Video Game Violence and the Continuing Argument About Mental Health
Been Playing Video Games My Whole Life and Look How I Turned Out!
Hello, all you Jackalers/Dave’s Habibis! I want to start this off by saying that I’ve known David for a long time. 30 years! When Dave asked me to take his spot this week while he is on baby duty (or doody...diapers, am I right?...and yes I made a poop joke early on), I was extremely flattered, albeit full of nerves and doubt. This smart, politically-savvy guy and his audience are going to read something that I’m writing? Hell, I’m a video game journalist. I write about video games.
I mean, the guy even lined up after two wonderful guest writers: One, a wonderfully informative, and hilarious, piece by an epidemiologist from the CDC, and another writer - also funny - who is an executive recruiter and made me feel better about my job searches. And then I’m supposed to keep these subscribers engaged?
Well, here goes...I’m somehow going to try to stimulate your intellect with a discussion on:
Video games and mental health.
How to get down with what your kids are playing.
Video Games are Rotting Your Brains (but not really).
It’s safe to say I love video games. I’ve been a gamer for over thirty years. As video game technology continuously makes incredible strides in graphics, storytelling, and connectivity between players all over the world, I’ve done my fair bit of laughing, crying, friend-making and fun-having over these decades!
Despite all the good that video games have brought my fellow gamers and me, the industry and games are continuously attacked. Elder generations go on about video games rotting brains out and raising little serial killers. I watched the industry get attacked by lawyers like Jack Thompson (a total hack who is now disbarred) after he sued the gaming industry over the content of games like Grand Theft Auto (GTA). Murder trials in every decade since the 1980s try to use “violence in video games” as a be-all, end-all argument. Even the World Health Organization added “Gaming Disorder” to their 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).
An overarching theme to many of these attacks, especially in the last decade: Mental health. Specifically, there is a prevalent argument that video games are bad for your brain.
This argument, and mental health in general, is important to me because I suffer from Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia). The tl;dr version is that I lose interest in activities, have panic attacks or bad days filled with anxious dread, feel hopeless, and sometimes have low self-esteem. These feelings last for days, weeks, or even years at a time and can significantly interfere with my relationships, work, and other activities. I call it, “Having Brain Raccoons,” which means it’s having filthy little trash pandas that throw garbage everywhere and make too much noise as pets. Quite opposite to the “video games are bad for mental health” argument, I’ve found that video games have given me hours and hours of amazing storytelling, music, art, and countless memories with my friends, even (and maybe especially) when I’ve felt down.
Is There Any Actual Connection Between Mental Health and Video Games?
Good question. We have a remarkably small amount of research that tries to objectively answer this question! However, the studies that are out there often conclude with some general, “IDK,” like, “Future studies are needed to examine whether these psychological health risks reflect the causes or consequences of video games.”
“Previous research has relied mainly on self-report surveys to study the relationship between play and wellbeing. Without objective data from games companies, those proposing advice to parents or policymakers have done so without the benefit of a robust evidence base.”
In fact, Przybylski said at the start of this project he was shocked by how little hard data had been used by previous studies into the potential harms or benefits of gaming.
In his findings, he said, “If you play four hours a day of Animal Crossing, you’re a much happier human being, but that’s only interesting because all of the other research before this is done so badly.”
The researchers emphasized that the findings are not a carte blanche pass for games. “I’m very confident that if the research goes on, we will learn about the things that we think of as toxic in games,” Przybylski said, “and we will have evidence for those things as well.”
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Side of Gaming.
Limited hard data aside, I am of the opinion that video games can greatly benefit mental health. In my experience, online play has let me connect to my friends who live far away1 and provides an opportunity for me to connect even more to my friends who live nearby. Especially since COVID-19, the social connectedness from video games is important, whether or not you live with mental health issues.
In fact, video games can even improve one’s social skills. In certain types of games (online roleplaying, virtual world gaming), social skills are integral to the gameplay as players must discuss and agree on in real-time how to progress and carry the story onwards. Granted, that argument seems invaild when talking about shooter games, but playing these games with a group of friends means planning strategic maneuvering with others (and having some fun online).
Finally, I believe video games give people a healthy escape. I don’t mean that one can avoid facing problems by hiding behind video games, but more that one can find a welcomed distraction full of story, art, and characters they love. Video games have given me this on days my depression was so bad that all I wanted to do was cry. And they still do.
I should note that while I think that video games can be great for those needing relief from mental health issues, they can still have a toxic edge.
