I play lots of video games. I always have. Ever since I was five-years-old video games have been intricately tied to my social development. I started conversations with peers about how far they could get in Sonic 2. I built one of my most enduring relationships on a trade I made for Mortal Kombat 2. My brother and I bonded while taking down the despicable Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time. My Dad taught me that blowing in the Super Mario Bros. 3 cartridge could get it to work.

And just today I popped in Donkey Kong Country Returns for some multiplayer platforming action. The point being that, in my experience, video games have been a tool for bringing people together. What was more important to my happiness today, shaking the Wii Remote to blow out some candles or sharing a laugh with some of my closest friends after shouting “GET ON THE F**KING WHALE!”?

It was the laughs.

While not all games are multiplayer, I feel I’d be hard pressed to find a game that doesn’t promote social interaction. Even though Skyrim is single-player, I’m still asking people where they found this particular mask or telling them how I got to this settlement. I talk about my character and ask others what’s working for them, because “gamers” or “players” or whatever you want to call them, are members of a community.

community |kəˈmyoōnitē|
noun ( pl. -ties)
a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals

This doesn’t have to mean every person playing games, or even fans of a particular game, it means those two other people playing with me. We are all trying to collect the letters K-O-N-G.

But, I’m 22. This has always been the definition of multiplayer to me, so what does it mean when a 13-year-old can virtually anonymously interact with mass numbers of people? What does it mean to them when their digital person is shooting the other digital person in the head? What happens when their parents have fallen so out of touch that they don’t even talk about what’s taking place? I don’t know the answer but I’m willing to bet that this sense of “community” can start to break down. And suddenly, a child using a fake character to shoot another in the face is something much different than jumping on a crab with a cartoon gorilla.

I played Quake, Goldeneye, and even Doom as a child, so I have nothing personally against violent shooters or those who play them, but I came across an article that piqued my interest on how they can affect kids. As I searched I came across a few more studies on how video games affect various populations in different ways. I decided I’d like to present some of the results and see how people on this gaming website, in this community, feel about them. So, after this lengthy introduction, I’ll present a study about how internet use and video gaming predict problem behavior in early adolescence.

Holtz, M. Appel. Journal of Adolescence, 34 (2011) 49–58.

Let me start by saying this will not be filled with statistical mumbo jumbo. As a Psych student at UC Davis, it was a common chore to scrutinize the tables and charts to come away with something meaningful. That something is all I wish to offer.

The study aims to connect various game and internet related variables with problem behaviors. I’ll unpack those terms in a minute, but let’s start by looking at the participants in the study. This sample of Austrian youths was comprised of 100 boys and 105 girls. They were all between the ages of 10 and 14, with an average of 12.71. They were from both rural and urban areas and participated in the study in 2007. So it was a normal group of Austrian kids.

Each completed a questionnaire on various topics, including: access to computer/internet, favorite games, how long s/he played each day, types of internet use, and whether his or her parents talked about internet use or were aware of its uses. They basically wanted to know how the kids used the internet and the content of the games they played.

They also completed the German version of the Youth Self Report (YSR), “an empirically derived, well established, and widely used instrument with excellent psychometric properties.” This is how the researchers determined whether or not the child exhibited “problem behaviors”. They looked at three separate measures from the self report: Total Problems, Internalizing Problems, and Externalizing Problems. The Total Problems score is a summary of all behavior problem items, but the other two categories are much more specific (and informative). Internalizing Problems include: withdrawn behavior, anxiety, depression, and somatic complaints (bodily issues without physiological cause). Externalizing problems are more of the aggressive and delinquent behaviors.

Prior research revealed a connection between playing violent games and aggression. Violent media content can desensitize the viewer (or player, or “experiencer”) to not only media violence but real-life violence, according to the General Aggressiveness Model. In theory, the common experience of violence causes stable patterns of aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to develop over time. This study aims to go a step or two further, by not only correlating violent games with externalizing problems, but also linking fantasy games and MMORPGs with internalizing behaviors, and lack of parent-child communication with problem behaviors as a whole.

The results, while debatable, are clear. Adolescents, who spend more time on video games and the internet than any other group, may be vulnerable to developing problem behaviors. Because this is a correlational test, it can assert no cause-effect relationships. It can only make claims that if this behavior or condition is present, it is likely that behavior will be too. And the study found that aggression and delinquency could be predicted by internet communication, the amount of online gaming, and by playing FPSs (of which CounterStrike was the favorite). More than half of fantasy game players presented internalizing behavior problems, much larger than those who preferred other types of games. And, parent-child communication was negatively correlated with problem behaviors. I know I said I’d leave out the tables, but in summary:

FPS = aggressive/delinquent
Fantasy = depressed/anxious
More parent talk = less problems

Obviously, these findings aren’t fact and this doesn’t mean that if you play World of Warcraft you are a loner. What they mean is that if you know someone plays WoW, there is a higher chance they will be a loner than if they played CounterStrike. There are obviously (and admittedly) many issues with the study, but as a starting point for discussion, what do the findings mean to you? Would you filter what games your kids play because it could impact their social development, or encourage your lonely child to play WoW because that’s what he prefers? I think we, as a gaming community, have a unique opportunity to look at these findings and tease apart what may be valuable information, and what’s crap. I don’t know about you, but my monthly subscription the the Journal of Adolescence ran out, so I missed this article. Now I think this information has found it’s way into the right hands, so it is our responsibility to find out what it really means.

Maybe my dad teaching me to blow into that NES cartridge meant more than I know...

Keep an eye out for another review like this concerning the effects of pathological gaming on aggressive behavior.