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Should we be concerned about videogames?

18 March 2021 16:57

Alexander Kriss is a psychotherapist and the author of The Gaming Mind. Here, he asks whether we should be concerned about videogames. Are the claims often made in the media correct? What does our relationship with games say about us?

Videogames are increasingly a topic of interest—and concern—for parents, teachers, mental health professionals and others. Recent decades have seen an explosion in the popularity of games. They have moved from a niche hobby to a major way that countless children, adolescents and adults interact with themselves and each other in virtual space. Meanwhile, the discussion around videogames has tended toward the extreme and incendiary. This makes it difficult for anyone trying to better understand games (and the people who play them) to get a clear picture of their benefits and risks. 

Claims about videogames

You may have heard claims that videogames cause violence or other antisocial behaviour. These are unfounded. These ideas emerged from problematic scientific studies conducted amidst strong political pressure beginning in the early 2000s. In recent years, many of these claims about games have been challenged and debunked.

The scientific research into videogame use has in the past tended to approach games in a closed-off, suspicious manner. These studies essentially asked, “What are videogames doing to the people who play them?” A more helpful question would be, “Why do people play the games that they play?” This is the question parents might consider bringing to their children, teachers to their students, and doctors to their patients. 

One person might turn to a given game to be challenged in some way. They might seek to push themselves to achieve something that is difficult but not overwhelming. Someone else (or that same person, with a different game) might play as a means to self-soothe. In this way, they might find a sense of safety and calm in methodical exploration and repetitive actions. 

One player might respond to the style, look and feel of a game. Another might become engrossed in its story, characters and setting. A third person might simply find the rules and system of the game to be thrilling. Countless others relate to games through some combination of all these factors and more. 

Our relationship with gaming

The most straightforward way to understand why people play games is to view the player and game as existing in a kind of relationship. And, like all relationships, some dynamics are healthy while others are not. And there are many shades of grey in between. 

There are cases when someone clearly devotes excessive amounts of time to a virtual world to the detriment of other areas of life. But even in those cases, it is important to view their gaming behaviour with curiosity and compassion. Often, that person is exploring some aspect of life in the safety of the game because it feels unsafe or impossible to do so elsewhere. 

Don't fret over how to force that person to stop playing the game that they love. Instead, think about the positive aspects of the person that emerge during play. Perhaps you can think of ways they can bring these into other parts of their daily life? 

For instance, a teenager who is struggling to maintain average grades might also consistently achieve top ranks in Fortnite. They may be drawn to the sense of mastery and social acclaim that the game provides. These feelings may be absent for them in school. Dismissing the game as meaningless and taking it away will likely not engender better study habits. On the other hand, you could help that young person to see that their in-game talents reflect a real part of who they are—and might also be channeled toward other pursuits. This could prove a vital pathway into building new confidence and skills in their life outside of the game.