This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 5 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
On Saturday, August 25, 2018, David Katz walked into the GLHF Game Bar in Jacksonville, Florida, and opened fire on those gathered for a Madden 19 video game tournament.1 Katz, who had just been eliminated from the tournament, killed two people and wounded nine others before taking his own life. What made this shooting unique was its clear connection to video games. Katz had won a few big tournaments and considered himself one of the better players. Just a few months prior to this, nineteen-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed seventeen people in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It was the deadliest school shooting in five years. A neighbor of Cruz claimed he played violent video games upward of fifteen hours a day.2
Just prior to these incidents, the World Health Organization added “Gaming Disorder” to the 11th International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11)3 — a tool for diagnosing diseases. Combine these events with the many parents dismayed by their children’s Fortnite obsession,4 and it seems that the game industry’s darkest demons are being exposed. In our politically charged culture, it can be difficult to get to the bottom of anything, much less controversial subjects such as virtual violence and addiction. But we must try because we live in a world of gamers. More than two billion people are playing video games worldwide.5 This is where God calls us to be salt and light. We cannot responsibly exercise this calling without honestly striving to understand gaming. As image bearers, what place do video games have in our lives?
Violence. Hundreds of studies in recent years have attempted to ascertain a connection between aggression and violent video games. Despite all this effort, there is no real consensus among researchers on the impact of virtual violence on aggressive behavior.6 The most recent study, a meta-analysis of twenty-four studies, reported that playing violent video games led to increased physical aggression over time.7 Dr. Patrick Markey, a professor of psychology at Villanova University, who has studied video game violence extensively, however, said that the new findings point to, at most, a minor influence: “Less than 1 percent of the variance in aggression is explained by exposure to video game violence.”8
Yet, in the wake of school shootings, people’s reactions are disturbingly political — one side will decry the lack of regulation on semiautomatic guns, and the other side will decry the prevalence of violent media, particularly video games.9 In reality, only about 20 percent of school shooters play violent video games, compared to 70 percent of high school students.10 And despite concerns about desensitization, studies increasingly show that violent television does not desensitize viewers,11 and players of violent video games show no less ability to differentiate between real and virtual violence.12
Should You Play Violent Video Games? The statistics we’ve seen so far do not mean violent video games have no impact. Kevin Schut, who authored Of Games and God (Brazos Press, 2013), says, “Logic dictates that game violence is likely to have some effect.…If we think games are great teaching tools (and they are!), why would we assume that stops with violence? We humans are story-making creatures. If we constantly engage in stories where people are constantly enemies, stories where the solution to problems is forceful destruction, how can that not shape our way of thinking at least a little?”13
The mere presence of violence in media is not inherently problematic. Context is key both in terms of the narratives of games and players’ motivations. The Bible contains numerous instructive stories of graphic violence. Truthfully, however, most virtual violence is not educational. Often games have players engaging in acts of violence to protect the innocent, but the primary motive is entertainment. Most online gamers are motivated by the thrill of victory. Some narratives of violent video games are attempting to tell more truthful stories. Games such as Shadow of the Colossus artfully illustrate the destructive nature of selfish violence, and This War of Mine unpacks the cost of war.14
The fact that current research doesn’t accord with sensational headlines that claim video games make us aggressive15 doesn’t free us to play as many violent games as we want. Real violence rarely is productive, and war is far more complex than games indicate. Violent video games, after all, are products of an already violent culture16 — a culture in which Christ calls us to be salt and light.
Addiction. The ICD-11 defines gaming disorder as “a pattern of gaming behavior…characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.”17
The inclusion of gaming disorder in ICD’s disorder list is significant for two reasons. First, the ICD is not updated very often — the last time was 1990. Second, health professionals around the world utilize the ICD in decisions about healthcare and research. The inclusion of gaming disorder will lead to more research into how people become addicted and how best to treat addiction. However, many researchers contend that the WHO’s decision was premature.18 Last year, nearly thirty academics and mental health professionals wrote a paper opposing the classification, claiming “there was a lack of consensus among researchers…and the quality of the evidence base was low.”19
How Many Gamers Are Addicted? One early study found that nearly 9 percent of gamers ages eight to eighteen were addicted to games.20 Andrew Przybylski, a psychologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, however, points out that the research citing the highest numbers of addicts collects data from support groups or forums where people post about gaming addiction. “It’s like asking, ‘what is the prevalence of heroin?’ and then going to a clean needle exchange and running your survey there.”21 Prybylski cites studies that report less than half of one percent of gamers are addicted. Dr. David Greenfield, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, says the figure is likely closer to 1 percent.22
How Addictive Are Games? Neuroscientists have pointed out that the areas in the brain associated with the pleasures of drug use are the same as those associated with video gaming. This, however, does not justify headlines such as “Playing Games as Addictive as Heroine.”23 Patrick Markey, along with Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University, notes, “These areas of the brain — those that produce and respond to the neurotransmitter dopamine — are involved in just about any pleasurable activity: having sex, enjoying a nice conversation, eating good food, reading a book, using methamphetamines.”24 The amount of dopamine released by playing a video game is roughly equivalent to eating a slice of pizza — smoking meth results in a release ten times more potent.
