Video games: good or bad?

There's lots of both good and bad press surrounding video games. But what should we believe?
11 August 2014

Interview with 

Duncan Astle, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit


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