Dr Yemaya Halbrook
Let's discuss some video game statistics
It is commonly believed that video games are inherently unhealthy for individuals and for society as a whole. For example, a statement from the former US President linked video gaming to extreme violence and mass shootings in the United States:
"We must stop the glorification of violence in our society. This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace," President Trump said. "It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this, and it has to begin immediately" (Timm, 2019).
Inaccurate depiction of video gamers
This statement is consistent with the troubling image of a lonely, depressed male gamer playing, perhaps, in his mother’s basement. According to conventional thinking, this gamer ignores daily responsibilities, may have no job or one that pays minimum wage, possibly just enough to support his gaming habit. He plays obsessively, has no romantic relationships or relationships of any kind outside of the virtual video game world. This pathologically addictive gaming behaviour then has only negative effects, such that he might be depressed or socially anxious. He may play violent video games for hours on end, which leads to increased aggression and anger levels. This anger is then directed elsewhere, such that when he is angry at others or his life in general, he takes it out on the world with a mass shooting that ends with his death, either by his own hand or that of the police with a 'suicide by cop'. For 'typical' people who enjoy playing video games (like me!), these anecdotal beliefs and mental images are offensive and disturbing and, moreover, inaccurate.
Statistics of video gamers
Video games reach a much wider population than the lonely male gamer of the vignette given above. There is an estimate that there will be 2.9 billion gamers worldwide with a global revenue of 175.8 billion USD by the end of 2021 (Newzoo, 2021). The gender and age distribution are also quite different from anecdotal beliefs, such that 45% of gamers in the US are female (Entertainment Software Association, 2021) with 31% of gamers worldwide being 18-35 years old, 37% being older than 36, and only 32% being under 18 (Game Gavel, 2019a). As the most recent generations have grown up with the rapid video game developments and indeed, US gamers have been playing, on average, for 14 years
(Entertainment Software Association, 2019), this average age is quite reasonable. Video games have also been a beneficial escape during the pandemic especially with 71% of American parents agreeing that video games have been a much needed break for their children (Entertainment Software Association, 2021). Children have even used video games for educational purposes during the pandemic, though it is not an entirely new concept and educational video games have been around for years. I was home-schooled until 6th grade and I remember several educational games that helped me with my maths, spelling, and vocabulary. The diversity of video games is astounding and the population of video gamers is much more diverse than previously thought.
Why are video games so popular?
This progression of the video game population and annual spend is potentially due to a number of factors. For instance, gaming companies in recent years have released remakes or continuations to games developed a decade or more ago, which appeal to those who played them as children. Video game nostalgia can be a major factor in the growth and sustainability of the video game industry (Wulf et al., 2018), so even if adults do not play as much now as they did when they were growing up, providing them with the nostalgia of their childhood can get them playing again. Two recent examples include Pokémon Go, released in 2016, and the remake of the classic 2004 version of World of Warcraft, released at the end of August 2019. Wulf et al. (2018) argues that nostalgic video games are not only extremely enjoyable, but they can significantly contribute to well-being and a sense of social identity. Personally, I get a warm and fuzzy feeling whenever I go back and play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as it reminds me of all those hours I spent gaming with my brother during my childhood. If there is a remake for the Switch, I will 100% buy it even though I can emulate it on my PC or play the 3DS version (which I already own).
Another reason for the varied population of gamers is also perhaps due to the easy accessibility of video games on smartphones. Video games are no longer only available on a computer or a console that must be purchased specifically for the purpose of gaming. Indeed, nearly half of the global population owns a smartphone (Statista, 2021) with 71% of Americans playing casual mobile games (Entertainment Software Association, 2021). Of the individuals who play mobile games, however, 85% of them do not consider themselves gamers (Game Gavel, 2019b). This possibly contributes to the belief that those who play video games are all from the younger generations. An equally accurate image of a gamer, then, particularly of the older generations, could be a mother (like my own) playing Candy Crush or Clash of Clans on her smartphone, in order to pass the time while waiting for an appointment or simply because she enjoys playing them.
Why are we still blaming video games?
