Understanding Video Games text-book
Health hazards

Date posted: May 14, 2006
Updated: Dec 22, 2006

Does one become violent by playing computer games? Especially in the United States a range of psychologists have tried to describe the ‘effects’ of playing. These experiments have traditionally taken place in laboratories, which is quite a different context than those the players are accustomed to.

It has proven difficult to design laboratory experiments that provide solid knowledge about long-term effects of media. Despite the controlled nature of these experiments the results are far from consistent and often incomparable. It seems that computer games can be used in an unhealthy way with resulting problematic behavior. However, this conclusion amounts to nothing significant that could not also describe most other objects in the world. But naturally such a conclusion appears highly controversial when discussions on violent images rage.

Strong feelings
Some research within the effects paradigm seems to be influenced by strong prejudice and the strongest of statements often come with the flimsiest of documentation. Valdemar Setzer and George Dukket write in a 1998 article:

“We believe that the prolonged and excessive use of electronic games contribute to obsessive, addictive behaviour, dehumanization of the player, desensitizing of feelings, health problems and development of anti-social behaviour as well as other disorders as described in this paper.”

“Unfortunately, we can find no research to substantiate the negative aspects presented in this paper, but on the other hand, neither is there research to support any positive ones.”

The problem with such prejudice is stressed by the fact that the research is often motivated and financed on a background of scandals and waves of skepticism aimed at violent games. But while this is not necessarily a problem concerning the methods applied, one often senses a strong dissociation from researchers who often don’t find it necessary to dig deeper into the phenomenon. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that these experiments often find their way into news media in a highly concentrated form which is a far stride from results that are typically complex and ambiguous. Recently studies by Anderson & Dill under the heading Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory have sparked headlines like “Computer games make children aggressive.

The question of media effects
The effects paradigm has a somewhat complex and jumbled history. A history influenced by, to say the least, problematic assumptions and contradictory results. These problems have been so considerable and so persistent that one may with some justification conclude that they are of a more basic nature. It is a widespread conclusion that the laboratory based effects paradigm is built on wrong assumptions.

The empirical foundation for the downright rejection - or reevaluating - of the effect approach are the widely different interpretations that real media users make of what seems to be the same product (book, TV show etc.). This interpretation (or ‘reading’) only seems to be indirectly connected to the contents of the media product and appears to be much more dependent upon the context and daily life of the user/viewer.

From this one might very reasonably conclude that is it very difficult to study media use and effects independently of contexts of use - the media are an integrated part of our daily life, are used on the basis of this daily life and is endowed with meaning as a function of this daily life.

To put it somewhat too conveniently one might say that it is people who affect media and not the other way around. Obviously this argument may be stretched too far and taken too literally and thus disguise the fact that media products are different.

As a good introduction to the problems of the effects paradigm one may consult David Gauntletts 10 things wrong with the ‘effects model’.

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