How do computer games affect behaviour? What evidence is there? Peter Etchells of Bath Spa University stopped by for an online Q&A with Parenting Science Gang.
Pete: Hi folks! I’m Pete, and I’m a psychologist at Bath Spa University. I have a few strands of research that I’m interested in. I look at the potential positive and/or negative behavioural effects of playing video games, attitudes towards games, and the same for screen time more generally. I’m also involved in a project looking at how to make trainee teachers critical consumers of neuroscience information.
I also coordinate the science blog network for the Guardian, and write the psychology blog there. I’ve covered lots of stuff on video games (and how they’re represented in the news) there.
- Positive behaviour
- How much is too much?
- Violence & aggression
- Measuring aggression
- ADHD and causality
- Gaps in research
- Barriers to research
- Critical consumption of neuroscience information
- Under 2s and screens
Q: I know there’s likely to be a few questions about links between violence/negative behaviour and video games, but what about evidence for positive behaviour changes? Is there any research looking at whether co-operative or team games have a lasting effect on co-operation or teamwork?
Pete: There have been some studies looking at “prosocial” effects of video games, but they suffer from the same sorts of methodological problems that violent video games research have (which we can talk about in more detail). But broadly, there’s some evidence that if people play violent games with a prosocial goal in mind, they’re nicer afterwards.
I don’t massively buy into these effects though…
PSG A: What stops you from agreeing with those effects? The methodology issues with the research or something else? Is there any evidence for prosocial effects from non-violent games, or is there not that kind of comparison in the research?
Pete:The trouble is that with these sorts of studies, you get people to play a game for 20 minutes, and then you get them to do a task that claims to measure aggressive or positive social behaviour. People don’t play games like this in real life though, and I similarly don’t think that the aggression tasks reflect real-life all that well. More details here.
PSG A: That makes sense, I can see why that’s not very reflective of how people play games, or of general violent behaviours!
Pete: I’ve done some work with project students looking at what the potential effect of playing a game with someone versus against someone in the same room. It wasn’t conclusive by any measure – we couldn’t get many participants – but there do seem to be differences in aggression levels depending on the context in which you play a game.
PSG A: I wonder about games like Minecraft, that younger children are playing, where it’s very low violence/can be no violence, and things like co- operative building massive structures. It’d be fascinating to see research on that, rather than a focus on violent video games and whether it’s fair to blame them for mass shootings – I guess it all goes back to that thing of the research being difficult to actual mirror how games are played in real life and measuring aggressive/prosocial behaviours!
Pete: I don’t know if it ever happened, but there was talk that Turkey was going to ban Minecraft a couple of years ago for being too violent… I think Minecraft is a great control condition game for something like Call of Duty – it’s first person, interesting, but you’re not specifically going around killing people. I’m hoping to get a project student doing some work on this from September.
PSG A: I erred over the wording about low violence/non violent actually, because having a younger brother myself who is now 12, he used to think the best thing ever to do if we were playing Minecraft together was to continually sneak up on my character to try and kill me, and I know there’s entire servers dedicated to “hunger games” style stuff! Give children a blank canvas of a game, and they work out how to make it aggressive anyway, I suppose!
Although definitely less graphic than something like Call of Duty, or Grand Theft Auto
Yeah it’s a tough one, and goes to the heart of that question about what we really mean when we say ‘violent video game’. I’ve seen people build actual working computers inside Minecraft!
PSG B: Yes, we’ve been tinkering with Minecraft lately and on creative / peaceful mode it seems like it’s potentially a great learning tool. I would love to be able to separate that kind of use of the game from the zombie / killing side etc.
PSG A: Do you know of any research involving Minecraft in particular?
Pete: I can’t think of anything specifically about the behavioural effects of MC off the top of my head. I know there have been a few studies looking at using it to engage students and teach scientific concepts though.
Q Are there any detrimental effects of too much screen time? For example, on a tablet?
Pete: If you do *anything* too much, it’s not a good idea. A lot of research until recently has argued that there’s a linear relationship between screen time and bad effects (e.g. on wellbeing). But there’s been some interesting stuff by researchers at Oxford recently arguing that *some* screen time is beneficial.