With all of these statistics and research, why is there this belief among so many that video games are completely bad for you? That anyone who plays World of Warcraft lives in their mother’s dark and dirty basement surviving on nothing but crisps and soda? The above statistics didn’t come out of thin air—these are studies of gamers worldwide and an accumulation of what that data means. I’m 28 years-old and I’ve been playing video games my entire life. My partner’s niece is 6 and she absolutely loves Minecraft. My mother is an age that I will not specify but she plays Clash of Clans with her husband and some of their friends. This is decades of an age range here across many different genres of video games. It’s time we get out of the mindset that video games are bad for us and stop blaming them for everything. Playing Call of Duty doesn’t cause mass shootings and playing World of Warcraft does not mean that you have no life. One can even argue that forming communities with other gamers gives us a unique opportunity to socialise with those we normally never would.
I will say, though, that even with the negative press, the pandemic has certainly expanded our thinking about video games and is helping to show that there are many, many benefits to playing. A study by the Oxford Internet Institute earlier this year examined players of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Plants vs Zombies demonstrated the positives of video games (Johannes et al., 2021).
They even cited my work in their paper!
I felt quite fancy, not going to lie. We have a long way to go in recognising the merits of video games, but it is nice to see major press like The Guardian reporting on the OII study.
A more accurate representation
With all of that said, let’s provide perhaps a more representative picture of a gamer than that of the vignette at the beginning of the article. This would be an individual of any age, culture, or gender who wakes up on a Saturday morning in their own house rather than their mother’s basement (though there is nothing wrong with living with your parents). It is their day off of work, so they make coffee and a small breakfast and sit down in front of their television. Instead of bringing up Netflix or cable and flipping through channels, they boot up their gaming console and select a video game, not as a means to ignore the world but rather, simply to engage in a fun and interactive form of media. Instead of limiting interaction with others like the gamer in the first vignette, maybe this gamer invites a friend over in which they play the game together, either to solve puzzles in a solo video game or as a multiplayer game that they can both enjoy. Maybe they have met other gamers online and invite them to either play or just have some chats.
As it is their day off, they choose to spend the day with this form of media in order to watch the story unfold, particularly if they need to play through several games in order to discover the full story. They take breaks to make their lunch and dinner before settling on their couch again and immersing themselves back into the story. Choosing to play this game because it is fun or because they want the social interaction of playing with their friends provides them with a form of entertainment that is not only beneficial to their overall well-being, but also potentially improves relationships between these individuals. The picture depicted here is of a well-adjusted gamer and demonstrates that video games, contrary to anecdotal beliefs, can be related to overall positive well-being.
Entertainment Software Association. (2019). Essential facts about the computer and video game industry https://www.theesa.com/resource/essential-facts-about-the-computer-and-video-game-industry-2019/
Entertainment Software Association. (2021). Essential facts about the computer and video game industry https://www.theesa.com/resource/2021-essential-facts-about-the-video-game-industry/
Game Gavel. (2019a). 2019 gaming statistics. https://gamegavel.com/gaming-statistics/
Game Gavel. (2019b). 2019 mobile gaming statistics. https://gamegavel.com/mobile-gaming-statistics/
Johannes, N., Vuorre, M., & Przybylski, A. K. (2021). Video game play is positively correlated with well-being. Royal Society open science, 8(2), 202049.
Newzoo. (2021). Global games market report https://newzoo.com/insights/articles/global-games-market-to-generate-175-8-billion-in-2021-despite-a-slight-decline-the-market-is-on-track-to-surpass-200-billion-in-2023/
Statista. (2019). Number of smartphone users worldwide. https://www.statista.com/statistics/330695/number-of-smartphone-users-worldwide/
Timm, J. C. (2019, August 6). Fact check: Trump suggests video games to blame for mass shootings. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/fact-check-trump-suggests-video-games-blame-mass-shootings-n1039411
Wulf, T., Bowman, N. D., Rieger, D., Velez, J. A., & Breuer, J. (2018). Video games as time machines: Video game nostalgia and the success of retro gaming. Media and Communication(2), 60-68.