Does video gaming damage your mental and physical health?

I remember being around four or five years old when I got my first glimpse of the wonderful world of gaming. I saw a family friend playing an athletics game on his Commodore 64. I remember standing there mesmerised by what was going on, on the screen. The colours, sounds and gameplay captivated me. It wasn’t long after that I got my hands on my own gaming machine in the form of the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES. I remember sitting on my bedroom floor playing Mario eating pickled onions from the jar with my sister. Those were the good old days.

The gaming industry has had its limitations and ups and downs over the years. But it has evolved exponentially and today it is a multi-billion pound industry and is the top form of entertainment in UK households and in many other countries around the world. The industry is now worth more than the movie and music industry combined. For this reason a lot of responsibility and expectations fall to the gaming developers. They have the power to influence people’s habits in the type of games their consumers play and what messages they want to convey to their audience.

As games have evolved over the years, becoming more interactive and immersive with the gameplay mechanics and emotive storytelling, so has its critics.

Do violent games create violent players?

There’s a widespread assumption that playing violent video games can cause aggression and real violence as well as impulsiveness, and interfere with cognition and mood in adult players. Previous experimental studies have focused on the short term effects of violent video games on behaviour yet there are reasons to believe that these effects are mostly to do with priming. Priming is like a mental seed that is planted in the brain from previous experiences or stimuli. So if a person has had feelings of aggression from a certain stimuli or someone has been aggressive to them other things could trigger them. So playing a violent video game may activate the aggressive behaviour.

In this longitudinal intervention study on the long-term effects of gamingy published in Molecular Psychiatry in 2019, three groups were studied:

  •  a group that played the violent video game GTA V
  •  a group that played the non violent video game The Sims 3
  •  a group that didn’t play anything for two months on a daily basis.

Various questionnaires and behavioural measures were put to them, the behavioural measures included were aggression, boredom proneness, risk taking and sexist attitudes as well as others. No ill effects were observed two months before during or after the experiment.

In contrast a study done by Oxford University found that playing video games for a short amount of time improved many people’s well being. Key findings were:

  • actual amount of time spent playing was a small but significant positive factor in people’s well-being
  • a player’s subjective experiences during play might be a bigger factor for well-being than mere play time.
  • players experiencing genuine enjoyment from the games experience more positive well-being

Findings align with past research suggesting people whose psychological needs weren’t being met in the ‘real world’ might report negative well-being from play.

Entertainment Software Association’s 2023 Power of Play Study included players across 12 countries including the UK. We don’t know how biased the study might have been but players reported that they felt that playing video games improved their creativity, problem-solving skills, cognitive skills and teamwork. Many people said that playing helped relieve stress and helped them feel part of a community.

My personal experience of the pros and cons of gaming

I used to play first person shooter (FPS) games like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Battlefield when I was a young adult (they weren’t available when I was young). I got addicted to them and spent a lot of time gaming, immersing myself in the experience. At the time I felt a slight stigma as a lot of people think the games glamourous violence and war. I had friends who also played these games but others who didn’t feel comfortable playing FPS. A friend who likes to play FPS games said he felt that playing violent games made him sometimes feel he was in a movie or having a bad nightmare, but far from reality. I then asked him whether playing made him feel better or worse and he said that it depended on his mood before playing.

In my experience these games only trigger people who have a pre-disposition to anger or violence. They won’t create these emotions if they’re not already part of someone’s personality.

These days (I’m now in my forties) I play Alan Wake 2 which is a supernatural psychological horror game and Spiderman 2 which is violent but not gory because I enjoy a satisfying storyline.

So I have had a mixed experience of gaming over the years.

There are pros:

I do broadly agree with the findings of the Power of Play Study as gaming provides stress relief for me endorphins from completing tasks, has got me problem-solving, helps me connect with loved ones, improves my hand-eye co-ordination and multi-tasking skills.

However there are also cons:

  • It can become very addictive and can affect your routine and sleep patterns, lethargy and reduced ability to complete daily tasks.
  • It can affect your mental health if played for too long.
  • The type of games I played, like FIFA or Spiderman, were not usually very active, so I end up sitting for too long.

So in my experience as an adult I find there are many positive effects from playing a video game regularly for a short amount of time and there seems to be no strong evidence that playing violent video games makes someone aggressive. But you need to be disciplined so you spend a healthy amount of time on gaming for you.

My tips:

  •  set a time limit on your gaming, set an alarm so you don’t go over the time
  •  don’t play when feeling tired
  •  remember to eat and drink
  •  take regular breaks
  •  use gaming for a short time as a reward for completing daily tasks throughout the day
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