So, if you don’t use screens at all, that’s not great for wellbeing. If you use them for 7+ hours a day, also bad. But a few hours a day might be a useful/good thing.
Here’s the Oxford paper
PSG C: I caught my son sneaking out of bed at 5:45am this morning (again!) to play Minecraft.
He’s obsessed with it! It’s the first thing he reaches for any opportunity he gets. He would play it all day, every day if he could.
If you are / could imagine you were a parent, how would you deal with a child obsessing about computer games so much?
Some people say to put strict time controls on – others say that’s making it more of an object of desire and to let him have his fill and he’ll get fed up eventually
What would you do?
Pete: Honestly, I don’t know – I’m not a parent (yet)! There is some research looking at video game ‘addiction’ that suggests that it’s not really a proper addiction in the classical sense, because gamers suffer from burnout. In other words, you might exhibit addiction-like symptoms at time point 1, but at time point 2 (6 months later) you’ve become fed up with the game, so don’t show those symptoms any more. That’s very different to day-to-day desires to play, though.
My personal opinion is that I think the key is not necessarily the amount of gaming, but the context in which it occurs. So, playing video games to the exclusion of everything else is bad, and limits need to be set in those cases. But if the game playing isn’t affecting the rest of their day-to-day lives, then I’d keep an eye on it but not worry about it too much.
Q: Is there any evidence to support the idea that children are able to self-regulate screen time? Whether they’re able to do so effectively?
Pete: That’s a great question – I don’t know of any research that looks at this. It’s something that I want to do a study on though. Simon Parkin wrote a brilliant book a couple of years ago called “death by video game” (not as scaremongering as it sounds!), and in one section talks about something called ‘chronoslip’…
Which is basically the idea that when you’re playing video games, you can totally lose track of time. I suspect you’d see a similar issue for some types of screen time, BUT…
One thing to point out here, relevant to all questions about screen time, is that ‘screen time’ is not a very good construct – what does it actually mean?
Say you have a screen time measure in a study, and it’s in hours, so could be 0-24. Say you score ‘2’ on that measure. What does that mean? 2 hours of watching Love Island might have a very different effect to 2 hours of playing MineCraft, or 2 hours of flicking through Facebook…
It’s a real problem with everything we see in the news about screen time – it’s just too vague a measure (sorry, bit of an off-topic rant!)
PSG D: Great point, different forms of screen time (video games, social media, TV, interactive communication like Skype etc.) would presumably engage different areas of the brain, enhance different skills, have different types of issues
Pete: Yeah definitely – and most research on screen time doesn’t look at the types in any sort of detail.
PSG E: Also, many of us (not sure how this applies to children) do something else whilst watching TV, I like to knit at the same time, so I might be watching something for pure entertainment but at the same time I’m creating something.
Or tweeting on our phones while watching TV – double screens!
PSG F: I love double screening for things like Eurovision.
Pete: Yep, this is a great point – if you watch TV and scroll through twitter for an hour, does that count of 1hr or screen time or 2?
Q: We’ve had a chance to read your paper about your research using the ALSPAC data on kids who played computer games at 8 and their behaviour at 15.
Which of your findings most interested you?
Pete: Hope you liked it! For me, I think the important take-home from this was that we don’t have a good, standardised way of classifying video games for research purposes. I *love* ALSPAC, but it didn’t have massively great levels of detail on gaming habits. Some of our findings suggested that it’s not violent content in ‘violent’ games that might be linked to aggression, but simply competition. Which opens up a whole can of worms about what we mean when we talk about ‘violent video games’.
PSG B: Ooh that’s fascinating! Do you know what research there is about competition and aggression, or is that moving away from your area of knowledge?
Pete: There are a few studies out there! They mostly argue the same thing, that it’s hard to disentangle the effects of competition and aggression. This is a problem for measures of aggression (see my other comments about the reaction time task) – if you get people to play, say FIFA vs candy crush, and they show differences on your aggression measure, are you really measuring aggression?
