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Wii Are Not Amused

There's been a lot of "moral panic" over video gaming

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Wii Are Not Amused

During quarantine, my boyfriend started spending two or three hours a night playing video games. Not only do I think this is unhealthy (since video games apparently lead to violence and psychological problems), but I think gaming has become a coping mechanism/escape tool for him. How can I get him to stop?

SIK-LIFE / PIXABAY
  • sik-life / Pixabay

—Annoyed

Claiming gaming causes violence is like claiming white wine causes stabbings. (Give somebody a sip of Chardonnay and before you know it, they'll be dealing meth and then arrested, convicted, and shanking somebody in prison.)

There's been a lot of "moral panic" over video gaming. A moral panic is a mass overreaction to some behavior, art form, or group of people, driven by the fear that it poses a threat to society's values and the social order. Examples include rock lyrics said to be corrupting teenagers and the belief in the 1980s that satanic cults were running nursery schools. About the latter, Margaret Talbot explained in The New York Times Magazine that day care worker/"Devil-worshippers" were supposedly "raping and sodomizing children, practicing ritual sacrifice, shedding their clothes, drinking blood and eating feces, all unnoticed by parents, neighbors and the authorities."

It's easy to succumb to a moral panic. Though we like to see ourselves as careful, rational thinkers, when we're afraid, we engage in reasoning that's better described as "emotioning." This makes us prone to believe "if it bleeds, it leads" news stories that report "research says" video games are addictive, lead to social isolation, and cause those who play them to become violent or more violent.

These media reports aren't lies per se, but the product of reporters understandably unable to parse scientific methodology—usually because they were reporting on celebrities or City Hall until, like, Tuesday, when they got assigned to the science beat. They have no chops to critically analyze studies that, for example, claim video gaming turns normal teens into violent teens: like, if you let a kid play shoot-em-up games, he's supposedly more likely to take to a campus bell tower with an AR-15.

Reporters inexperienced in covering science typically chronicle the findings of just one (possibly flawed) study — without reviewing the body of research on gaming (dozens or even hundreds of studies). If they did this, they would see "the emerging picture from the research literature," summed up by psychologist Pete Etchells, who studies the psychological and behavioral effects of playing video games: "Video games don't appear to have a meaningful impact on aggressive behaviour, and certainly aren't the root cause of mass acts of societal violence."

So, what about studies that claim otherwise? Experimental psychologists Andrew Przybylski and Amy Orben explain that this research is largely "riddled with methodological errors"—errors so major they change the conclusion of a study. (And whaddaya know, the error-driven conclusion is typically the newsmeaty "Lock up your kid's Nintendo, lady, or you're gonna be putting your house up for bail.")

That said, you aren't wrong that video games can be a "coping mechanism": thinking and/or behavior we deploy to manage stressful situations and painful emotions. Coping mechanisms themselves—whether going for a run, taking a bath, or engaging in a couple hours of Mortal Kombat—are not bad.

On the other hand, if your boyfriend is at risk of losing his job because he can't stop gaming or burglarizes the neighbors to buy a bunch of new games, well, that reflects what Przybylski and Orben call "problematic gaming." However, they explain that this afflicts only a "small subset" of gamers, and it's likely driven by underlying problems such as anxiety and depression. In other words, problematic gaming is a symptom, not the problem itself.

By the way, contrary to the tired '80s/'90s stereotype of video games played by an isolated loser in the basement, online gaming connects gamers around the globe. Gamers make friends and are part of a community. (Best of all, in the virtual world, nobody's breathing on anybody, so gamers' friendships are immune to lockdowns.) And though there's a widespread assumption that gaming causes social awkwardness, it often opens up a social world for the sort of person who'd rather RVSP to be put to death than go make small talk face to face at a party.

Now, maybe you are so anti-video game that your relationship just won't fly anymore. But consider whether it's actually your boyfriend's gaming that's bothering you—or whether you're longing for more attention than he's been giving you. If it's the latter, chances are the answer is not just time spent but quality time: being really present and affectionate when you're together. Tell him what you need, and see whether he's up for providing it. It's understandably upsetting to have serious competition for your boyfriend's attention—whether it's from another woman or the 26 druids he has to gun down before dinner.

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