Video Games: Source of Violence or Helpful Tool?

This is a research paper written by Matthew E. Semrau in June of 2010. You are free to use this article as long as proper citation and attribution are given. Should you plagiarize this article (use it as your own for school, profit, etc) you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.


Video Games are bad for you? That’s what they said about Rock ‘N’ Roll. – Shigeru Miyamoto, Video Game Developer, Nintendo

Today in Western society a bias has emerged both against the video game industry and those who participate in video games. For some time society has viewed video games as a whimsical practice of socially inept adolescent boys. In popular media, video games are blamed for heinous acts of violence. Many gamers find themselves keeping their interest a secret for fear of the negative attention from peers, co-workers, teachers, bosses, and even family. Are video games an abyss of the mind? Are video games the source of America’s overweight population? Are there any redeeming qualities in video games? Do video games really rot our minds? You may be surprised that many researchers around the world not only suggest there are redeeming qualities to video games, but they are also developing video games as treatments and therapy for numerous disorders, illnesses and conditions. There are very redeeming attributes that only video games can provide us.

Contrary to popular belief, video games are not solely targeted to a child audience. According to Henry Jenkins, a professor at MIT, “already 62 percent of the console market and 66 percent of the PC market is age 18 or older.” Jenkins continues to debunk the idea of gaming being restricted to adolescent boys, “Women now slightly outnumber men playing Web-based games.” This statement is collaborated by a study by Williams et al., “contrary to stereotypes and current hypotheses, it was the female players who played the most.” Even amongst the gaming community the stereotype is that women who play video games are “fat and ugly”. Although the latter is in the eye of the beholder, Williams et al. further states, “Female players were also healthier than male players or females in the general population.”

Video games, especially those with violent content have received biased attention; both in the media and in the research field. This bias has not gone unnoticed in the research community. Ferguson and Kilburn gave analyzed numerous research both published and unpublished in the field of violent video game research. They assert, “Our original meta-analyses indicated that published studies of VVGs [Violent Video Games] are products of publication bias (175)” and “The influence of VVGs on serious acts of aggression or violence is minimal, and publication bias is a problem in this research field (174)”.

This bias and misinformation to the public is dangerous. Not only does it risk negatively impacting the countless companies involved in the video game industry, “it distracts society from much more important causes of aggression, including poverty, peer influences, depression, family violence, and Gene Environment interactions (Ferguson and Kilburn 177)”.

Some researchers are arguing that video games, including those with violence, may actually have a positive effect on reducing aggression. “It is interesting to note the handful of researchers who have opted to explore an alternate viewpoint whereby video games might play an active role in curbing aggressive behavior ( Wilkinson et al. 373).”

In fact, as video games have become increasingly popular and accessible, violence amongst youths in industrialized countries has dropped significantly (Hopkins, Ferguson and Kilburn). If video games were a significant factor in aggression and violence would it not then stand to serve that violence amongst youths would be increasing? But that is not the case, “In fact, we are seeing the opposite relationship, in which dramatic increases in VVGs are correlated with dramatic decreases in youth violence. The correlation coefficient for this data is r =.95, a near-perfect correlation in the wrong direction (Ferguson and Kilburn 176)”. See Figure I.

Figure I. Video Game Sales Data and Youth Violence Rates. (Ferguson and Kilburn 176)

It does not stop there however. Video games designed specifically for therapy are numerous and seeing positive feedback in the healthcare community. Video games are being used to treat: autism, ADHD, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), dementia prevention, improving memory abilities in the elderly, schizophrenia patients, and the list goes on. We will discuss the advantages and application of each listed above in brief.

Wilkinson et al. has written in-depth about the benefits of video games for autistic children 7-18. In the 7-11 age range researchers found that video games provided “greater

motivation, generalization and cost-effectiveness (374)” than treatment options that did not involve video games. Wilkinson et al. goes on to cite research that shows video games are equivalent with other treatments for the 13-18 age group and that “Therapeutic computer games are of special interest for autism, since their rules-based environments present a safe, appealing vehicle for interventions to improve socialization (374)” and “that such adolescents have found useful from guided interaction with virtual simulations of car and bus environments (374)”. Wilkinson et al. cites research and development of a game called “TeachTown” by Whelan et al. TeachTown demonstrated a “positive impact on receptive language, social understanding, self-help, attention, memory, auditory processing and early academic skills for children with autism and other developmental delays” (374-375). There is great irony in these findings. Video games are stereotypically blamed for hindering social development in children and teens, yet researchers are finding greater success in improving socialization by video games with certain age groups than main stream treatments.

So what about children who suffer from ADHD? Can video games improve their attention spans and abilities to concentrate? The answer is yes. Video games that focus on motor-skills have proven useful for performing certain tests and treatments to ADHD patients (Wilkinson 373). It should be noted that games that require high levels of thinking and distractions were not helpful directly. But these types of video games may provide therapists and parents with ways of helping keep children safe:

When children with ADHD interact with an immersive virtual reality simulation of a busy road crossing, they act more dangerously and experience twice as many collisions as controls (Clancy et al., 2006), which may suggest a method not only of identifying but safely shaping the behaviour of children at greater risk of injury in hazardous situations. (Wilkinson 374)

Basically, video games offer a safe world in which mistakes can be made to help understand how children may behave and how to direct behavior in the real-world—which is not as forgiving.