Q: Is there a proven link between children playing fighting games and violent behaviour?
Pete: No, no proven link. This is a really a messy research area, because we don’t have very good experimental measures of aggression/violence, and it may wholly depend on not just the type of games that kids play, but how they play them and who with.
Q: is there any research that considers whether computer games are a useful outlet for violent or aggressive feelings – whether you could actually behave better as a result of being able to behave aggressively in a “safe” space?
Pete: There’s some research that argues for something called the Catharsis model – exactly that violent games make people *less* aggressive, because it provides a safe outlet for those feelings…
Q: What does research say, if anything, about the role parent perceptions of video games play in their reported behavioural issues? Put plainly, if parents believe video games cause bad behaviour are they more likely to code their children’s behaviour as bad?
Pete: That’s a *really* interesting question – I don’t know of any research that has specifically looked into that, though. We do know that parents who don’t play video games are more likely to believe that they’re bad for their kids than people who do. Similarly, parents who do play video games are less likely to be critical of positive stuff about games. So, it could be a possibility.
Q: how do we measure aggression/violence? And what are the problems with these measures?
Pete: Good question! When you look at these studies, they always start off by talking about things like mass school shootings. That’s the sort of violence we’re probably interested in addressing, but it’s impossible to recreate in the lab. So, we use proxy measures, things like word stem completion tasks.
E.g. you play a violent/non-violent game, and then I give you a list of things like _IGHT and you have to complete them. It could either be FIGHT or LIGHT, say. One is (arguably) indicative of violent thoughts, one isn’t.
PSG H: Is that actually the case?! If I say “fight” rather than “light” am I actually likely to be more violent? Maybe this is really naive, but I would have thought that that would be more linguistic – like how common that first letter was and how the word sounded rather than it’s deeper meaning……
PSG D: Or they may simply go through the alphabet to find a letter that fits. Bight? No, Cight? No… Fight
(Assuming that’s one example of a measure but it does seem problematic)
Pete: That’s one measure, there are others! I’ve mentioned the main one in a separate answer below. They all have problems :/
Q: Pete, please can you tell us about the biggest methodological problems in video game research?
Pete: I think the biggest problem is that we don’t have any standardised measures of aggression (if we’re talking about violent games research). One of the most-used measure is called the Competitive Reaction Time Task, where you get people to play a reaction time game against another person (who is in fact just the computer)…
So you wait until a blob comes up on a screen, and press the space bar as quickly as possible. If you press it first you ‘win’, if you don’t you ‘lose’. The winner gets to punish the opponent by blasting them with a loud noise, and they get to set the duration and the loudness…
So the first problem is, that’s a type of aggression, but a weird one. But the deeper problem is that if you look at the research literature, some 130 papers use this task, but there are over 150 ways they report analysing their data…
In other words, there are more ways to analyse the data than there are datasets, and depending on which analysis method you use, you can show anything from a strong effect to no effect at all…
PSG C: Statistical nightmare!
Pete: Yep, it’s a massive issue 😐
PSG I: Seems like any measure of aggression in a lab setting wouldn’t necessarily convert to real world. You’re likely just measuring compulsiveness which doesn’t always translate to antisocial aggression
Pete: Yeah, nothing will be perfect. But just something that’s standardised would be a nice start.
Q: Is there any evidence that computer games could exacerbate ADHD or even cause it?
Pete: It’s a good question! We know that children with ADHD are more likely to show problematic game use, but we’ve got no evidence on what the causal direction is.
It might be that games exacerbate the problems in ADHD, or could simply be that those with ADHD use gaming as an outlet.
PSG C: what would you describe as problematic use?
Pete: Problematic use usually refers to doing something to the exclusion, and detriment, of anything else. So, in this case it might mean ignoring friends/family, not doing other things you used to enjoy, showing socialising problems, and so on.
Q: Is there acknowledgement in the literature that even in studies where they measure x at a young age, and then y at a later age, that x does not necessarily cause y?
