Opinion: Survey says - games aren't bad for you

Thing is, survey also says games aren't *good* for you either, as Ellie Gibson discusses.
17/8/2022

Poor old Video Games. If they were a person, you’d always find them in the kitchen at parties. Films would be lounging elegantly in the front room, wafting a cigarette holder about, all sexy and cool. Telly would be bouncing around the dancefloor, sloshing cider everywhere and laughing too hard. On the decks would be Music, obviously, being effortlessly hip. And Video Games would be holed up in a corner by the microwave, chatting with other nerdy pastimes like Historical Re-Enactment and Metal Detecting.

Only games, it feels like, have to constantly justify their presence at the party in the first place. Often the attempts to do this are via scientific studies, such as the recent one into the effect of video games on wellbeing from the University of Oxford. The good news is that according to the data, playing games does not have a negative effect on mental health. But nor does it have any positive benefits. Turns out your parents were right: video games are a total waste of time.

Sometimes companies try to make games cool by throwing celebrities at the problem. Here’s Jodie Marsh and Kenzie from Blazin’ Squad arriving at the Gizmondo launch. 2005 in a nutshell.

As someone who has been a gamer their whole life, I found this information difficult to digest. Are you seriously telling me I’d be a calmer person if I practiced yoga instead of playing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla? It’s hard to believe that a bit of downward-facing dog would relieve more stress than smashing in all the windows of Canterbury cathedral before stabbing the archbishop and hacking a load of Saxons’ heads off. Now that’s what I call quality me-time.

Of course, one of the great and terrible things about living in the 21st century is that if you stumble across some science you disagree with, you can always find something or someone to contradict it on the internet. Cue Jane McGonigal, academic, author, and game designer.

(Fun fact: McGonigal was born on 21 October 1977, exactly nine days after me. The advantage of youth must explain why her decades in the games industry have culminated in a PhD and a famous TED talk, while my career has consisted mainly of Wii shovelware reviews and doing jokes on Dave about Pac-Man bum tattoos.)

She argues that playing video games can have many positive effects, from helping us to heal from brain injuries to improving our self-esteem and resilience. Speaking on an episode of The Knowledge Project podcast, she says: “We know there is a transferable benefit, which is that you get better at learning new things, at dealing with systems that are frustrating, and having to adapt… Every game does this, and it’s something we shouldn’t trivialise. We shouldn’t pretend that games are just escapist, or just a pastime.”

Video games teach us that we can teach ourselves, says McGonigal, adding, “Any game that’s designed to be challenging is going to give you that benefit.” Personally, it’s a massive relief to know the 60-odd hours I spent on Airplane Chefs last year was improving my neuroplasticity, and not just my ability to remember to put plenty of garlic sauce on the trolley before you go through the little curtain.

Airplane Chefs: definitely not a waste of a life.

McGonigal also makes some interesting points about the link between violent behaviour and video games; specifically, the fact that there isn’t one. And as she points out, we have violent real-life games, such as American football, that can cause physical injury and death - yet no one suggests playing for the NFL or watching the Superbowl makes you violent.

(Of course, such a savage and brutal sport would never take off in this country. We just have rugby, boxing, and despite the ban it seems, fox hunting. Which is fine. Everyone knows that bloodsports are an important part of British cultural history and aristocratic tradition, like sending children up chimneys and denying women the vote. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that chasing an animal to the point of exhaustion in order to watch it get torn limb from limb before smearing its blood on your face gives you violent tendencies. Perhaps they were there in the first place, if that’s your idea of a fun weekend. Maybe just make some toast and watch Saturday Kitchen instead, yeah?)

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t study video games, or the effect they have on our brains, both positive and negative - these are important issues, and anything that opens up the conversation to a wider audience is a good thing. Yes, it’s a shame these studies are used to either condemn or canonise games, but the medium is still evolving, and so is our understanding of it. I look forward to the day when games are more broadly seen as an equally valid form of entertainment, rather than a dangerous waste of time. Mainly because I’m tired of explaining to non-gamer parents that Fall Guys probably won’t turn their kid into a serial killer.

Anyway, as everyone knows, the most fun at parties happens in the kitchen. By 2am, Films will have run out of people to bore with highbrow opinions. Music will be passive aggressively playing obscure hard house, having been pissed off by the endless requests for Sweet Caroline and the Thong Song. And Telly will be vomiting Magners in the garden. But in the kitchen, Video Games will still be having a great time - doing shots, telling jokes, and getting off with Dungeons & Dragons. I know who I’d rather hang out with.

Ellie Gibson
Ellie Gibson is an award-winning video games journalist, broadcaster and streamer. Along with co-hosting the Extra Life podcast, she appeared as the gaming expert on Dara O Briain's Go 8 Bit, and presented the spin-off show, Go 8 Bit DLC. She is also one-half of the comedy double act Scummy Mummies. Follow her on Twitter @elliegibson and Twitch at Twitch.tv/elliegibsongames.

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