Science Interviews


Mon, 11th Aug 2014

Video games: good or bad?

Duncan Astle, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit

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We’ve been hearing a lot in the news recently about the effects video games haveVideogameson children. This week, a scientific paper from Oxford says video games could actually be beneficial, even improving cognitive or intellectual ability.

However another paper, by scientists from Dartmouth College, claims there are negative social impacts if children play violent games. So who, and what, should we believe? Ginny Smith went to talk to Duncan Astle from the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge…

Duncan -   The two studies look at the relationship between how much video game play children engage in and different kinds of psychological and social factors.  And what these two studies have both shown is that there is a significant relationship between how much video game play children engage in and different kinds psychological and social factors.

Ginny -   So, why do you think they found different results?

Duncan -   So, one of the studies has shown that a little bit of game play – so, up to an hour a day- can confer some benefits, relative to playing no games at all.  Playing a moderate amount – so, playing 1 to 3 hours a day has no real effect, and playing more than 3 hours a day – so, what they refer to as heavy game play – has a negative effect.  Some of these games are really taxing of particular cognitive skills.  Like attention, you have to kind of ignore distractions or memory, you have to remember where various things are within the game.  They would argue is that when you play a little bit of the game, you get the kind of cognitive benefits, but you don’t spend so long playing the game that you don’t experience everything else in the world around you that’s important for cognitive development.  But we should also flag up that there are some problems here.  So, one of the issues here is that the relationship may be significant, but it’s also often quite small.  So, in one of the studies for example, the effect of the game play actually accounts for 1% of the pro-social hyperactivity measured in these children.

Ginny -   So, in real life, you wouldn’t really be able to notice that difference in your child.

Duncan -   Absolutely.  So yes, it’ll be hard for us to notice that kind of difference.

Ginny -   So, we’ve talked a bit about the Oxford study that found this benefit to the one hour of playing, but what about the other one that said that any kind of playing of these violent video games was negative?

Duncan -   So, one of the big differences is that it’s different types of games.  In the first study, as far as we can tell, they're including any type of game play whereas in this study, they're meaning very particular adult-like games.  They followed the adolescents over time from around 13 through to around 18.  What they were able to show was that early game play when the individual is around 13, would be predictive of subsequent problems with things like aggression and smoking, and drinking.

Ginny -   Isn’t there something else going on here though because I can imagine that a child who is already not very sociable might be drawn to playing video games in their room for hours because they didn’t want to go outside and play?  So, how can we tell which way around the relationship is?

Duncan -   That is essentially one of the inherent problems with these kinds of studies.  So, there are essentially what we call correlational studies.  So, they take a natural variability in how much children engage or for how long they engage in playing games and looked at the relationship between that and other kinds of factor.  We can't necessarily from that, infer causation.  So for example, if we took a large group of children and we measured their shoe size and how many words they knew, their vocabulary, we would find a really close relationship between the two.  That’s not because learning new words makes your feet grow.  It’s simply because the older you get, the bigger your feet become and the more words you learn.  So, we can't necessarily from this infer that playing of video games is causing changes.  It could very well be – as you said – the other way around.

Ginny -   So, you work on what's actually going on in the brain when children practice various different things.  Did these studies fit in with the kind of thing you’ve been finding?

Duncan -   We’re really interested in how children respond to highly structured games and their games attacks cognitive skills like executive functions.  So executive functions are things like attention and memory, and we know they're really important in everyday life and they're really important in the classroom.  They predict really well how well children will learn and how much progress they can make in the classroom.  And so, we’re really interested in, if you give children intensive practice, what kind of effect that has on the child’s brain?  Our early results suggest that there are some important differences that you can train certain types of simple cognitive skill.  And that does have an impact on the child’s brain.


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Video games are good for the developing brain. In particular, video games can stimulate neurogenesis (birth of new neurons) and brain connectivity. Video games can also be helpful for peoples with ADHD, TBI, and depressive disorders. tkadm30, Mon, 21st Nov 2016

I think that video games are good for young children as they give them an incentive to learn to read and write much as the wireless in the thirties made me learn to read the Radio Times.
I think the problem with Video games for young adults is that the consequences of violence are not made sufficiently clear with people surviving being blown up or being in crashes syhprum, Mon, 21st Nov 2016

Silly anecdote to begin with: when the first arcade games appeard, we had one installed in a flying club bar. It disappeared and was never replaced after a student, who hadn't reached solo stage in the real thing,  shot down the chief flying instructor and two Polish DFCs in a tournament.

Certainly practice at anything that requires eye-hand coordination, improves that coordination and may have other benefits in staving off dementia or whatever.

It always pays to follow the money rather than the academics. Billions are spent on TV advertising because everyone in the industry knows that moving pictures and sound can change people's attitudes and choices. There's not much point in playing a war game where you can run out of ammunition, fuel, or life (indeed it would be difficult to sell a game where the player always loses), so my guess is that many kids set thse parameters to "unlimited" and grow up believing, somewhere deep down, that they are invincible and have indefinite resources. And of course that anyone who doesn't wear your uniform must be killed.

Back to the beginning: once video games progressed beyond flight simulators, armies have used them to improve soldiers' performance in urban infantry operations, including desensitising infantrymen (it's worth reading Grossman's book "On Killing" to see the problem from the commanders' side). There is ample evidence that offduty policemen sharpen their skills and lose their inhibitions through video games. No surprise then if the occasional teenager or neonazi nutter adopts the posture of the lone hero saving the world from the untermenschen. As pointed out above 
but that isn't always a Good Thing for society.

Let's see how the next President of the United States, who apparently has only ever read one book, behaves. I bet he plays all sorts of video games when he isn't interfering with children.    alancalverd, Mon, 21st Nov 2016

Although no lover of USA president elect I feel this is verging on slander and should be removed

"plays all sorts of video games when he isn't interfering with children."     


syhprum, Mon, 21st Nov 2016

It would be a slander if I asserted that he did interfere with children, which I didn't. You may have inferred it, but I have been studying the Donald Trump Book of Public Speaking. How often the President-Elect has settled out of court on a charge of statutory rape is of course a matter of public record and I wouldn't want to comment on that. alancalverd, Mon, 21st Nov 2016

Reading carefully  it seems that you are convinced to the extent that you would place a bet on it that he interferes with children, you are only quoting your own opinion not stating that your opinion is fact .
Although this may not legally be slander because we are all permitted to have our opinions as long as we do not publish them as fact but I still think you are sailing close to the wind

syhprum, Mon, 21st Nov 2016

Are you accusing me of being a betting man? I'm offended. I demand an immediate retraction of your unfounded slur on my character, or I'll see you in court. And that, my friend, is how the next President of the United States interprets free speech: you can say what can afford to defend.

Anyway, it seems that Little Donny once tweeted against video games, and Hitler was a vegetarian, so the world ain't all bad. alancalverd, Tue, 22nd Nov 2016

There has been a propaganda how violent video games increase the violence in teenages but the thing is its actually DECREASING violence and you can look it up.
There is nothing wrong with it and they are decreasing stress, it can only be bad if you are playing video games alot and its hurting your everyday life. Wicked96, Thu, 24th Nov 2016

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