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29 May 2019

Play fights: the joys and the dangers of video games

Challenging the hysteria and questionable science around video-game use.

By Simon Parkin

Every new-fangled mode of creative expression, from the romance novel to punk rock, has been greeted with public consternation, the belief it will, surely, induce godlessness and delinquency. Video games, however, appear a special case. The handwringing began in November 1982, when the US surgeon general C Everett Koop declared that teenagers were becoming addicted “body and soul” to video games, a form of entertainment in which “there’s nothing constructive”. Forty years later, the cultural suspicion lingers.

As such, Pete Etchells’s book, which seeks to answer questions surrounding video game addiction and violence, feels a once wearily anachronistic and blisteringly relevant. These are tired issues that nonetheless remain the focal point of much live and expensive research. According to the authors of a recent study published by Oxford University into the relationship between game playing and violence, the reason these matters haven’t been settled, is due to “researcher biases”, which have “distorted our understanding of the effects of video games”. Furthermore, nobody can agree on how to interpret the information: “There are many ways to analyse the same data, which will produce different results,” said the study’s co-author, Andrew Przybylski.

It’s a view echoed by Etchells, a researcher into the behavioural effects of video games at Bath Spa University. The temptation here might have been to reach for headline-easy answers to satisfy those bewildered parents fretting over their 11-year-old’s Fortnite obsession. But, as a conscientious scientist, Etchells is upfront about the current state of affairs. “There are as yet no universal or conclusive truths about what researchers do or do not know about the effects that video games have on us,” he writes, conscientiously and somewhat infuriatingly.

Why, then, might anyone want to read a book that is unable to reach clear conclusions on its subject? Much of Lost in a Good Game’s appeal is found in its autobiographical spine, which through tender anecdote reveals the positive power of games. Etchells begins the book with an unexpected scene – a hospital bedside where, as a child, he sat shortly before his 45-year-old father finally succumbed to “the tidal onslaught” of motor neurone disease. Etchells recalls finding refuge in games in the tectonic aftermath of parental death. He continues to return to these liminal spaces in adulthood, especially on the difficult anniversaries that follow. In this unexpectedly intimate opening, his overarching argument that “video game play is one of the most fundamentally important activities we can take part in” is leant incontestable weight.

For critics of video games, it’s also a disarming start. Etchells is aware that he is writing on the defensive. As with so many aspects of contemporary life, the moral and scientific debate around the value and risks of video games is grimly polarised. Either games are “perfectly fine and don’t have any effect on us”, he writes, or “they’re literally melting our brains”. By moving the discussion into the vulnerable realm of the individual, Etchells, who returns to memories of his father throughout the book, takes the heat out of the fight, so that he might consider the grey expanse where truth is usually to be discovered.

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Etchells poses pleasingly direct questions such as “are violent video games bad for us?” and “are video games addictive?”, but there are few direct answers here. Partly, he argues, the absence of neat conclusions is because the technology evolves at a faster rate than research can be conducted. But it’s also because research sits within a broader field of psychology in which methods of testing and data gathering are themselves contested. For the fretful parent this academic hedging may frustrate, but there is value in Etchells’s patient unpicking of the pitfalls within the research. He cites a 2001 Harvard study that attempted to quantify the level of violence in a range of games in order to study their effects. Bafflingly, the team found the classic arcade game Centipede, in which you play as a clutch of blobby pixels shooting at segments from the titular insect, to be the most extreme specimen at “92.6 per cent violent”. How can we hope to test the effects of violent media when we can’t even settle on a meaningful definition of what constitutes violent media, he writes?

Etchells criticises the World Health Organisation (WHO) for, in his view, the “premature” classification last summer of so-called gaming disorder – used to describe a person who plays video games to the extent it has demonstrable negative effects on their life. How far video games are to blame in upsetting the academic trajectory of some young lives is much-contested, but during the digital, culture, media and sport select committee investigation into the effects of games this year, one young man blamed them for his dropping out of university. “I didn’t eat, sleep or leave my room,” James Good said. “I escaped my problems via games.”

Etchells does not doubt that some people may be predisposed to so-called video game addiction, but again argues that the criteria chosen by the WHO are flawed, leading to a potential over-diagnosis and minimising of “what might be a genuine clinical disorder”. As far as the research is concerned, he states that there is “no clear picture of how many people are likely to be affected, what the characteristics of those people are” and, most critically, “whether playing video games is the causal reason behind any negative issues in their lives”.

Away from the science, Lost in a Good Game sits within an emerging genre of memoir in which writers in their late youth consider how the medium has shaped their lives. Like Michael W Clune’s Gamelife or Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives, Etchells’s book explores the formative impact of games on his developing mind.

We spend time with him during the hazy months he spent playing GoldenEye and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time after his father’s death, and the months he deposited into the community of World of Warcraft players. Despite Etchells’s clear passion for the medium, this is not a mere work of advocacy, seeking to counterbalance decades’ worth of public distrust in video games and their supposed effects. He has no qualms calling out the gambling-adjacent aspects of game-monetisation design, citing a player who spent £13,000 on the kind of mobile phone game that seeks to exploit, as he puts it, “well-known psychological weaknesses in order to keep players interested”.

The idea that, of all the smorgasbord of digital distractions we now face, video games pose the greatest threat to society seems a little antiquated: “If only”, we cry, as the fires of social media continue to burn up not only our collective mental well-being, but maybe even the fabric of democracy. To address this, Etchells finally broadens the book’s scope to the effects of all screen-time, regardless of its focus. In part, this is in response, Etchells writes, to the assertions of Susan Greenfield, who has claimed that video games cause early onset dementia and that smartphone usage affects our memory. Here too, Etchells is briskly honest. The science of screens is fledgling, he writes, and, as to the question of how screens alter our brain, the answers are “complex, nuanced and woefully incomplete”.

While we wait for “the evidence” to arrive, he concludes, “we are left somewhat empty-handed”. Into this vacuum Etchells pours his own story, leaving us with an anecdotal survey that is enriching and touching, while issuing a challenge to the bad science surrounding the subject. 

Simon Parkin’s “A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Secret Game that Won the War” will be published in November by Sceptre


Lost in a Good Game: Why We Play Video Games and What They Can Do For Us
Pete Etchells
Icon, 320pp, £14.99

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