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Biology 202
2002 Third Paper
On Serendip

Video Games: A Source of Benefits or Addiction?

Mary Schlimme

Super Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Street Fighter are familiar names to nearly all of us. They are all best selling games of major video game consoles. Over 9.8 billion dollars were spent on video games in the United States during 2001 alone, and video game consoles are present in 36 million homes in the United States (1). With the increasing amount of time that people are spending on video games, one is left to wonder what effects video games have on the people who play them.

Video games, especially those that contain violence, are becoming increasingly popular with children of young ages. Playing violent games may be associated with a tendency to behave more aggressively, although the data are inconclusive about the cause and effect nature of this relationship (2). In a study by Irwin and Gross, children who played a violent video game displayed a higher level of aggression than children who played a nonviolent game (2). Similarly, another group of researchers found that college students who played a violent video game reported more aggressive thoughts after playing the game than students who observed the game (2). However, it should be noted that simply because these students reported more aggressive thoughts does not indicate that they were more likely to behave in a violent manner. Furthermore, it is likely that participants would have been focused on a particular behavior, regardless of the type of behavior, after they had previously spent a significant amount of time engaged in that activity; therefore, there do not appear to be firm conclusions that can be drawn from this study. Future studies could more effectively investigate this topic by exposing participants to different types of video games and then observing the types of behaviors in which the participants engage after playing the games. A study of this nature would allow a causal conclusion to be drawn about the relationship between video games and behavior since the actual behavior, rather than the thoughts, of the participants would be directly recorded. Although several researchers advocate the position that video games cause violent behavior in children and adults, there are also many researchers who support the opposite belief, which is that video games purge one's desire to act violently and thus reduce the amount of violence in which a person will engage (3). Other negative effects of video games may include taking time away from a child's studies or homework and decreased social skills (3) . Despite these possible detrimental effects of excessive video game playing, there are educational benefits to playing video games in moderation.

Video games can be utilized to benefit players in several ways, such as through education about important topics. A recent study conducted on the benefits of video games found games can provide a context in which participants can discuss scenarios and outcomes in order to facilitate their understanding of important concepts (4). Other researchers have found that children's reading and spelling abilities significantly improved with exposure to educational video games (5). Video games may also improve spatial abilities, the ability to create and apply multiple strategies, and may help develop critical analyzing techniques (6). They provide immediate feedback, so students can explore and learn how to alter their gaming techniques in order to be successful in a particular game. Teachers have also reported that video games led to collaboration among students (4). Many games require that participants work together in order to succeed in the game, which may improve players' social skills. Moreover, Fein, Campbell, and Schwartz found that in classrooms that contained a computer, children were more likely to engage in parallel play and peer interaction (5). Finally, many popular games teach children the value of economics through acquiring money and then trading it for objects that facilitate the playing of the game. Players are also required to meet and exceed challenges, which may increase their desire to meet challenges in other contexts as well (7).

Video games are often portrayed in a negative manner because they are seen as having an "addictive" quality. Addiction has been defined as "A primary, chronic disease, characterized by impaired control over the use of a psychoactive substance and/or behavior. Clinically, the manifestations occur along biological, psychological, sociological and spiritual dimensions (8)." While there is currently no category for video game addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (9), which is the manual utilized to diagnose psychological disorders, video game addicts are often described by clinicians in the field as displaying many symptoms characteristic of other addictions. These behaviors include failure to stop playing games, difficulties in work or school, telling lies to loved ones, decreased attention to personal hygiene, decreased attention to family and friends, and disturbances in the sleep cycle (10). Withdrawal symptoms can even include behaviors as severe as shaking (3).

The psychological cycle of substance addiction and other maladaptive behaviors can be applied to video games as well. A person playing a video game feels an emotional high, commonly known as an adrenaline rush, as a result of his gaming tactics (11). He then plays the game more and pushes his physical and psychological limits in order to experience the emotional high. Eventually, he will again reach a level that stimulates the production of adrenaline. The cycle may continue until it leads to an unhealthy level of interaction with video games, which some professionals may label video game addiction. Even famous psychological effects such as the sunk cost fallacy can influence the addictive cycle. This fallacy occurs when a person feels compelled to continue performing a certain behavior because he has previously invested time in the behavior and does not want to feel as though his investment was wasted (12). Similarly, Dr. Timothy Miller, a clinical psychologist, states that many video game players may feel that they have wasted their efforts if they do not reach the next goal in a game, which may lead to additional time spent playing the game that the person otherwise would have spent in a more constructive task (10).

Despite the possible negative psychological effects of video game playing, there are many positive effects that may outweigh the negative consequences. For instance, the creativity of players may be enhanced by their involvement with video games. Players often create their own games with computer technology that allows them to use their own music and visual patterns (7). This may allow players to stimulate their brains and thought processes in order to create the often elaborate scenarios involved in complex video games. Furthermore, video games often allow players to use their imaginations in order to transport themselves into scenarios completely different from real world situations. While there are certainly creative benefits to playing video games, it is important to remember that players must be actively interested in these types of games and must be invested in them in order to gain these benefits.

