Video Games & Mental Illness

Every two to three months, someone manages to come up with evidence which links video games with negative health effects, be they mental or physical. It’s so predictable that you could set your calendar by it. The resultant outcry is equally predictable, with sensationalist tabloids (usually The Sun and the The Daily Mail) making ill-informed arguments about the evils of gaming while many gamers respond with equally ill-informed comments about how journalists don’t understand them and how they’ve never seen any negative effects personally.

I have to confess that the rubbish printed by the tabloids doesn’t bother me that much. After all, an occasional story in which a tabloid news paper is wrong about the cause of  medical conditions is a drop in the ocean compared to the list of things which they’ll happily claim will cause cancer. The fact that gamers (and games industry lobbying groups) are so quick to deny that games have any negative effect at all disturbs me more. After all, very few activities if taken to extremes, even if only by a few individuals, cause absolutely no negative effects.

Take for example a recent study by Douglas Gentile. Professor Gentile has a PhD in Developmental Psychology and heads up Iowa State University’s Media Research Lab. He has spent more than 30 years studying media and psychology and has a list of peer-reviewed articles as long as my arm. One of his latest studies is a paper based on a survey of nearly 1,200 American youths which shows that a small, but significant number of the surveyed youths (specifically 8% of those surveyed) have pathological symptoms which may be characterised as addiction. The paper can be found on Gentile’s personal website, here and in the Journal of American Academy of Paediatrics.

A quick glance at it reveals some interesting tipbits. For example, depending on the way that the results are interpreted, up to 20% of the respondents may be characterised as having pathological symptoms of addiction, although since some of these symptoms are comparatively minor (missing chores, planning to play games in advance) and that this larger figure includes individuals who answered “sometimes” as well as “yes” to the questions.

More interesting is the percentage who answered yes to what I’d view as as the more serious symptoms. 2% of respondents said they had stolen video games or money to pay for video games. Questions on whether or not respondents became bored and restless when attempting to cut down on the amount they played and whether or not respondents had unsuccessfully attempted to cut down on the time they played for also received a positive response from 2% of those surveyed. These statistics are largely meaningless individually however, as one or two potential symptoms on their own is not indicative of addiction.

What is important, rather then merely interesting are the conclusions which Professor Gentile comes to in the closing paragraphs of the paper. Firstly, he notes that there are limits on the survey and study due to the methodology. Secondly, he notes that considerable further study is needed in the area of the long-term effects of video games on individuals and that his study only serves as a basis for further research. Finally, he notes that this study does suggest that there is a high possibility of there being mental health issues related to high levels of video game use in a small number of individuals.

For video games journalists, industry bodies such as the Entertainment Software Association and the moronic commentators on CVG to contend that this report is “flawed” or indeed, completely wrong, demonstrates an astonishing ignorance of academic process and genuine, albeit small, risk posed by video games to a minority of people. It is important to recognise that such risks do exist, so that those at risk can receive support they need. It doesn’t mean that the game-playing experience of the majority needs to be affected though.