Are video games really bad for your health?

By on March 8, 2012

We take a look at how our brains and developers are manipulating the way we play games.

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First Impressions
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On the surface the evidence suggests an open and shut case. Isolation, sleep depravation and mood swings are just some of the symptoms that have been documented in cases of ‘addicted’ gamers, leading some doctors and psychologists to believe that the effects are akin to that of drug addiction. In his book Fun Inc. Why games are the 21st Century’s most serious business, authour and commentator on digital culture Tom Chatfield argues that, “addiction is a loaded word. For many people it conjures up images of physical, mental and moral decline; gaunt figures hungering for their next fix.”

It’s an image he believes “doesn’t resemble most people’s experience of video gaming”. However, as cases like Rong-yu and Staniforth show, gaming is a great seducer that can lead to serious implications, ones that cannot be easily passed off as just fervent hysteria. So if comparisons to drug addiction are considered contentious, what affect, if any, does gaming have on our wellbeing? The answer to this question may lie in the answer to another, are we being manipulated by game developers?

Fundamentally we are creatures of compulsion. Daydreamers accustomed to the privilege of entertaining whatever wild our thoughts enter our minds, which is a good thing. If we didn’t, then we would never of learnt how to fly, communicate through satellites or start planking. In our defense, our bodies encourage this behaviour. Whether it’s an impromptu shopping spree at the mall, reading a book or working out at the gym, if we are doing something we consider to be fun, endorphins such as dopamine are released in the brain making us feel good. Naturally we are compelled to indulge in the activity further as we seek to maintain the rush. This behaviour is synonymous with another kind of addiction, gambling.

Slot machines are one of the most popular games people like to play in casinos. They are specifically designed to be simple and keep you playing as long as possible by strategically offering rewards using a ‘little & often‘ mechanic, teasing the brain to release a gratifying dose of endorphins. Game developers, especially those that make RPGs, MMOs and social games have been exploiting this neural loophole for years. Games like FarmVille and World of Warcraft have been called out for their dubious play mechanics, with Braid producer and gaming culture guru Jonathan Blow famously referring to World of War Craft’s game design as unethical. This practice is not exclusive to these particular genres. With trophies, achievements, micro transactions and DLC, shooters, racers, sports and other genres have expertly incorporated these tactics to keep us hooked.

This is all indicative of the modern world we live in today. As a society, our connection to the planet and one another is dominated by technology. As our personal evolution has stagnated, technology continues to evolve at an astonishing pace. It provides us with fully realised worlds where we can contort a new existence, allowing ourselves to revel in the comforting illusion of a new fate far removed from our current reality. For some observers this is dangerous territory. British Neurologist Professor Susan Greenfield believes that the human brain is under threat from the modern world. In her book ID: The Quest For Identity In The 21st Century she warns that, “unless we wake up to the damage that the gadget-filled, pharmaceutically-enhanced 21st century is doing to our brains, we could be sleepwalking towards a future in which neuro-chip technology blurs the line between living and non-living machines, and between our bodies and the outside world”.

Understandably many people will dismiss such foreboding comments as fear-mongering, arguing that when it comes to video games they are just entertainment, no more dangerous than movies, books or television. Incidents of people dying, although sad, are regulated to isolated, with accusing fingers pointing at human discipline as opposed to the act of gaming itself. Like it or not there is some truth to this thinking. Video games are big business. With rising costs and competition from other forms of entertainment, developers and publishers have a responsibility to think about the bottom line when it comes to game design. This is fine, just as long as there is as much thought put into players being able to push the game’s buttons as the game has pushing ours.

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A Batliff expert and former Vegas magician, Jason was born in Royston Vasey in the north of England and has been playing and writing about games for two lifetimes.

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