How Dr Mark,
I'm fifteen and I've played a lot of different video games, ranging from Flight Simulators to Aggressive Driving games, First Person Shooters to Real Time Strategy games and plenty of different MMOGs.
Taking on board your last column on aggression and anti-social behavior (which not only happens in MMOGs I have found, but also among younger console gamers who are sometimes worse because a lot of interacting over Xbox Live for instance, takes place via a vocal chat room), do you believe gamers sometimes acquire emotions from a game and then release those in other areas of their life?
An example of what I'm asking is perhaps when the media blames the influence of video games for the actions of a "mad gunman" or criminal.
Do you believe these people commit crimes or do what they do because of the influence of video games?
I'm very glad you've asked these difficult questions. Let me address them separately:
1. Do you believe gamers sometimes acquire emotions from a game and then release those into other areas of their life?
My experience tells me that gaming is both emotionally arousing and physically stimulating. Intense gameplay often produces a cauldron of emotions in me, ranging from exultation and joy to utter despair, indignation, and outrage. I get some of this charge from non-MMOG gaming, but the social component of MMOGs was a real accelerant. Because I cared what others thought of me and whether I fit in, so much more seemed to be at stake when I was playing.
There were certainly times when elation or irritation colored my mood outside of gaming. It might be as simple as reliving a great victory in my mind repeatedly throughout the day and feeling jaunty about it, or being sour and depressed because of an ongoing frustration. Usually, this all added up to a continuing involvement with gaming long after I stopped a given session of play. Sometimes the thoughts and emotions were quite intrusive. I couldn't stop drifting into them even when I should have been paying attention to other things.
Gamers may discharge some emotion from gaming into other areas of their lives. A common example of this occurs when parents want kids to stop playing. The children are absorbed in gaming, the parents feel ignored and disrespected, and this often leads to a big fight, with yelling and screaming, gnashing of the teeth, and rending of the mantle. I think some of these conflicts are intensified by the high level of emotional arousal the gamer is experiencing while playing. You could suppose this is just a reaction to having to stop doing something that is pleasurable, but I think it is more than that.
I don't socialize with groups of teenagers, but I imagine some of the excitement they experience in gaming could affect the social atmosphere, especially if their friends are fellow gamers. Have you experienced this?
Most serious gamers I know seem more detached and flattened out in the rest of their lives than aroused and agitated. By this, I mean that the emotional energy that might normally imbue their lives with color and enthusiasm seems to be missing, unless you are talking with them about gaming, in which case, they light up. So you could wonder if gaming saps excitement and joy out of real life, which may seem dull by comparison. This effect seems at least as substantial to me as gamers "acquiring emotions" in their play and releasing them in their lives.
2. Do you believe these people commit crimes or do what they do because of the influence of video games?
There is a growing literature supporting the idea that violent videogame play is associated with increased levels of aggressive thought, affect, and behavior (see in particular Anderson, et.al., Psychological Bulletin, 2010 for a meta-analysis summarizing the results of 130 studies--beats the heck out of reading them all).
From my point of view, it is very difficult to study this question, and easy to criticize the methodology. How do they determine what a violent videogame is? How do they measure increased aggression, aggressive cognition and affect? I'm not a research psychologist, but I do have some respect for the idea that 130 studies, taken together, seem to show a significant effect, so I'm inclined to accept what these researchers say at face value, that there is a link between violent videogaming and some measures of aggression, without getting into a big tussle about methodology.