The Case for Pong

Space-Invaders. Centipede. Tron. Galaga. Pac-Man. Mario. I remember, in 198X, after much anticipation (aka delayed gratification), the joy of finding an Atari gaming system under the Christmas tree. I had waited months to play the "realistic" games of destroying aliens and eating power pacs. I thought these games were so much better than Pong, which essentially used a line and a dot on the screen. And if you have no idea what I'm talking about right now, these were the first videogames.

Anyway, after an hour or so of sitting in front of the TV, if by some miracle the joystick didn’t break, I got bored or just needed to fidget (remember, I'm pretty sure I had ADHD before the diagnosis was available). I’d climb a tree, read a book, invent a game, or look for the elusive four-leaf clover. My neighborhood friends and I had pick-up basketball or kickball games, we tore apart Stretch Armstrong to see what made him stretch, we had superball competitions (who could bounce the highest, longest, most in succession, etc.) If someone in the neighborhood got a new refrigerator, we’d make a fort or a castle from the giant box. We laughed, got into arguments with each other (one time I smashed a tomato on my best friend’s head), we worked it out. Videogaming wasn’t that compelling. Living and creating was.

So what happened? Well in the 30+ years that videogames have become a part of our culture, the nature of the games has changed. Mortal Korbat, Halo, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Medal of Honor. These are NOT games for children. They are designed for adults, who presumably have fully-developed prefrontal cortexes, whose brains have developed to avoid desensitization to violent acts. Why do parents buy these games for children? I recently had one parent confess that she hated these games, and she feared that she was beginning to see signs of aggression towards her (although "she didn’t think he was the type to shoot people in real life"—does anybody think their kids will do this????) yet she bought these games to “keep the peace” in the household. Sad irony.

Many years ago, I remember sitting in a seminar at Johns Hopkins, listening to researchers present analysis from data they collected from gamers. The evidence back then was inconclusive, at best, but keep in mind we also didn’t yet have the technology to study the brain like we do today.

I just read a compilation of studies dating back to 1984, and most of those studies have shown that playing violent videogames increases neural patterns consistent with aggressive cognition and behavior.

One meta-analysis of 35 different studies ("Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and ProSocial Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of Scientific Literature” 2001) concluded that “exposure is positively associated with heightened levels of aggression in young adults and children, in experimental and nonexperimental designs, and in males and females." 35 studies.

In another meta-analysis ("Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Western and Eastern Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review" 2010), of 130,000 participants, the researchers concluded that "videogame violence exposure was positively associated with aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect." 130,000 participants.

I am sure that I will hear from people who have turned out "perfectly normal" and "successful", but what good can come from violent videogames? Isn't there a better way to spend your time?

Can't we just go back to Pong? Or better, can't we read a book or climb a tree?