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Study links games to mental health problems in children

9:40 AM on 01.14.2011 // Maurice Tan

Ok, are you ready for this? The Entertainment Software Association has pre-emptively criticized a soon to be published study by Douglas Gentile which supposedly shows a link between gaming habits and mental health problems for participants in a sample of children in Singapore (according to GI.biz).

The ESA's Richard Taylor states:

"We commend credible, independent, and verifiable research about computer and video games. However, this research is just more of the same questionable findings by the same author in his campaign against video games.

There simply is no concrete evidence that computer and videogames cause harm. In fact, a wide body of research has shown the many ways games are being used to improve our lives through education, health and business applications.


Throughout our nation's history, those critical of new entertainment forms have sought to blame those creative works for society's ills and some of have sought to use flawed research to support their theories."

Gentile in return responded to Gamasutra, saying it was "surprising" to him that the ESA paints him as being anti-game, as he thinks himself to be a gamer who has also published studies which indicate the positive effects of games. Let's take an objective look at both sides before we cry havok, shall we?

First of all, Richard Taylor also attacked the methodology of Gentile's latest study:

"Its definition of 'pathological gaming' is neither scientifically nor medically accepted and the type of measure used has been criticized by other scholars.

Other outcomes are also measured using dubious instruments when well-validated tools are readily available. In addition, because the effect sizes of the outcomes are mainly trivial, it leaves open the possibility the author is simply interpreting things as negatively as possible."

Gentile's response to Gamasutra's inquiry:

"Although the ESA claim that this study is flawed, they give no credible evidence of significant flaws. Furthermore, the article was subjected to peer-review by independent experts in a top medical journal, experts whose interest is in evaluating the quality of science.

In addition, the ESA statement includes inaccurate statements. For example, their claim that the prior study had a mistake in methodology is incorrect; there was a mistake in using the word "representative" to describe the sample.

The sampling method was, in fact, an industry standard approach used by Harris Interactive. Regardless of the details, the statement by the ESA is evidence of them doing their job to try to protect the interests of the video game industry."

There are a couple of things to take note of in a case like this, before we all jump on the "We will not stand for this!" bandwagon. The ESA's job is to communicate to and for the games industry as a whole, and have an important role in educating legislators about the importance of the industry. They are the guys we look to when it comes to protecting the industry from politicians trying to impose ridiculous legislation on the nation as a whole. As such, it's not surprising that they pre-empt a new study's release with a statement of their own before the media jumps on it.

And with regard to the statement about Douglas Gentile's campaign against video game, he has indeed published a number of studies on the aggression effects of playing violent videogames. These studies were sometimes co-authored with Anderson and Bushman, aggression researchers who in the past 10 years dominated the 'violent games = violent behavior' argument. Especially the early 2000s studies do raise a lot of methodological concerns, while the results are used to make claims about causal effects even though many academics have questioned the validity and reliability of the results.

However, for those without university access to publications, a look at Gentile's publications also shows a shift in recent years towards more prosocial effect studies with regard to videogames. A 2007 study showed a significant increase in surgeons' skills when training with video games. More interestingly, a 2009 study showed that prosocial games had a positive effect on helpful behavior in children while violent games had an effect on hurtful behavior. Even though that study is not free of methodological criticism itself, which I will spare you this time.

On the whole, Gentile's previous publications perhaps do little to stave off initial skepticism. But he is also just a human being, capable of learning and change. The impression I get from having followed the literature on videogame violence for years is that he is just one of many academics who are concerned about some aspects of gaming, while not necessarily being stubbornly opposed to the positive effects games can have on people, or children in particular.

As for Richard Taylor's comments on the new study's definition of "pathological gaming" not matching the standards for medical or scientific studies, it's something that's easy to accept at face value. A lot of these studies come up with their own definitions as well as methodological designs for finding results that match their hypotheses. Gentile fired back that the article was peer-reviewed which, looking at past publications, is not exactly a fool-proof argument in favor of its validity claims.

Then again, merely claiming that the methodology is flawed without backing it up was perhaps an ill-advised approach. It would've been nice if the ESA had provided evidence for its claims in its statement, although that is also something that the academic videogame research community will do itself after this study has been published. It could very well be that this will hardly be a great study, but researchers sometimes also have to work with the funding they have.

For now, it's hard to judge this upcoming study without actually being able to read it. Does it claim a causal link between playing videogames and later mental problems? Does it say there is a correlation between them, masked as a causal claim? One of the few things that academics agree on with regard to the game violence debate is that some people with an aggressive personality and mental disorders do suffer more negative effects through playing violent games than normal people.

Let's see what the publication of the study actually says, so we can judge it for what it is. If it ends up being ridiculous, we can say it's a ridiculous study. If it's not, we can take a look at why and what it means.

ESA, Researcher Clash Over Upcoming Kids And Gaming Study [Gamasutra]

[Update: As people seem to have mistaken Sloth from the Goonies, who is awesome and has no negative connotations in people's memories, for a child in a psychiatric ward, I have updated the header with a more appropriate and professional image]



Maurice Tan,
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