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Video game use is now a mental illness. Well, not precisely. The most recent edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a reference tool for mental illness) has an appendix listing potentially recognisable conditions that required further research.
One of them – internet gaming disorder – was interesting following the rise in the media of reports regarding online gaming, in that there had been several associated reports of death from exhaustion or serious childhood neglect. Particularly in Asian countries, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) noted studies in which “when these individuals are engrossed in internet games, certain pathways in their brains are triggered in the same direct and intense way that a drug addict’s brain is affected by a particular substance. The gaming prompts a neurological response that influences feelings of pleasure and reward, and the result, in the extreme, is manifested as addictive behaviour.”
It is a disturbing and powerful use of neuroscience to demonise what many see as a harmless hobby, but which nonetheless has also destroyed several lives.
Playing a particular video game repeatedly makes you better at playing the game, but it’s uncertain whether it changes you in other ways. Photo: Paul Revere
The move reflects part of the longstanding discomfort many have with the phenomenon of video gaming as an unusual pastime that elicits incredible amounts of sustained concentration from otherwise unruly teenagers. Critics have noted increasingly vivid graphical depictions of gore and trauma, and the long-running debate has been as to whether violent video games inspire violent acts.
This has been a difficult debate to settle definitively in either direction. An APA task force in 2015 reviewed 170 studies on video game violence, and found it unable to determine definitively if video game use increased aggression.
Bond University’s 2011 Digital Australia survey found 94 per cent of children aged 6-15 play video games, yet we do not find 94 per cent of them involved in violent acts. The archetypal shooter video game Doom has been widely criticised for depicting violent rampages, but it is difficult to defend against this when the US Marines utilised a modified version of the program in 1996 as part of their training regimes. The US military even developed their own first person shooter, America’s Army, as a recruitment tool.
The basic argument used by most gamers is that the games act as a source of entertainment but do not actually change the gamer themselves in any meaningful way.
This is a contentious argument if one looks on the other side of the spectrum, in the spectacular popularity of “brain training” games.
Companies like Nintendo and Cogmed have promoted the use of games with claims of improved cognitive function that translated to improvement in other fields. Memory clinics for early Alzheimer’s sufferers now often offer computer-based cognitive therapy. Suites of games have been developed for children with autism and older adults worried about developing dementia.
The stakes have been very high – San Francisco-based Lumosity posted a revenue of $24 million in 2012. The research again, has been very mixed, with studies sometimes showing modest improvement in cognitive fields associated with the trained task in the games, but many others not. Lumosity very recently was required to pay a $2 million fine to the US Federal Trade Commission over fraudulent advertising.
The relative certainty is that playing a particular video game repeatedly makes you better at playing the game, and you may also have fun doing so. What’s uncertain is whether this then translates to making you a better killer, or better at remembering your grandson’s name. There are also definitely individuals whose lives are worsened by video games, as there are those who benefit.
The creator of Super Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto, in 2007 famously said “Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock and roll.”
A life spent locked indoors listening to the radio is probably not worth living, but then again, neither is a life without music.
Dr Neil Jeyasingam is a psychiatrist and a clinical lecturer at Sydney University.
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