One surprising application of video games is in the treatment of cancer patients. “Targeted video games can help improve the lives of young people with cancer, most importantly improve their adherence to their treatment, (eWeek)”. To test this theory the researchers randomly selected a group of patients 13 to 29 years old and assigned them to play one of two games. One was a standard retail game and the other a video game called “Re-Mission”.

Re-Mission, developed by HopeLab, a Redwood City, California-based non-profit company, players control a tiny robot called Roxxi who moves around in a 3-D environment representing the inside of the body of a young cancer patient. Players can use Roxxi to blast cancer cells and control side effects, and winning the game requires taking chemotherapy drugs and antibiotics, using relaxation techniques, eating food, and keeping up with other types of self-care. (eWeek)

Those who played Re-Mission were found to have a measurable increase in taking their antibiotics. They also demonstrated higher adherence to taking their chemotherapy drug. The researchers also found that “the game worked because it gave the patients a new way of looking at their illness;” it helped them see “chemo as a way to combat cancer, rather than as an annoyance that makes their hair fall out. To me it was kind of changing their reward system for taking chemo and giving them a different insight (eWeek)”. Modern Healthcare mentions a similar gamed called Ben’s Game (named after a 12 year old chemo patient who conceived the idea). In Ben’s Game players learn about chemotherapy as they navigate a virtual skateboard course, collecting seven “shields” to protect themselves from side effects of the drugs (36)”.

Video games may also be used in psychotherapy for the treatment of various phobias. Video games once again demonstrate a safe environment with no real repercussions. In the application of those who suffer from phobias, this offers them an environment in which they are cognitively exposed to the target of their phobia. An example of a real-world alternative is where a therapist has a patient gradually approach, say, a fear of flying. First the patient may drive by the airport, then maybe enter the airport, followed by watching planes take off, then entering a plane that won’t take off, and then finally taking a real flight. This is the assertion made by Prevention:

VR phobia treatment immerses you in a computer-generated 3-D world where you gradually confront, and vanquish, your worst fear. In a University of Washington study, 23 arachnophobes (people afraid of spiders) were able to calmly stand next to a live tarantula after several rounds of spider exposure via VR goggles. VR therapy lets you practice facing a fear before encountering the real thing. It’s useful against a range of phobias, including flying, public speaking, and thunderstorms. (46)

Video games offer help in treating other mental disorders as well. For example, Wilkinson et al. mentions a game by Sieswerda et al. that allows healtcare providers “to tease out responses involving potential differences in dichotomous evaluations among subjects with border-line personality disorder, subjects with cluster or antisocial personality disorders, and a control group with no diagnosed personality disorder (375)”. Thus, video games may be used to more accurately diagnose certain disorders.

To show the diversity of health applications of video games, a mention should be made of “Flash Focus: Vision Training in Minutes a Day”. Another game for the Nintendo DS that is designed to help players exercise and improve eye vision (Review of Optometry 12).

Through these examples we can see that video games designed solely for therapeutic purposes are helpful and sometimes surpass alternative types of therapy. But what about readily available retail games that are not designed nor meant for therapeutic uses? Do these video games hold any redeeming qualities beyond a whimsical distraction to our troubles? The answer is, to some surprisingly, yes.

Wilkenson et al. makes mention of an adaption of a NASA training program by Pope and Palsson (2001) that augments off-the-shelf PlayStation games for the treatment of ADHD patients by reducing their control of the game as their attention wanders. Thus encouraging them to concentrate on the game for effective performance (374).

Clive Thompson of The New York Times Magazine cites a senior researcher, Emily Holmes, from Oxford University, who suggests that the game Tetris may be used to help treat sufferers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):

In an experiment, the scientists had 40 adults watch a 12-minute film filled with graphic scenes…material that often produces mild flashbacks even when viewed only in a movie. Half an hour after the film, half the participants were asked to sit quietly for 10 minutes and the other half were asked to play Tetris for 10 minutes…The group that played Tetris fared far better — experiencing 42 percent fewer flashbacks over one week…By playing Tetris right after a trauma, the visual cortex becomes so busy that the brain doesn’t encode the horrific visual imagery in the way that it otherwise might…And Tetris is nonverbal, so it doesn’t impinge upon other crucial work the brain does to help make sense of — and cope with — a traumatic episode. (Thompson)

The same researchers believe that the same processes that Tetris addicts experience is the same process that helps PTSD victims.

