games may also be linked to obesity (being unhealthily overweight) – and evidence is emerging to support this.
- Playing an exciting game 2 or 3 hours before bed has been shown to cause sleep and memory problems in young people.
- Cheating in online games has become a problem, spoiling the gaming experience for some people.
People can become addicted to games. Young gamers have shown similar symptoms to people who have drug or alcohol dependence – an inability to stop playing, and withdrawal symptoms (anxiety, agitation) if they go without access to their gaming 'fix'.
Gamers also report that they play games to escape things like family or personal problems – in a similar way to people who use drugs or alcohol to escape their problems.
There have been reports of adults who play so much they neglect their families. There are even support groups for family members of people with an addiction to one game in particular.
Some gamers seem to retreat into a cyberworld and have difficutly relating to reality.
If you feel gaming is becoming a real problem, perhaps you should have a chat with a counsellor - see below for some contacts.
Overuse injuries including RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury)
- You can develop overuse injuries from playing games or sitting at the computer too long.
- The main symptom is pain on making certain movements.
- It usually happens due to repeating the same physical movement over and over – eg. clicking a mouse button.
- For gamers or heavy computer users, it's common to get RSI in the wrist. This results from the tendons in the arm and wrist being overworked, causing the tendons and the tissue covering the tendons to become inflamed and sore.
- Sometimes computer users can get other overuse problems such as neck pains or tingling in the fingers.
There are a number of ways to deal with the problem.
- The obvious way is to stop using the affected part of the body. This may require swapping the computer's mouse to the opposite hand, or taking regular breaks.
- You could have a look at the ergonomics of your computer setup – the position of the keyboard, screen, mouse and chair. Some adjustments may be required. For more information, have a look at:
- If you have pain that won't go away, you should see your doctor.
It is perhaps not surprising that sitting in front of a computer screen for hours on end might be linked to obesity – people sit still, don't exercise, and often eat a lot.
It may also be that overweight young people tend to spend more time at the computer because they are not as active in other areas.
Make sure that you limit how long you stay on the computer - and do more active things often.
Eyes that are focused on the same distance point for long times become tired - which can lead to blurred vision and headaches.
Blurred vision and headaches can also be a sign of eye problems - so get your vision checked if you are having problems focussing on the screen or doing other things such as reading or seeing things that are at a distance clearly.
So why do people play games? Is there a positive side to video games?
Here are some of the good aspects of gaming:
- Lets face it - they are great fun.
- There is some evidence that playing computer games improves hand-eye coordination.
- There is some evidence that playing fast paced action games improves people's eyesight.
- Some games involve physical activity, like those with a wireless remote or dancing games, and this provides some exercise. But research suggests these games are not a good enough substitute for normal exercise. Check out the topic Exercise for ideas.
- Being a good gamer is a source of self-esteem for some young people.
- Most games provide mental stimulation and require some form of problem solving.
- Playing with friends can be an enjoyable social interaction.
- Online games provide people with a way to communicate with others around the world, which is especially good for people with anxiety issues or disabilities.
- Educational games are a fun way to learn.
- Games will probably be used for training in the future (ie. as simulators), particularly as computer power increases.
So enjoy your games, but try to chose the less violent ones, and get outside for some regular exercise.
- Reachout Central (ROC)is a great game. You unlock sections by doing tasks and interacting with characters. Use your mobile, computer, backpack and mp3 player to help you. The game shows how beliefs and actions affect your mood, and its heaps of fun. Developed by Reachout - an Australian online youth mental health service.
- 'Darfur is dying' shows the violence that is happening in the Sudan, in the hope that it will raise awareness. To find out more, play the game, and learn how you can help:
- ACMA (Australian Government) Cyber[smart] now have an interactive game for you to play, called Cybernetrix. In the game you get to build a character and then interact with objects and learn about using the net safely:
- ReMission - An epic battle deep into the human body. Help destroy malignant cancer cells:
- Love Bugs is like the classic game Space Invaders, but this time you are battling STIs (sexually transmitted infections) instead of aliens. Go to the 'Likeitis' site to play the game and learn about STIs:
Anderson CA, Funk JB and Griffiths MD. (eds). 'Video Games and Public Health'. Journal of Adolescence, February 2004; 27(1): 1-122.
Attorney General's Department - Australian Government
Better Health Channel (Victoria)
Brady S. and Matthews K. 'Effects of Media Violence on Health-Related Outcomes Among Young Men'. Archives of Paediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Apr 2006; 160: 341 - 347.
Che-hsu, J. et al. Daily computer usage correlated with undergraduate students' musculoskeletal symptoms. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, published Online: 20 Apr 2007: p 481-488.
Graves, L. et al. Comparison of energy expenditure in adolescents when playing new generation and sedentary computer games: cross sectional study. British Medical Journal, 2007; 335: 1282-1284.
Levin A. (2004). 'Video games, not TV, linked to obesity in kids'. Centre for the Advancement of Health. Health Behaviour News Service.
Tejeiro S and Bersabe M. 'Measuring problem video game playing in adolescents'. Addiction, Dec 2002; 97 (12): 1601-1607.
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).