For example, consumption of games pre-puberty and behaviour post or mid puberty. The causal link is not inherently true. In the examples of research on ADHD children, there was so much research done attempting to link TV to causing ADHD but we know that ADHD is, like most neurodivergence, a brain structure difference present at birth. And it seems likely that the ADHD brain may be more drawn toward digital interactive media. So, the undiagnosed ADHD child consuming games is engaging with a media that is soothing to them. But in adolescence as a diagnosis usually materializes, games are blamed rather than recognized as a signal that an ADHD brain was always present.
Pete: This is a really great point, and a problem with how some of this research is reported. A lot of researchers are careful to point out that it’s difficult to infer causal directions in some of this work. It’s possible to do it, but we’ve not quite got enough evidence either way yet.
Q: Can computer games offer the same level of creativity and imagination as our classic wooden open ended toys?
Many parents being worried that sitting in front of a screen is killing kids’ creative minds and instead creating lazy bottoms!
PSG L: I’m very interested in this. It seems odd to imagine that TV squashes imagination. It seems more plausible to me that television, like other media (books, art, oral stories) merely expand the brain’s set of experiences allowing for more robust and complex imaginings.
Pete: There’s no research that I can think of that specifically looks at this, but my gut feeling is that they definitely can. Minecraft is a great example of an open-world game where there isn’t any sort of win condition, where you can do whatever you want.
Much better than something as restrictive as Monopoly, for example…
PSG M: Minecraft was one of the first games that made me change my mind on allowing my boys to have time on an Xbox 🙂
I would be interested in comparing it specifically to open ended toys that have a firm standing in parent’s belief & enthusiasm towards unlimited creativity 🙂
Pete: From a personal point of view, I don’t see any difference between Minecraft and Lego 🙂
PSG M: For me, the difference is quite important. In Minecraft, the kids are playing Minecraft and nothing else – their aim is to finish building it. But with Lego, the same initial aim to build, let’s say a house, can easily develop into a multi-person imaginative game where the “house” is now being used as an oven. Not being tied to the screen enables them to go in so many more directions with their play.
I love Minecraft, but if I had to sacrifice just one, I’d dump it in favour of Lego.
Pete: Fair point, and full disclosure I unashamedly have a pretty decent Lego Star Wars collection in my office 🙂 I think my point is that MC can be very much used in the same way. I’d really recommend “A Boy Made of Blocks” by Keith Stuart along these lines
PSG B: I think it’s a limiting way to look at Minecraft just to say the aim is to finish building a structure though – I think it can be a lot more open ended than that. Build one house – then improve it? Or build a whole village? Build a gigantic statue? Or a farm? Or do something completely different and go exploring? etc
And (albeit just to play Devil’s advocate a bit now!) you could argue being restricted to your own physical house to play Lego is a restriction you don’t have with Minecraft – you’re no longer tied to only being able to collaborate and play with people who are also at your house! 🙂
Q: where do you think the gaps in research are, to do with children and games? Or perhaps wider, to do with children and neuroscience?
Pete: I’m a massive fan of longitudinal research, so in an ideal world, it would be great to have money to follow a huge group of children from birth through to adulthood, and take very detailed information about the types of games they play, when they play them, how they play them, who they play them with, along with everything else that’s going on in their lives…
And my gut feeling would be that any effects we think might be linked to games would either disappear, or be very small. Kids have so much going on in their lives, I would put my money on other things having bigger effects (e.g. family dynamics, relationships at school, etc.)
Q: But if you only had 3 months, what would you look into and how?
Pete: Good (hard!) question. I think I would try to look at two things: content and context. I’d want to try and figure out a way of categorising games that goes beyond classic genres (action/shooter/racing/etc.), to try and more specifically hone in on what we think the violent content is. I’d also want to look at the context in which people play games – e.g. if we play games on our own vs with someone (cooperatively) vs with someone (competitively), in the room or online, what effects do these situations have.
Q: How much do you think moral outrage influences whether studies into video games are funded, if at all? Do you find there are more barriers for research in certain areas than others? Or is practicality more of a factor?
Pete: I think the main issue is the lack of credulity the research area has. I’ve found it really difficult to get funding, and you can probably understand why, when my ‘research equipment’ section includes an Xbox or a PS4.