Enter Toxic Players (the ones your kids should look out for).
Toxic players berate others while playing online, especially women, people of color, LGBTQA+, or another non-white minority. Many games have toxic players, but they are more frequently encountered in games that have more of a competitive edge. Thick skins or not, verbal abuse definitely doesn’t help mental health. Luckily, many game developers are now encouraging players to report toxic gamers in order to keep gaming platforms a safe space.
I had an instance where I was having a bad night. My online gaming performance was not at its best when I received a message from a stranger who was playing (on my team): “You suck. Go Die.” I felt miffed. Attacked. All around, not great. But instead of starting a fight, or doing as he suggested, I messaged back. “Sorry, Having a bad night. Still new to the game.”
This person apologized. Then sent me a few pointers on how to help me in my next game and ended it with, “Hope you feel better. Have fun!” Despite me lying about being new to the game, with just a simple message I was able to defuse the toxic behavior.
It is NOT always this easy, mind you. Some people will actually get death threats (especially if you happen to be one of the aforementioned groups of people). But even in a bad mental state I was able to fend off my attacker. I went on to play a few more times, had a great night, and even took his suggestions in mind (the latter ones, not the “Go Die” part, obviously.”
Okay, John. Just Tell Us if Video Games are Really Bad for Our Kids.
I’m not sure if you got this vibe, or when I said that I’m a video game journalist for a living, but I’m not professionally qualified to make this assessment. I don’t hold scientific degrees. I’m not a child psychologist. I still can’t figure out how my own adult brain works sometimes.
However, I would argue video games in general should not negatively affect the mental health of adults any more than TV or movies. Our entertainment culture can be violent, graphic, obscene, and isolating. This culture is reflected in some video games, but isn’t unique to them. If a person is disproportionately affected by the contents of video games, there is likely another problem at play.
Our culture has always had a violent nature. Everything from politics, guns, sports, road rage, long lines, and even longer receipts at CVS can set us off. Yes, video games get competitive and may affect people's Mental Health in other ways. However, gaming is a hobby and you shouldn’t have to keep rage under control. Good Luck, Have Fun!
As for kids, not only do I have no scientific qualifications, I’m also not a parent. In either case, I do think the answer is more complicated here and might be best answered by individual parents. Kids need balance (they are learning that life is a juggling act!). They need boundaries. They are impressionable. They may have underlying dispositions that have not yet been identified. Parents, the only way to make sure video games are not negatively impacting your child’s mental health is to: Know what images and stories your kids are being exposed to (1), understand the platform and technology that they are using (2), and judge how it might affect your kid (3).
Want to know the easiest way to do this? Spend time with your kids! Play video games (or try to unsuccessfully) with them! Talk to them about what they are playing, who they are playing with, and the themes to which they’re exposed. Not only will this translate into more quality time with your kids, it will also give you the insight into how to best set limits, promote balance, and generally raise a walking, talking germ factory into a functional member of society.
If your child is asking for a game that you don’t know, look it up! We have amazing pocket computers that give us an abundance of information 24/7. If you don't know what Rocket League, Halo, Gears of War, or Animal Crossing are and want to know whether or not to buy them for your kid, LOOK IT UP!
(Also, definitely, and most absolutely, find out what GTA V is before buying it for your kids.)
After 30 years, I’ve had so many positive experiences with video games which have helped me so much in my life, including with my mental health. For you, maybe going outside and playing basketball has done for you what video games have done for me. Either way, writing off video games as violent, brain rotting, and antisocial is overly broad and mostly wrong. It’s important to remember that so many cultural aspects (including other forms of entertainment) contribute to mental health and that we seek to understand how these aspects work together so that we can protect and improve the mental health of all.
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The Association Between Video Gaming and Psychological Functioning - Study built with questionnaires on personality and psychological health as well as video gaming habits.
I know Dave usually does a drink at the end of these. I’m not much of a drinker but I figured I’d still share my favorite drink.
Tequila & OJ (Tequila Screwdriver)
Make it as big as you like! Enjoy!
I know this argument is long and arduous, and that it’s a discussion that’s meant for more than one article. If you every wish to talk about it further with a parent, professional, or fellow gamer, I am always open for discussion. Quick thank you all for reading! Thank you to the most patient editor for dealing with my scrambled brain. And, of course, a special thank you to Dave for inviting me to ramble on here while he is on break.
Editor’s note: I am one of these friends!