The advantages of video games is not restricted to mental health, but also to physical health and well-being. In 1998, Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) was introduced to Japan, and, North America and Europe in 1999 as an arcade-style game. DDR requires increasing levels of physical and aerobic exercise to play. This may be the beginning of physically active video games. In 2006, Nintendo brought the idea of a physically involved game system to homes world-wide with the release of the Wii Console. The Wii introduces a unique wireless input device (branded “nunchuck”) that allows users to manipulate the games (including a game aptly called “Wii Sports”) by movement of limbs and at times the rest of the player’s body. Nintendo further elaborated on this idea by introducing “Wii Fit” which became the third most successful console game release not packaged with a console (Wikipedia 2010).

The physical health qualities of the Wii have not gone unnoticed by those in education. Nancy Maldonado cites the success of the Wii and its fitness-oriented games for encouraging physical activity amongst school children K-12th grade; especially those whom consistently avoided traditional physical activity in school (284). She also goes on to say “To quantify Wii’s use in physical education programs, children’s heart rates are monitored. Results show an increase in heart rates, thus showing that the use of Wii games does provide a valid workout (284)”. Further demonstrating the social development properties of video games, Maldonado suggests that uses of Wii fitness-oriented games in the class room also encourage good sportsmanship and teamwork amongst classmates (284).

PC Magazine Online heralds a French Company called Ubisoft that is developing a line of video games with therapeutic applications. The video game “Allen Carr’s Easyway to Stop Smoking” which will be released on the Nintendo DS will provide a portable game to help smokers stop smoking. PC Magazine quotes Denis Dore, producer of the game, which explains “We are not talking here about a game that will allow you to gain virtual rewards, but one that can in fact help you quit smoking.”

The same publisher, Ubisoft, is also developing a game called ‘My Weight Loss Coach’ which is designed “to help players develop healthy lifestyle habits like eating well and staying active,” (PC Magazine Online). “My Weight Loss Coach” will ship with a pedometer that will allow users to input the data into their Nintendo DS. Among many things, the game will provide comparative results depending on the distance you’ve traveled, including announcing to the player when they’ve walked a distance equivalent of the Great Wall of China.

One amazing advantage of video games is the proven increase in hand-eye coordination. But beyond that, PC Magazine quotes researchers who have found that not only do gamers have better hand-eye coordination but superior visual processing speed. This measurably faster processing speed of visual input has some very real-world applications. ”The advantage video game players held over their peers was on the order of 100 milliseconds. It’s possible, though, that a gamer’s speedier visual processing could make the difference between, for example, crashing a car and averting an accident,”

In a personal interview with Carol Semrau, who suffers from fibromyalgia, seizures, meneire’s disease, asthma, lower back injury, and chronic fatigue, she was asked how gaming has postively effected her life. She states that “It keeps my mind active and keeps me in contact with people when I can’t get out side of the house. Which is a lot. Be in contact with these people. Makes me not go stir crazy from lack of being around other people. Lately, a lot of times its my social outlet.” Without video games Mrs. Semrau asserts:

Socially, I think there would be a problem without them. My problem involves not being able to get out due to pain and exhaustion. Sometimes it can be impossible. Some days I’m laying down in tears unable to move.

To a lesser extent, I could probably keep my mind active without video games. The lack of variety outside of video games would be a problem. Many games can not be replicated outside of a virtual environment. Because a virtual environment can take things beyond the limits of reality. Which can really challenge your mind.

Mrs. Semrau plays a variety of games including the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online. She also plays various Wii games like Super Smash Bros., Wii Sports, and My Sims with her five children and husband. Mrs. Semrau tells us that video games help her interact with her family: “The ones I play on the Wii, helps us keep in contact with each other. To laugh. Beat things up together. A family that beats pixelated things up together stays together.“

“Research has shown that people absorb information better when they are actively and enjoyably engaged in a learning process (PC Magazine Online)”. Video games present a safe world for adults and children alike to practice thinking skills, hand-eye coordination, and express themselves. This is particularly true with children, “many children struggle to express themselves with words alone and use of therapeutic channels such as video games…provide children with an avenue for indirect communication (Wilkinson et al. 375)”.

As with all things, video games can be abused and dangerous if not used in a healthy moderation. However, the bias and stigma of video games and video gamers does not hold up with the research evidence. The media and politicians should take a closer in-depth view of video games and the gaming community. Rather than operating on assumptions and biases of those opposed to the electronic revolution, direct interviews and information from gamers themselves should be considered before making sweeping generalizations. Video gamers include people of all ages, educational backgrounds, genders, faiths, and nationalities. Rather than viewing video games as a social vice, it would be prudent of the public and policy makers to take advantage of not only the numerous mental and physical health benefits, but he unity video games bring to those play them.




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Jenkins, Henry. “Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked”.,

Maldonado, Nancy. “Wii: an innovative learning tool in the classroom.” Childhood Education 86.4 (2010): 284+. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 20 June 2010.

Semrau, Carol L. Personal Interview. 24 June 2010

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Williams, Dmitri, et al. “Looking for Gender: Gender Roles and Behaviors Among Online Gamers.” Journal of Communication 59.4 (2009): 700+. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 22 June 2010.



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