Q: Do you have any insight on gender and video games? My perception is that it’s a male-dominated consumer group but that may be due to news headlines, advertising and social experiences. Has there been any shift in trends and if so what is likely to have caused these shifts?
Pete: If my memory is serving me correctly, the largest gamer demographic is 30-35-year-old men, but high up in the list is 50+ year old women. It’s definitely not as male-dominated as the media likes to make out!
PSG N: That’s really interesting! I did suspect there was some media influence on my perception but I wouldn’t have guessed at 50+ year old women being high ranking! Would love to see more data on that
PSG C: Did you know, lots of the first programmers were women? It was seen as “women’s work” – a natural progression from clerical work. It only started being male dominated with the birth of personal computers which were heavily marketed to men and boys.
PSG N: Yeah, I remember reading about that, it does make sense that it followed naturally from clerical work. Fascinating stuff 🙂
Q: How much is (or isn’t!) gender taken into account in research looking at aggression and video games? Does it automatically focus more on male adolescents because they are perceived to be most ‘at risk’? Or has gender been looked at specifically at all to see if there are actually differences – that boys are more likely to have whatever measures of aggression are used after playing violent games than girls? (After discussing all the other questions, I feel like my definitions for both aggressive behaviour and violent games might make this question useless haha!)
Pete: Good question – I’m not sure to be honest. Your caveat at the end is the important point there, I think. I’m reluctant to make any firm conclusions from the current research literature for people *generally*, let alone gender-specific.
Q: So, how do we become critical consumers of neuroscience information?
Pete: If I knew, I think I’d have fixed fake news and be super rich 🙂 In our teacher project, we’re looking at how to confront longstanding myths about the brain, and how to get people to not immediately believe things at face value…
I think that’s the key – it’s easy (well, easier) to get people to be critical of things they already don’t buy into. The issue is when something comes along that sounds legit, or taps into your existing belief system. How do you get people to stop at that point, pause, and go ‘hang on, what’s the evidence for this?’
PSG K: Isn’t that the answer to life, the universe and everything?! If we always sense-checked information that was given to us, neuromyths in education would probably one of the least dramatic of the situations that would be dealt with!
Pete: Yep! But I think this provides us with a closed system where we can test out some ideas about how to do this. Who knows, we might find something that we can roll out to wider issues…
PSG B: By “longstanding myths about the brain” do you mean, the only using 10% of your brain kind of myth?
Pete: Yep, and things like learning styles, left/right brain learners…
PSG B: Learning styles is something schools seem to love! I was always a bit sceptical, but I didn’t realise it was totally a myth
PSG L: One thing about the debunking of learning styles that concerns me is it seems to give a surface validity to hyperstandardization in education, and puts the burden of learning back on the child and not on the system.
I believe the debunk is valid. Just not the conclusions policy makers draw from it. I think schools may remain attached as a means to protect children from Machiavellian policy makers.
Q: There are some common recommendations about screen time that get bandied about – e.g. no screens under 2, which I think comes from an old recommendation from the American Academy of Paediatrics. Are any of these based on solid evidence?
Pete: Nope! Actually, the AAP changed their tune about their guidelines back in October.
There isn’t any good solid evidence that policy can be based on at the moment. In fact I’m organising a meeting in London in January to try and sort this out. I’m hoping to get scientists, policy-makers, journalists, parents, clinicians, all together to discuss the issues, and come up with some policy guidelines asking what research questions we need to answer before we can implement any sort of policy.
PSG G: That sounds like a really useful thing to be doing. I’m totally impressed!
Pete: You should come! It would be great to have you along.
PSG G: We will hold you to that, btw! 🙂
Want to know more?
Peter’s research: Prospective Investigation of Video Game Use in Children and Subsequent Conduct Disorder and Depression Using Data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Peter J. Etchells , Suzanne H. Gage , Adam D. Rutherford, Marcus R. Munafò
Peter’s writing for the Guardian.
More on screens from PSG Q&As: TV and Creativity: A Q&A with Dr Sarah Rose.