The growth of gaming, how fast it continues to grow, who are gamers, the positive and negative effects of gaming, sexist attitudes among gamers, the educational potential, the effects on perception, cognition, children, teenagers and adults. These are the areas we shall talk about in this Part I of the interview with research scientist Dr. Johannes Breuer.
Dr. Breuer, approximately what percentage of the global population are what might be called ‘gamers’?
To be honest, I would argue that this is impossible to say. To begin with there’s the question of what a gamer is. Is it somebody who frequently plays video games? If yes, what frequency is sufficient for calling somebody a gamer? Is “a few times per year” enough or are we talking about “at least a few times per week”? Or does being a gamer require some identification with the hobby in the sense that people would see themselves as or call themselves gamers. We scientists like to think and argue about definitions but this example should hopefully illustrate why this is important.
To give a specific example why this matters in practice: If I ask people in a survey “Do you play video games every week?” fewer people are going to answer yes than if I ask “Do you play video games?”.
If I use these questions to estimate the share of gamers in a population, I will get quite different results.
This becomes even more complicated if you ask people something like “Would you consider yourself a gamer?” as factors like social identity come in there and people have a different understandings of what “being a gamer” means.
And these issues already influence the estimates for individual countries.
If you want to compare countries or create an average across countries, further challenges come into play.
For example, the societal acceptance for video games and playing them as a hobby differs between countries and some games or platforms are not available in many countries.
Digital infrastructure, such as the availability of high-speed internet and mobile internet, is another important factor. And, finally, there are linguistic differences that matter in this context.
For example, in English you have the words “game” and “play” but there is no such difference German: game is “Spiel” and play is “spielen”.
Taken together, these issues render it very difficult to arrive at a reliable global estimate of gamers.
It is estimated by some that the total value of the gaming industry has already exceeded 150 billion dollars. Where do you see the industry headed from here?
Generally, I think that the industry will continue to grow. We have seen a huge growth due to the success of mobile gaming which was made possible by spread of smartphones and mobile devices like tablet computers. Over the last decades, the video gaming industry has managed to reach new audience through new platforms and types of games.
New technologies like augmented and virtual reality will also contribute to the further growth of this industry.
Although, personally, I think that virtual reality will remain somewhat of a niche market – at–least in the near future – I can well imagine that we are not too far away from “fully immersive” games as they are shown in the novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline which has also been turned into a blockbuster movie directed by Steven Spielberg.
Currently, however, I see augmented reality games, such as the widely popular Pokémon Go, as a big trend.
Even Nintendo, a company that is usually quite conservative when it comes to adopting new trends and technology, will publish a new augmented reality Super Mario Kart game soon.
I also think that, at least in the short run, the video gaming industry profits from the current COVID-19 pandemic.
People are forced to stay home and video games are a way to escape from your worries for a bit and can also be used to stay in touch and engage in joint activities with friends and family whom you cannot meet in person.
In your opinion what are the positive effects of gaming on the human brain?
I am not a neuroscientist, so I cannot really say much about the effects on the human brain. As a mixed-breed psychologist and social scientist, however, I can say something about the effects on human cognition, behavior, and interaction. In general, the positive effects that are most often discussed and shown in the research literature are those in the area of learning.
There are also quite a few studies that show that playing video games can also have positive effects on social interaction as people use it to meet new people or to stay in touch and engage in shared activities with friends.
Notably, however, these positive effects on social interaction depend on the type of games or the way they are played.
For example, several studies have found that playing cooperatively can foster prosocial behavior.
And what would be the negative effects?
The two areas that have been studied most intensely with regard to potential negative effects of video games are aggression and addiction. These topics are, however, still hotly debated within academia and beyond, and the available evidence from existing studies is far from being conclusive.
Dr. Breuer, among your many studies you have also written about video gaming and sexist attitudes. Please tell us more about this.
Overall, it seems that there is no convincing evidence that sexist content in video games causes or increases sexist attitudes among players.
This is another topic that has received quite some attention in academic research as well as in media reports and the public discourse about video games in general. While there is a robust body of work that shows that female characters are underrepresented in video games and are far more likely to be portrayed in a sexualized manner than male characters, the empirical findings on the effects that such content can have on players are mixed at best.
Overall, it seems that there is no convincing evidence that sexist content in video games causes or increases sexist attitudes among players. This is also what we looked at in one of our studies.
