Does gaming change my behaviour?

We hear from a young gaming enthusiast and an expert on the behavioural implications of gaming…

Tech and the online worldMental health and wellbeing
By Parent Zone ·

Callum (not his real name)

Young author

The key to gaming is moderation

I was in the middle of a soothing sesh of Need for Speed the day my mother decided to yank the power cable out of my PlayStation. A person on TV – who in all likelihood had never been within a mile of a Dualshock controller – had told her that gaming was making me violent and turning my brain into mush.

Granted, I had probably thrown a couple of mini tantrums in the past when things hadn’t gone my way – but nothing worse than what I had seen other kids do after losing a football match. I remember asking myself: “How can putting new rims and a skirt on my BMW M3 make me violent?”

Luckily, the debate has matured significantly since my early childhood – but there are still lots of people who believe that gaming is having a negative effect on young people’s wellbeing. I often see it used as a scapegoat to distract from bigger societal problems. Whenever tragedy hits, a school shooting for example, critics are often quick to place the blame on games when there are clearly more serious underlying issues.

Games, for me at least, are a wonderful escape from everyday life. As much as I love reading books and watching films, gaming is far more immersive. The graceful fusion of engaging gameplay, gripping storytelling and awe-inspiring visuals makes for a truly unique entertainment experience. For a moment I can forget about my problems because a different, more exciting reality is only a few button-clicks away.

This reality allows me to do so much more than wreak havoc in an open world or blast people to bits with AK-47s – yet that’s what you’ll hear about in the media. Many consider the usual suspects – Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and co – to be representatives for gaming as a whole, but nothing could be further from the truth. My experiences as a gamer have been a great medium for unleashing my creativity, meeting new people and – as a non-native English speaker – enhancing my language skills.

Clearly I’m a staunch believer that the benefits of gaming far outweigh the drawbacks – but those drawbacks still exist. I can’t deny the fact that many games are quite violent. When I was 10, a friend of mine swiped his brother’s copy of Grand Theft Auto and we played it for a solid afternoon before we were caught. I found it terrifying and twisted at the time, but age ratings are there for a reason. Now that I’m older, I can contextualise it: the action is clearly over the top and much of what I found twisted is actually quite impactful social commentary.

Personally, I don’t think my behaviour has ever been affected by violence in games – but I can see how it might become a problem if the person playing isn’t able to contextualise what they’re doing.

Secondly, you can have too much of a good thing. It’s sometimes hard to detach from a game – and that “I just need to do one more level” feeling is very real. My parents use the term ‘addicted to gaming’ quite liberally – but just because I’m invested in a moment, it doesn’t mean I’m addicted. It’s like being really hooked on a good TV show – before you know it, you’ve ploughed through half a season in one day, but it’s not like you’d get withdrawal symptoms if Netflix stopped working.

Games are here to stay, and they have so much to offer! It’s encouraging to see that gaming is being taken more seriously as an entertainment form, art form and even educational tool – but there will always be critics. I suppose certain aspects of gaming could have a negative effect on young people but – like with everything else – I think moderation is key.

Dr Pete Etchells

Pete Etchells is a reader in psychology and science communication. He is an expert in the short- and long-term behavioural effects of playing video games, and author of Lost in a Good Game.

Do games change my behaviour?

We often hear that video games are bad for us.

Many worry that violent ones turn us into angrier people who are more likely to lash out.

Others are concerned that in-app purchases or loot boxes could make us susceptible to gambling or addiction problems.

Some argue that games leave us feeling more alone – or even depressed and anxious.

Scientists have shared these worries for many years too – and a huge amount of research has been done about the effects of playing video games. So what do we actually know?

When it comes to the impact of violent video games on aggression, the research is messy and mixed. But the best studies out there are actually quite reassuring. By and large, although violent games might sometimes make us feel a little angry while we’re playing, this doesn’t translate into a long-term effect. There’s not much good evidence to suggest that people become more violent themselves afterwards.

The links between gambling, addiction and things like in-app purchases are a little more complex. Many mobile games use similar techniques to casino games in order to keep us playing – things like restricting the number of lives or attempts, to encourage us to spend a little bit of money and have another go. For these sorts of games, we need to be a bit careful.

The best thing that we can do is monitor our own behaviour, and keep asking “am I playing this because I’m enjoying it?” If you’re no longer getting any pleasure out of a game and are feeling the urge to spend money that you don’t want to spend or don’t have, then it’s probably time to delete it and try something else. Games are entertainment, after all – and there’s always another one out there that you could try.

What about loot boxes? There’s some evidence to suggest that, if you’re more likely to play games where you have to pay for loot boxes, you’re also more likely to show problematic gambling behaviours. What we don’t know at the moment is what causes what. Is it the case that paying for loot boxes causes negative gambling-related behaviours – or are people who already have problems with gambling just more likely to pay for loot boxes? Either way, we have to be careful when we play these sorts of games – and try not to place too much value on the items we might get as rewards.

But it’s not all doom and gloom – play has benefits too. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to appreciate the unparalleled ability of games to bring us closer together. Multiplayer online games often host vibrant and supportive communities of people who share a common interest.

Playing can help us to relax and take our mind off our stresses for a little while. Games like Ring Fit Adventure give us a chance to get some exercise when going outside isn’t an option – and this is just as important for our mental health as it is for our physical health.

So, do games change our behaviour? Well, like any activity we take part in, they will to some extent. Games aren’t special in this way. The best thing we can do is try to maximise the positive changes they can bring about – and minimise the negatives.

The main thing is to not worry about them being bad for you – and keep these three points in mind:

  1. Video games aren’t inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it’s how we use them, and who we play them with, that’s important.
  2. Don’t believe every news headline you read claiming that they have wholly negative effects on our behaviour; the science of video games is complex, and scientists still have a lot of questions they’re trying to answer.
  3. Be mindful of your own play time; if you feel like you’re no longer enjoying it, it’s okay to talk to someone about it, and find a different game to play.