(USA TODAY) Wonder what could be so enticing that people globally spend 3 billion hours every week doing it?
Try video games, that great electronic escape where virtual characters take over the story lines and real-world problems feel far away. As popularity of these games continues to grow, scientists are examining what compels people to invest so much time in fictitious worlds — and whether outcomes of these games have any relevance to reality.
Some studies suggest that playing electronic games provides a form of stress relief; other research cites the social aspect of gaming with friends as a major benefit. And a recent study by Andrew Przybylski, a researcher at the University of Essex in England, finds that a least part of the attraction is the chance to explore aspects of our "ideal selves" in a make-believe world without consequences.
"Imagine, for instance, someone really wants to be a more extroverted person in their daily life but cannot expand themselves at work or at home," he says. "Games can provide this person a context to 'try on' a more extroverted self who is more assertive and sociable by running a large team, such as a guild in the game World of Warcraft."
If your character saves the world from forces of evil, after all, you've earned the respect of your community and landed on higher moral ground.
Of course, few would argue that video games laced with violence — Grand Theft Auto, say — send a message of respect and morality to users. But whether the opposite is true is a topic that's hotly contested. After all, thousands have played violent games and not gone on to steal motor vehicles, join organized crime gangs or physically assault other people. Yet there have been well over 100 studies done that document the rise in hostility and aggression in people who regularly play violent video games.
"We just finished a major review of studies, looking at 381 effects of violent video games in over 130,000 people," says Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. "We found that violent video games unmistakably raised levels of aggression and heart rate, and decreased feelings of compassion toward others."
Adding to the concern over violent games: A study in the Feb. 4 issue of the journalPsychological Science found a correlation between the type of character people chose to play and their behavior immediately following the session. Assuming the role of a virtual villain, for instance, prompted players to treat people in negative ways after the game concluded, according to study co-author Patrick Vargas, a professor of psychology at University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. Meanwhile, those who played the virtual hero acted more generously toward others in a post-game setting.
The bottom line: Emotions and attitudes generated in the virtual world do not simply disappear once the game is finished, and the interactive component of video games enhances this lingering effect. In one study, violent video games raised a child's risk for aggressive behavior more than watching a violent film.
It's unrealistic, however, for parents to shield kids from video games entirely. As Przybylski points out, "more than 97% of American children between the ages of 12 and 16 play electronic games. These games are here to stay as a central feature of modern childhood."
Still, experts say it is possible to choose games that tap into positive qualities, rather than ones that glorify the negative. The biggest mistake parents make: thinking their child is too smart to confuse fiction and reality.
Says Bushman, "No one is immune to the effects of violent video games, any more than anyone is immune to the effects of smoking cigarettes."
HOW SAFE IS THAT GAME? A guide to decoding ratings
Virtually all video games come with an ESRB rating — the age-appropriate level assigned to them by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, a non-profit group created by the gaming industry in 1994 to self-police its products.
"These ratings can be confusing," says psychology professor Brad Bushman, who adds that European ratings are more streamlined and stringent (not to mention administered by a panel of experts outside the gaming industry). Here's what those labels on your child's game mean (for more info go to esrb.org):
EARLY CHILDHOOD: Content is intended for young children.
EVERYONE: Content is generally suitable for all ages. May contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.
EVERYONE 10+: Content is generally suitable for ages 10 and up. May contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence, mild language and/or minimal suggestive themes.
TEEN: Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language.
MATURE: Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.
ADULTS ONLY: Content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency.
RATING PENDING: Not yet assigned a final ESRB rating. Appears only in advertising, marketing and promotional materials related to a game that is expected to carry an ESRB rating, and it should be replaced by a game's rating once one has been assigned.