Of the definition of gaming disorder, Pryzbylski says, “You could easily take out the word ‘gaming’ and put in ‘sex’ or ‘food’ or ‘watching the World Cup.’…The gaming disorder definition says nothing about what kinds of games or what features of games might be addicting, and so it’s too broad to be helpful.”25
Not Addicted Does Not Equal Healthy. When we broaden the scope of research beyond addiction to problematic play, we find that nearly 10 percent of gamers have engaged in problematic game play.26 To qualify as “addicted,” gamers must engage in multiple negative behaviors “over a sustained period of three months.”27 It’s quite possible to have a deeply unhealthy level of engagement with games that is causing harm to yourself and others without clinically qualifying as “addicted.”
Let’s Engage Video Games Christianly. Being salt in the world requires understanding it well enough to speak the truth in love to those living in it, and for older teens and adults there are numerous benefits to playing video games in moderation. They can help us develop problem-solving skills; teach us resilience; help us be more productive; improve concentration, memory, and pattern recognition; and provide opportunities for social bonding.28 These benefits drop drastically, however, when we play games for extended stretches of three hours or more.29 In his study “Electronic Gaming and Psychological Adjustment,” Pryzbylski found that, compared with nonplayers, children who spend more than three hours playing video games report higher levels of external and internal problems and lower levels of behavior and life satisfaction.30 Moreover, there is emerging consensus that any screen time for small children and kids through middle school can be detrimental. But as those who believe that God created the physical world (and that the physical world is good, including our bodies), gaming in moderation can be good for older teens and adults — physically and emotionally. Gaming in excess is the opposite.
While virtual violence and addiction may not be the menace we often envision them to be, that doesn’t mean irresponsible engagement of games isn’t a problem. Hardly a day goes by when an editorial is not published by a parent concerned about his child’s relationship with Fortnite. We must not wait for our children, friends, or spouses to become clinically addicted in order to encourage responsible media consumption habits. Furthermore, we should educate ourselves on the reward structures such as loot boxes and free-to-play games and how they might be affecting our brains — a subject worthy of its own article.
While we should refrain from moral panic over current headlines, it’s perhaps even more important to encourage responsible, age-appropriate engagement so that we might capitalize on the best that games have to offer. Many games, when played in moderation or socially, can have a positive impact on our lives. Additionally, when we divorce apologetics from mission, we have missed the point. This is why I cofounded Love Thy Nerd,31 a ministry dedicated to being the love of Jesus to gamers. If we don’t see a tremendous opportunity for mission behind the 221 million Americans who play video games, we aren’t looking hard enough.
Drew Dixon is the chief content nerd at Love Thy Nerd and the editor of Explore the Bible: Students at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville. Drew has written about video games from a Christian worldview for a wide variety of publications.
- Eric Levenson, AnneClaire Stapleton, and Darran Simon, “Two Killed in Shooting at Jacksonville Video Game Tournament,” CNN, August 27, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/26/us/jacksonville-madden-shooting/index.html.
- Greg Toppo, “Do Violent Video Games Make Kids Violent? Trump Thinks They Could,” USA Today, February 20, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/02/20/after parkland-video-games-back-critics-crosshairs/356654002/.
- Gaming Disoder Q&A, http://www.who.int/features/qa/gaming-disorder/en/.
- Zach Carpenter, “Dear Fortnite Mom,” Love Thy Nerd, July 30, 2018, https://lovethynerd.com/dear-fortnite-mom/.
- Emma McDonald, “Newzoo’s 2017 Report: Insights into the $108.9 Global Games Market,”Newzoo, June 20, 2017, https://newzoo.com/insights/articles/newzoo-2017-report-insightsinto-the-108-9-billion-global-games-market/.
- Kerry Shawgo, “Are You Wrong about Video Game Violence?” August 14, 2018, https://lovethynerd.com/are-you-wrong-about-video-game-violence/.
- Anna T. Prescott, James D. Sargent, and Jay G. Hull, “Metaanalysis of the Relationship between Violent Video Game Play and Physical Aggression over Time,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, 40 (October 2, 2018), published online: http://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/115/40/9882.full.pdf.
