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Scientific Inquiries: Is The ESA's Criticism Of Video Game Studies A Good Practice?

by Tim Turi on Apr 26, 2011 at 08:23 AM

Note: This article by Matthew Kato and Jeff Cork originally appeared in the April issue (#216, Saints Row the Third).

The increased popularity of video games has put the medium in the spotlight, including frequent scrutiny by researchers and various groups trying to understand games and their effect on those who play them and society in general. Studies of all stripes are used to prove or disprove topics such as whether violent video games are harmful to kids, but there have yet to be any clear, answers to these questions because data like surveys and statistics can be inaccurate or disputed.

Recently, industry trade group the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) sent out a press release containing advance criticism of a study by Dr. Douglas Gentile (associate professor of developmental psychology at Iowa State University) and others about the negative effects of pathological video game usage, also known as video game addiction. The ESA warned that Gentile’s study was “flawed” and called into question the doctor’s motives and past work. While it’s the ESA’s job to protect video games and its constituency, what was unusual about the ESA’s pre-emptive attack was that Gentile’s report itself and its conclusions did not seem controversial.

Gentile’s study of more than 3,000 school children in Singapore over a three-year period found that excessive gaming can have a negative effect on some kids, including the exacerbation of depression, anxiety, poor school work, and other issues. Gentile stopped short of announcing a causal link between this kind of video game addiction and the aforementioned health issues, and while some kids he surveyed never developed a video game addiction, approximately nine percent of children surveyed (who averaged a gaming habit of 31 hours a week) could be classified as pathological gamers. Moreover, conditions such as depression and social phobias improved as these gamers stopped their pathological behavior.

Video game addiction is not a medically recognized condition, but Gentile used gambling addiction (which is recognized) as a comparison in developing his survey questions and an overall reference point because both start out as entertainment and later “stimulate emotional responses and dopamine release,” according to the study. Similar to gambling, Gentile believes the basic cause of video game addiction is a lack of impulse control in the individual.

Despite the seeming clarity of his study’s findings, Gentile doesn’t think the argument about video game addiction is over. “The purpose of this article,” states the study, “is not to answer that debate, but to provide new data that may be useful.” If Gentile’s tone is relatively accommodating, why is the ESA so vehemently against him? The ESA declined to talk to us for this article, and its pre-emptive press release criticizing the study and Gentile himself provides few answers. In it the ESA says that pathological video gaming is not a medically recognized condition, and the tools the study uses to measure it have been criticized. However, the fact that it is not medically recognized is precisely what prompted the study in the first place, which required that Gentile and his colleagues use the methods they think are best suited to the task. In fact, the study is openly critical of itself, pointing out its own limitations and where more research is needed.

“We commend credible, independent, and verifiable research about computer and video games,” said Richard Taylor, the ESA’s senior vice president for communications and industry affairs in the press release. “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 video games 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.”

Many people believe that games can have a positive influence on our lives, but can you so easily take the good and ignore the bad? In the past, the ESA has praised studies that show games having a positive effect and criticized those like Gentile’s that don’t, but an effect is an effect whether it’s good or bad. Data and analysis from statistics and studies should always be scrutinized, but while highlighting only that which is favorable to video games may please the ESA’s constituency – and even form one of the cornerstones of the ESA’s legal arguments against its opponents – it’s a practice that brings into question the group’s legitimacy and obscures the honest scientific study of video games.

The ESA took such a selective approach in presenting evidence to the Supreme Court regarding its decision on the California law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors. The ESA cited two studies by Dr. Christoper Ferguson of Texas A&M, one of which (“The Hitman Study: Violent Video Game Exposure Effects on Aggressive Behavior, Hostile Feelings and Depression”) found that violent video games may “reduce depression and hostile feelings in players through mood mangement.”

Ferguson’s study and the ESA’s trumpeting of it is all the same to Gentile, who observes, “People fail to recognize that if games can teach such good things like skills needed by surgeons, then they must also be able to teach other things, such as aggression. The learning mechanisms involved are the same.” Because of this, Gentile sides with the ESA when it says that video games can have a positive effect. Although the group’s press release states that he is anti-video games, in 2007 he released a study showing that video games helped laparoscopic surgeons with their skills and that they might be used as positive training tools.

Is Gentile an anti-video game villain or the champion of its better qualities? Or is he simply adding to the ever-growing conversation about the medium as it endures the scrutiny that inevitably comes with its evolution? The ESA’s stonewall defense may be an effective way to protect the immediate interests of the industry, but further obscuring the truth will only lead to more misunderstanding.

INTERVIEW: Dr. Douglas Gentile
Dr. Gentile is an associate professor of developmental psychology at Iowa State University with numerous peer-reviewed scientific journal articles mainly covering the effects of video games and media on youth.

Do you think video game addiction is different than sex addiction or other such specific addictions?
That’s in fact what I’m trying to test – is it really like other addictions? My current summary of the existing research is that it looks like other addictions in many respects.

Should video game addiction be officially medically recognized?
Not yet.  We still need more studies before I’d feel comfortable taking that step.

Why do you think the ESA was so quick to discount your study before it was published?
They’re just doing their job – protecting the interests of the video game companies.

Do you have any comments about their criticism of your methodology?
Although the ESA claims that this study is flawed, the statement provided 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. People might be interested to notice that the main criticism about my previous study with American children (that an online survey was used) was solved in this study (where children were surveyed in classrooms), and the results were about the same in both studies. This type of convergence with different methods and different populations is a hallmark of good science, and when the results are replicated, it starts demonstrating that the effect is robust and believable.

Do you think that it’s more likely that researchers will find a causal link between video games and bad behavior versus other forms ¬of ¬media?
Probably not. Although there are theoretical reasons why video games might have a larger effect than other media (such as the interactive nature of them), the research is not demonstrating a larger effect. It seems to be about the same size as with traditional media, at least in the media-violence literature. Maybe other effects will be different.

You’ve written about video games being a positive force as well as pointing out how video games can be harmful. Can you comment on the fact that some want to classify video games as either wholly bad or wholly good?
Including the ESA, apparently, who want people to believe that I am “anti-game!” I don’t understand the general human tendency to prefer extremes to the truth that is usually somewhere in the middle. Perhaps it’s best explained by what my father always said: “There are two types of people in the world. Those who divide the world into two types of things, and those who don’t.” This tendency is particularly surprising when people fail to recognize that if games can teach such good things like skills needed by surgeons, then they must also be able to teach other things, such as aggression. The learning mechanisms involved are the same. This is why I’m so interested in all the different types of effects games and other media can have. My position is and always has been that games are powerful, and that they can have many effects. Some effects are beneficial, others can be harmful. The various effects depend upon many different features, upon the amount of time spent with the games, and possibly upon characteristics of the player. By being aware of both the potential benefits and potential problems, families can maximize the benefits while minimizing the harms.