Why do we like video games?

27 April 2015

Interview with

Dr Mark Coulson, Middlesex University London

Some estimates state that over a billion of us are "gamers", with many peopleGames playing, on average, for eight hours a week on their consoles. But why are games so popular and should we be worrying about what our games are doing to our brains? Kat Arney spoke to psychologist Mark Coulson, from the University of Middlesex, London...

Mark - I think play is ubiquitous. Everybody likes to play. In fact, it's not just our species that enjoys playing. Lots of other species seem to engage in play. Scientists have recently decided that geckos like to play. Play serves a function that enables us to learn new skills, explore new ways of handling old challenges and perhaps learn new techniques for new challenges as well.

Kat - In terms of video games, they've become wildly, wildly popular. What is it about video games in particular that people seem to really like?

Mark - I think at least part of the attraction of video games is the notion of play. They offer us fantastic environments in which we can play. But we also know that people play games for lots of different reasons. So, some people like to explore other realities. Other people like games for their social content. Other people like them because they enjoy encountering every single thing you can encounter in the game, gaining every power you can gain in the game. Other people like them because of a sense of mastery or power over other individuals. I think there are also design elements to games. Some of these designers have hit upon by accident, others, they've deliberately put into games. So for instance, if we go right the way back to Pavlov's dogs, what we know about conditioning is that if you want to condition an individual to engage in behaviour they're not subsequently going to stop performing, then the best way to do it is to intermittently reinforce them. So, you don't reinforce them every time they engage in the behaviour. You just reinforce them occasionally. Now, games actually tend to do this. If you're playing a game where you have to go often and kill monsters or something to collect treasure, and particular items of treasure that you have to collect, then the monsters won't drop that treasure every single time you kill them. So, you're being intermittently reinforced. So, there are certain sort of behavioural design principles that go into games.

Kat - And can games actually be addictive? You do hear stories about people who just play games endlessly and start to ignore the other functions of their life.

Mark - I think that's a really interesting question. First of all, I think we've got to distinguish between addiction and dependence. So, when we talk about addiction we really mean a psychological need. This is not a physical or biological need. However, if anything is enjoyable, anything at all, whether it's video games, chocolate, TV, or whatever, you can become addicted to it. So, there is always going to be a danger there. There are, I think, some quite serious problems with assessing gaming addiction. A lot of the work that's been done in this area is focused on adapting measures of gambling addiction and trying to apply them to gaming. One of the difficulties with this area is if you're asking people about gambling addiction, you may ask them questions like, "How much of the time when you're not gambling do you spend thinking about gambling?" Obviously, if you endorse a question like that, that's potentially problematic. Gaming is a little bit different though. A lot of gamers will spend time out of the game, thinking about the game itself. But this is often very productive work. This is cognitive work. This is people thinking about how they can overcome challenges. So, from a psychological perspective it might actually be quite healthy. If you simply use the kind of measures that are used to assess gambling addiction and apply them to gaming addiction, you tend to overestimate the extent of the problem.

Kat - In terms of some of the other potential risks of gaming, the media sometimes talks about perhaps violent video games, the Shoot 'Em Ups, do they encourage violent behaviour? What's the current thinking on that?

Mark - The current thinking is a little bit controversial. I think it's important to note that we don't have definitive answers. Indeed, I don't think there will necessarily be definitive answers. We are not entirely sure always what we mean by violence in a game. It's very difficult to define what we mean by violent behaviour. When we look at the literature then what becomes fairly apparent is that the better controlled the study is, the better the science that goes into the research, the smaller the effects tend to be. I think it's also notable that whenever legislation has looked at this - so for instance in California a few years ago there was a bill introduced to ban sale of violent video games to minors - that legislation has failed. Basically because when legislators looked at the evidence, they do not conclude that violent video games cause violent behaviour.

Kat - In terms of the psychological, the social impacts of games and the potential for them to change how people see themselves, change maybe how people think or even learn, where do you think games might be heading in the future?

Mark - I think games are going to explore not just new worlds but new thoughts and feelings. I think they're going to expand our opportunity to experiment with taking on roles and engaging in types of behaviour and seeing the consequences of types of behaviour that we simply cannot engage in real life. There are lots of things that we can't do - sometimes because we don't want to, sometimes because we're not able to, and sometimes because the law tells us that we can't. Games offer us an opportunity to expand our moral, our emotional, and our behavioural experiences.

Kat - As well as potentially having negative outcomes, this sounds like it could be quite positive. Whether you could get someone to play a game and maybe experience some characteristics that are perhaps very beneficial, or help them to see life from someone else's shoes.

Mark - There is definitely some evidence that people can adopt more pro-social behaviours as a result of playing games. Lots of games particularly the more mature games that have an adult rating will deal with issues of sexism and racism, and offer people the opportunity to explore these kinds of issues in effectively threat-free environments. There are no terrible immediate personal consequences of exploring these different emotions within games.

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