- Patrick Markey, “More Evidence Video Games May Trigger Aggression,” Health.com, October 1, 2018, https://www.health.com/healthday/more-evidence-video-games-maytrigger-aggression-kids.
- Jamie Ducharme, “Trump Blames Video Games for School Shootings. Here’s What Science Says,” Time, March 12, 2018, http://time.com/5191182/trump-video-gamesviolence/.
- Toppo, “Do Violent Video Games Make Kids Violent?”
- 11 Raul A. Ramos, “Comfortably Numb or Just Yet Another Movie? Media Violence Exposure Does Not Reduce Viewer Empathy for Victims of Real Violence among Primarily Hispanic Viewers,” Psychology of Popular Media Culture 2, 1 (2016): 2–10.
- Christina Regenbogen, Manfred Herrmann, and Thorsten Fehr, “The Neural Processing of Voluntary Completed, Real and Virtual Violent and Nonviolent Computer Game Scenarios Displaying Predefined Actions in Gamers and Nongamers,” Social Neuroscience 5, 2 (2010): 221–40.
- Kevin Schut, “Should You Play Violent Video Games?” Love Thy Nerd, October 2, 2018, https://lovethynerd.com/should-you-play-violent-video-games/.
- Drew Dixon, “Long Live Play: When Games Tell the Truth,” Paste Magazine, December 6, 2011, https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2011/12/long-live-play-when-games-tell-thetruth.html.
- Mike Snider, “Little by Little, Violent Video Games Make Us More Aggressive,” USA Today, October 1, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2018/10/01/violentvideo-games-tie-physical-aggression-confirmed-study/1486188002/.
- Drew Dixon, “E3 and the American Art of Violence,” Paste Magazine, July 26, 2012, https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2012/06/the-leaderboard-e3-and-the-americanart-of-violenc.html.
- Gaming Disoder Q&A, http://www.who.int/features/qa/gaming-disorder/en/.
- Andy Przybylski and Amy Orben, “Why It’s Too Soon to Classify Gaming Addiction as a Mental Disorder,” The Guardian, February 14, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2018/feb/14/gaming-addiction-as-a-mental-disorder-its-prematureto-pathologise-players.
- Aarseth Espen et al., “Scholars’ Open Debate Paper on the World Health Organization ICD-11 Gaming Disorder Proposal,” Journal of Behavioral Addictions 6, 3 (2016), available online at https://doi.org/10.1556/2006.5.2016.088.
- Douglas A. Gentile et al., “Patholgocial Video Game Use Among Youth: A Two Year Longitudinal Study,” Association for Pediatrics 127, 2 (2011): 319–28.
- Angela Chen, “Here’s Why Experts Are Skeptical of the ‘Gaming Disorder’ Diagnosis,” The Verge, July 19, 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/19/17479318/gaming-disorderwho-psychology-video-games-science.
- “Is Video Game Addiction a Thing?,” 1A, August 8, 2018, https://the1a.org/shows/2018-08-08/from-fortnite-to-final-fantasy-is-video-game-addiction-a-thing.
- Lee Price, “Playing Games as Addictive as Heroine,” The Sun, July 8, 2014, https://www.co.uk/archives/news/962643/playing-games-as-addictive-as-heroin/.
- Christopher J. Ferguson and Patrick Markey, “Video Games Aren’t Addictive,” New York Times, April 1, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/01/opinion/sunday/video-gamesarent- html.
- Chen, “Here’s Why Experts Are Skeptical of the ‘Gaming Disorder’ Diagnosis.”
- Nigel E. Turner et al., “Prevalence of Problematic Video Gaming among Ontario Adolescents,” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction 10, 6 (2012): 877–89.
- Rachel Kowert, A Parent’s Guide to Video Games (North Charleston: CreateSpace, 2016), 18–19.
- Drew Dixon, “More Than Fun: 5 Intrinsic Values of Video Games,” Love Thy Nerd, July 25, 2018, https://lovethynerd.com/more-than-fun-5-intrinsic-values-of-videogames/.
- Jordan Shapiro, “A Surprising New Study on How Video Games Affect Kids,” Forbes, August 27, 2014, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jordanshapiro/2014/08/27/a-surprising-newstudy-on-how-video-games-impact-children/#554fbcc37556.
- Andrew K. Pryzbylski, “Electronic Gaming and Psychological Adjustment,” Pediatrics 134, 3 (2014): 1–7, available at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/134/3/e716.
- “About Us,” Love Thy Nerd, https://lovethynerd.com/about/.