Video game behavioral effects

How can playing video games effect or change behavior? We look at two major behavior modifications video game play can cause: aggression and skills improvement. A brief review of observational learning theory and the two top video game behavioral effects here.

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How video games affect the brain

In the past 50 years, scientists have created theories and models to explain that what we observe in any context has both short-term and long-term influences on our behaviors. In other words, we develop our beliefs about social norms and acceptable behavior based on the content of our experiences. And this is true for what we observe when we see or play video games.

Observational learning theory : monkey see, monkey do

The basic premise of observational learning theory is that we are “socialized” by seeing and mimicking others. This is true for adults, but especially true for young children. Kids, tweens and teens mimic what they see in the short run. More importantly, children get their complicated scripts for behaviors, beliefs about the world, and moral understanding about how to behave in the long run…from what they observe.  More on the relations between children and video games here.

In this way, we are ALL affected by what we observe in the video games that we play or watch. But how does video game observation or play change behavior? We take a look at two major ways that video games can alter our behavior: aggression and skills improvement.

Violence and video games

Researchers argue about the cause and effect nature of violent video games on our behavior. Some believe that exposure to video game violence increases the risk that the observer will behave more aggressively and violently in the future. While others deny such a connection. Some examples of behavioral effects that violent video games may have on us include:

  • increased aggressive actions
  • increased aggressive thoughts
  • increased violent actions
  • increased violent feelings

And in the end, we might all agree that any activity (including video gaming) that promotes violence is likely to be a risk factor for violent behavior in adulthood and is worthy of careful scientific examination.

Action video games and skill improvement

Video games are primarily interactive, but video games that require player action have been observed to cause enhancement of certain skills. In fact, researchers have found a strong cause-effect link between action game experience and improvements in perceptual, attentional, and cognitive skills. So, paying video games CAN result in improvements in a number of basic attentional,motor, and visual skills. For example, a recent study has associated playing action video games with real world application such as:

  • better visual short-term memory
  • enhancement of dim signal perception
  • enhanced top-down control of attention
  • enhanced ability to choose among different options more rapidly
  • heightened ability to view small details in blurry scenes
  • more flexibility switching from one task to another

Not only does action video game training “stick” (effects can last from 2 days to 60 days or even up to 2 years in some cases), but performance improvements are also
possibly transferable to different tasks. In other words, playing an action game can result in behavioral changes in non-gaming environments.

Be careful when associating cause and effect of video game play

Video game play is never a solitary stand-alone factor when measuring behavioral outcomes. In fact, the vast majority of research related to technology and video game use is correlational (not causal) in nature. This is because other factors remain strong predictors of poor behavioral outcomes, such as lower levels of income or lower education. In the end, it is truly difficult to make sense of the the true causes of most observations related to video games and behavior. And it may be best to focus on additional risk factors which contribute to negative behaviors OTHER THAN video game play alone.

Questions about video game behavioral effects?

Please ask them in the comment box below, or send us an email. We’ll do our best to answer them in a new article as a comment.

Reference sources: Psychological Bulletin 2010 March;136(2):151-181.
Children, Wired: For Better and for Worse
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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