The video game market has increased enormously over the last two decades, overtaking film industry revenues in 2009. In 2010 it was worth an estimated £3 billion in the UK alone. But throughout this period of growth, video games have often received a bad press.
Games have been accused of increasing aggression in children, desensitising users to violence and reducing attention spans. Leading critic, Baroness Greenfield, accuses games of physically changing children’s brains, and links the rise in diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder over the last decade with the increase in gaming.
Given the popularity of devices such as the Wii and smartphones, the audience of gamers has changed. Far from being the preserve of teenage boys, the average age of a gamer in the US in 2010 was 35, while over a quarter of active gamers in the UK are female. Does this mean lots of us are now at risk?
A recent presentation at the South by Southwest (SXSW) 2011 festival gave an interesting counter-point. Dr Jane McGonical made an argument for the positive effects of playing games. She quoted philosopher Bernard Suits; games are “unnecessary obstacles we volunteer to tackle”. This applies to all games, like Sudoku and golf. She argues that meeting these voluntary challenges is fun and gives us a sense of achievement. They generate a positive form of stress, called eustress, which has a productive effect.
Other benefits have been identified by researchers. For example, children who play co-operative games are more likely to co-operate and help others in real life. The effects of post-traumatic stress can be reduced by regular gaming. Vision, coordination, reactions and problem solving skills have all been shown to improve. Interestingly, gamers have less nightmares then non-gamers and have a greater ability to control their dreams.
Baroness Greenfield, who often leads the anti-gaming lobby in the UK with regular contributions to the Daily Mail, has herself come under the microscope. Bad Science, the weblog dedicated to debunking media misrepresentations of science, has heavily criticised her for having no clear hypothesis or accompanying evidence to back up her criticism.
The debate is sure to continue, but could it be that the key, like with so many other things, is use in moderation?