If you've been interested in games for any length of time, you've probably come across plenty of media reports about new research into the effects of video games.
Trouble is, it's often difficult to get beyond the headlines and find out just how impartial or trustworthy particular findings might be. Pressure groups and corporations often fund "research," while academics can benefit financially from sales of reports with sensational findings. Media news cycles reward unquestioning coverage of the most shocking and negative findings.
A new book seeks to distill recent research into various social questions related to gaming, to give interested readers a view into the scientific community's most useful findings.
The Video Game Debate is edited by Rachel Kowert and Thorsten Quandt, two academics operating in the field of game-related social research. It includes chapters on violence, health, addiction, sociability and education. Each chapter's author is an experienced researcher in his or her particular field.
For example, a chapter places the moral panic that games have faced for the past few decades within the context of previous media outrages. From Death Race through Doom to Grand Theft Auto it looks at how mass audiences often greet new forms of entertainment with suspicion and dismay. It puts video games in the context of other social phenomena down the ages.
It concludes by taking aim at research that seems to be less interested in discovering links between entertainment and behavior, than in confirming the prejudices of the day. Its author, Nicholas D. Bowman has published dozens of reports on this subject and is an associate professor at West Virginia University.
A chapter on the health hazards or benefits of gaming covers multiple studies touching on ADHD, cancer and general fitness, offering a general overview based on available research.
A long chapter on the effects of play on real world violent activity looks at how playing games may meet basic human psychological needs, a catharsis for the inherent drive toward aggression. But it cautions that while some research backs this theory, others suggest an opposing view arguing that games desensitize us to images of violence.
The writers seek to demonstrate that far from being polar opposites, perhaps both are getting close to the truth. Understanding the circumstances under which each exerts its effects is likely to yield something more interesting.
"A lot of parents were worried about video games."
Data can be confusing. Charts show a decrease in youth violence during a period of enormous growth in video game playtime, but this does not suggest a correlation. In fact, data that offers anything close to clarity on this hot topic is open to interpretation. Advocates on extreme wings tend to latch onto whatever findings suggest an advantage for their particular agenda.
"It is fairly easy to find what appears to authoritative guidance which states that [video games] are bad or good or neither one nor the other," states the book.
This is not the stuff of sticky newspaper headlines, but it does give the impartial reader plenty of food for thought as well as a jumping point to find out more. As you might hope, The Video Game Debate features a long References section.
Difficult to Understand
Before beginning her career in research, co-editor Rachel Kowert worked as a psychologist. "I saw a lot of parents coming in who were worried about games. At the time I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft so I wanted to find out more," she says.
She argues that it's time for a book that seeks to find answers to the effects of games on individuals and on society. "Academic stuff is always behind paywalls or it's difficult to understand," she says. "There's a good ten or 15 years of games studies now. We wanted to hear from the main people in different areas of expertise relating to the primary themes that are most often being debated."
Kowert says there are many areas where the effects of games are still not fully understood, but that more research, building on the work that has gone before is going ahead. The book, she says, is absolutely not interested in defending video games from its many critics.
"It's definitely taking a neutral position and showing all sides so people can make their own decisions."
In the meantime, she offers a piece of advice to anyone coming across stories about new research.
"Finding clarity is always the difficult part and that's what we want to bring with the book." she says. "If something is making a broad generalized statement it's usually pushing an agenda. Science is rarely that black and white."