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Reality Check: Are Video Games Brain Training or Killing Instruction?

The holidays are upon us, and it’s Season’s Beatings-both digitally and IRL-for video game enthusiasts in America. Come on, I’m sure some of you were out there throwin’ ‘bows when the PS4 and Xbox One dropped in a panic of consumer madness last month.

“The graphics are so lifelike! It’s as if I really kicked that kid in the back!” From

The question, one that’s asked increasingly often with the media’s continued coverage of American mass shootings, is did those pixelated bloodbaths themselves spur you to get down on the floor and deliver some yuletide grief to your fellow man?

Before I started researching this piece in earnest, I was ready to render a definitive “no.” You might have thought the same way, given how IGN and others recently reported a March 2013 British study that showed no increase in “conduct problems” in 7-year-olds after they were subjected to a steady dose of video games over two years.

Easy there, biscuit. That’s an awfully broad conclusion to come from one little study.

As pointed out by Slate’s Will Oremus, that “over two years” part was expanded to mean much more than it should by IGN, in particular. The study in question has nothing to say about what happens over five years, or 10 years. Maybe long-term, cumulative effects are worse. Maybe they’re not. There’s no way to tell for sure without more research.

Of course it’s in IGN’s best interest for the null result to be genuine, so they may be intentionally biased in this case, but I wouldn’t rule out that they just didn’t read the paper properly. It’s easy to overlook important caveats when you’re not used to sifting through complex literature.


Let’s be clear though; just because this single study doesn’t automatically assuage all the fears surrounding over favorite electronic pastime, that doesn’t mean the opposite is automatically true and every teenage Grand Theft Auto player is destined for an orange jumpsuit and a taste for toilet wine. Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, continues to point out that despite the mass media’s infatuation with individual incidents, American youth violence was at its lowest level in 40 years in 2011, despite the surge in video game play.

“Rockstar made me do it!”

But that’s the thing. For every study that shows a reduction in self-control and fairness, there’s one that demonstrates an increase in friendship bonds. In meta-analyses such as one conducted by Ferguson and John Kilburn, the data on either side seems to smooth out. Partly as a result of the Newtown, Conn., shooting, President Obama ordered the Center for Disease control in January to fully evaluate the existing literature on how video game violence is linked to real life shootings, but the organization came back in June to say that no such specific studies existed. Clearly, that’s something that should change.

Something else that never existed. There’s an online legend that the game “Polybius” was giving kids nausea and nightmares in the early ’80s, before some mysterious G-men spirited them away. Turns out there’s no mention of the thing anywhere, even in the original literature, until 1998. And that was just a stub.

There are some tangible, physical effects of video game use that are less disputed. Overdoing it can lead to complications, such as life-threatening blood clots or even death, as seen in the case of the 28-year-old South Korean man who scrolled past the continue screen in 2005 after playing Starcraft for more than two days more-or-less straight. On the other hand, Lisa Winter of ifuckinglovescience has compiled a nice list of all the benefits of video game play, such as mood boosts, increases in brain volume, and even sharpening of mental tasks in dyslexics and the elderly.

“Good shot, dear! Blasted his face right off!” From

While the extent to which video game violence encourages similar real world behaviors is still ambiguous, it’s evident that the consumption of gruesome media alone is not a guarantee for a spree, so at the very least it’s not a simple one-to-one association. As CNN’s Fareed Zakaria pointed out just this week, Japan, where violent video games are born, has a staggeringly low rate of firearm homicides, with only 7 total in 2011, for example. Newtown alone quadruples that statistic. That can surely be explained in part by gun laws so stringent the Yakuza even tends to shy away, but that’s a discussion for another time.

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