We found that playing video games does not lead to an increase of sexist attitudes over time.
In addition, we also found no general selection effect, meaning that people with more sexist attitudes did not play more video games. This study got quite a bit of attention back then as the whole GamerGate thing was happening at that time.
While it was nice to see so many people interested in our study, it was unfortunate that many misunderstood or misinterpreted our findings.
We did not find or say that sexism is not an issue in video games or player communities but merely found that playing video games more frequently does not lead to an increase in a certain type of sexist attitudes related to gender roles.
Many other studies have shown that sexism is an issue in certain player communities and that this can have a substantial negative effect, especially on female players.
How many hours of gaming is actually good for a person and when does it start to take a negative turn?
It is not possible to specify a number or hard cutoff criterion that works for everybody. This depends on many factors, including a person’s age, what games the person plays, and what her or his situation in life is. For example, it surely makes a difference if we talk about adults or elementary school children.
Also, playing learning games for four hours can be expected to be different from playing first-person shooter games for the same amount of time.
While these criteria are not as clear-cut, what is more important to consider is if the gaming activities have detrimental effects on other areas of life, such as school, work or social contacts.
The mere number of hours is not a good criterion. There are many people who play a lot but still have a completely functional work and private life.
Biographical factors and changes also play an important role. Some of my former colleagues, e.g., found in a study in which they interviewed gamers that people often play a lot during certain phases in life and then later reduce the amount of time they spend on gaming.
A typical example is that young people who move out, often into a different town or even a different country, tend to spend more time playing video games because their parents are not around to monitor their playing time and also because playing online can be a way of staying in touch with friends or finding new ones.
As soon as they have more friends in their new hometown, start a job or when they have their own family, however, they usually reduce their playing time again.
What is the educational potential?
Video games can and have been used to teach and learn a great variety of things.
Video games can and have been used to teach and learn a great variety of things. Overall, the existing research literature is quite promising in that regard. It is important to keep in mind, however, that video games are certainly not a panacea for education. In most cases, they can be valuable additions to existing educational programs and activities but can and should not replace them.
In general, video games are very good for generating interest or attention as well as for motivating learners.
They can also be effective means for acquiring knowledge about a certain topic or fostering particular skills. When it comes to changing attitudes or behaviors, however, video games alone are usually not enough.
What is interesting about video games with regard to education and learning is that people can and do also learn things incidentally or unintentionally.
While there is a whole line of research and branches within the video games industry working on what is usually called “Serious Games” or games for learning, people can also improve their language skills or acquire knowledge about historical topics by playing entertainment games.
What is the effect of gaming on cognition and perception?
This is a very broad question and, hence, somewhat difficult to answer. There are quite a few studies that gamers, on average, outperform non-gamers in tasks like mental rotation or specific visual perception tasks. This does make sense as in many games players need to react quickly to visual stimuli and need to be able to navigate virtual three-dimensional
Again, a key question here is whether those are mainly media or selection effects. What this means is that playing video games can increase these skills, while it is also possible that people who are better at these tasks also tend to play more video games as they require these skills.
Most likely, there is somewhat of a cyclical process at work: People who have certain skills are more likely to play specific types of games that require these skills and playing them can, in turn, further increase their skills in these domains.
Specifically, what kind of games are good for children?
Again, this is very difficult to say in general. This depends largely on their age and developmental state. Most countries have age rating systems and these typically provide a good indication of which games are suitable for children of a certain age. Beyond that, in many countries there also are institutions or media outlets that provide recommendations for educational or pedagogically valuable games.
Similarly, which games are good for teenagers and adults?
For teenagers I would essentially give the same answer as before. However, they usually want to have a say in what they can play or decide for themselves. As I said before, age ratings are usually good indicators but parents should know their children best and can decide whether they should play a certain game. This, of course, requires that parents have or acquire a certain amount of knowledge about the games that are available and popular. For adults, their choices are their own and they should play whatever they enjoy.
Dr. Johannes Breuer is a senior researcher at GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences in Cologne, Germany. Before joining GESIS he worked in several research projects investigating the use and effects of digital media at the Universities of Cologne, Hohenheim, and Münster, and the Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien (Knowledge Media Research Center) in Tübingen. He received his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Cologne with a thesis on the effects of video games in the areas of learning and aggression. His other research interests include computational methods and open science.
Photos: Shutterstock, From the Archive of Dr. Breuer / Photomontage: Martina Advaney
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