According to Dr. Orzack, the Director of Computer Addiction Services at McLean Hospital, social pressure or lack of social skills can lead to video game addiction (10). Dr. Orzack suggests that many video game addicts have struggled with finding their place in society and as a result play video games in order to become part of a crowd. The players then may feel compelled to reach the next level of achievement in the game in order to flaunt their abilities in front of their peers (10). However, despite the fact that video games may have a detrimental effect on social skills, they may also positively affect development in this area.

Video games may facilitate players' social development in several ways. Because players may discuss the games with their peers and may share their tactics for success, players often benefit from these positive social interactions (7). Furthermore, simulation games may provide an environment in which players can improve their observation skills, which may lead to enhanced social interactions (13). For example, a player who is inexperienced in making correct judgments through observation of his peers may flourish in this area after playing games that rely upon careful observations for success. These games may incorporate a type of scaffolding nature that allows the player to slowly improve his skills in this area. Researchers have shown that programs that contain a substantial amount of scaffolding also may improve language skills (5). Scaffolding is a principle proposed by Vygotsky that entails presenting tasks to a person that he does not currently understand, but that are within his ability to understand. The assistance in the tasks then decreases, which allows the player's abilities to gradually grow in the area (14). Finally, some simulation video games may present players with unfamiliar words that they need to understand in order to succeed in the game; therefore, the vocabularies of players may increase as a result of playing these types of games (13). With an increase in vocabulary span and language development, players may be able to communicate with their peers in a more effective and enriched manner. One weakness in these arguments, however, is the fact that many players may not be invested in learning new vocabulary words and therefore may neglect to take the initiative in learning these new words when they are presented. Rather, these players may try to use the visual images and context in order to determine how to proceed in the game. However, despite the fact that these players may not be actively seeking a dictionary in order to expand their language skills, they may still benefit from the exposure to new words since it is probable that they can deduce the meaning of the words from the other aspects, such as visual images, of the games. Although these social effects are important to consider when investigating the effects of video game playing, it is equally important to discuss the neurological effects of playing video games.

Not only can video game playing cause psychological and social changes in a person, but it can also result in neurological changes as well. A recent study utilized positron emission tomography in order to show that levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine increased while playing video games (15). Dopamine is believed to mediate several behaviors, one of which is the experience of pleasure. For example, dopamine levels increase in emaciated rats when the rats are presented with food, and similar effects are found when water deprived rats are presented with water. Despite the positive effects of dopamine, high levels of the neurotransmitter have also been associated with addictions to drugs and substances (16). Because increased levels of dopamine have been found in people who are playing video games and because these effects are similar to the increased levels of dopamine in drug addicts, some researchers have hypothesized that higher levels of dopamine can produce a dangerous cycle leading to addiction of video games (16). However, because this research is fairly novel, studies replicating the data are necessary. Furthermore, the possibility of involvement of other neurotransmitters during video game play should be explored since it is possible that multiple neurotransmitters may interact in addictive behaviors. Finally, because this area of research is fairly new, many interesting questions can be raised. For instance, does excessive playing of video games cause a fundamental and permanent change in the dopamine system? If so, what are the subsequent effects on the pleasure systems of these individuals? Do these people require more dopamine to be released as a result of a decreased sensitivity to dopamine that was caused by the excessive play, in a way similar to other addictions (15)? On the other hand, is it the case that the dopamine levels were high simply because the players were happy and experiencing pleasure in playing the games, and so there was no relationship between dopamine levels and addiction?

The nature of video games has led researchers to discuss several psychological, social, and neurological effects that are associated with video game playing. It appears that playing appropriate video games in moderation can lead to beneficial effects, but more controlled studies investigating the role of video games in this type of development is necessary. Furthermore, many of the current studies available are inconclusive about the cause and effect relationship between video games and behavior, especially violent actions. Many authors of these studies have speculated that their results indicate that video games cause players to become more violent, when in fact this causal conclusion should not be made from the data collected. Until there are more studies of an appropriate nature, it can only be concluded that playing many types of video games, but perhaps not all, appears to provide benefits for players such as increased social skills, educational lessons, and language development; however, excessive playing of video games may lead to poor peer interactions and patterns of behavior similar to addiction.


1) Assorted Gaming Statistics , A good reference for game statistics

2) Video games: Research, ratings, and recommendations , Contains many references for empirical studies

3) Video games: Cause for concern?

4) The relevance of video games and gaming consoles to the Higher and Further Education learning experience. , Discusses benefits to playing video games in education

5) Din, F.S., & Calao, J. (2001). The effects of playing educational video games on kindergarten achievement. Child Study Journal, 31(2), 95 - 102. Available online at infotrak.

6) Video game addiction

7) Computer games and Learning , Suggests positive ways to use video games in learning

8) Definitions in Addiction Medicine , A good resource for definitions

9) Computer and Cyberspace Addiction

10) When games stop being fun

11) Are video games really so bad?

12) Questions Answered

13) Thinking and Learning Skills Potentially Developed by Playing Some Simulation/Adventure/Role-playing Video Games , Discusses some positive benefits to video game playing

14) Berk, L.E. (2000). Child Development (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

15) Positron Emission Tomography

16) The Biochemistry of Human Addiction , Discusses the role of dopamine in addiction

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