Or: A lesson in always checking your sources
I began writing this article in response to a TED Talk by Jane McGonigal about how video games could potentially prolong life. She discusses how she was bedridden for months with a concussion and used a self-designed video game to improve her mood, cognition, and outlook. This really hit home for me. I was bedridden for months in college with undiagnosed constant abdominal pain that made it difficult for me to walk, focus on anything besides how much pain I was in, and generally be happy/want to get out of bed/exist at all. During this time I developed an obsession with The Sims, and by obsession I mean, “No, seriously, I played for eight hours a day and sketched building designs during classes.” Playing helped me relax and manage my symptoms and was the only time that I wasn’t dwelling on my pain and the fear that came from not knowing what caused it. In retrospect, if it weren’t for The Sims I probably would have dropped out to take a mental health leave.
So you can imagine that it was very validating for me to see this TED talk confirm that I was not, as my parents believed, wasting hours of my life, but in fact self medicating! For years research surrounding video games has focused on the negatives. How it will make us all stimulation-starved violence addicts, etc. etc… But here’s the thing, the people doing those studies didn’t grow up with video games. Video games were new and scary and foreign, and adults were terrified by how into them their kids were. But now members of my generation are growing up, getting PhDs, and conducting research. And we know the light side of video games, the side that helped us meet friends all around the world, pushed our creativity, and helped us through some tough times. Ms. McGonigal helpfully provided a list of the sources she used for her talk, and I was immediately inspired to write a fantastic article about how video games are going to save us all!
Yeah, about that…
The first paper cited in her sources, “The Effectiveness of Casual Video Games in Improving Mood and Decreasing Stress” was suspicious from page one. First of all, their introduction cited “anecdotal evidence and survey research.” These things have a place in background research, but not as a supplement to a scientifically-valid body of work. Not as the sole justification for your study. Granted, casual video games (e.g. those awful/wonderful-addictive flash games like Bejeweled) are a relatively new phenomenon and are not that well-researched in the field of clinical psychology. You work with what you have. But this particular survey was conducted by the Casual Video Games Association and indicates that “casual game players view CVG’s as more important in their leisure time activities than TV, reading or spending time with family and friends.“ Not exactly an unbiased source, and who the hell were they surveying??? Listen, I love me some iPhone solitaire, and have been known to go on some serious Plants vs. Zombies binges, but I would never say that they are more important to me than spending time with family and friends. That is a legit addiction, y’all should get some help.
Then we get into the study design. 143 participants. They came to the lab, filled out a Profile of Mood States (POMS) questionnaire, and were randomly assigned to an experimental or control condition. Those in the experimental condition were allowed to pick which CVG they would play out the choices provided: Bejeweled 2, Bookworm Adventures, or Peggle.
The control group sat in the same chair at the same desk with the same computer in the same room and spent the same amount of time (20 minutes) searching for articles on health related topics and placing them in a folder on the desktop.
Ok, it’s not the greatest control ever devised, but control conditions are hard. “A” for effort, guys.
While they played/filed, the participants were connected to an electroencephalography device (EEG) and their alpha waves were measured. It’s been established that increases in alpha power in the left hemisphere are associated with depressed mood while decreases improve mood, and increases in alpha power in the right hemisphere improve mood while decreases worsen it. I had trouble keeping track of that, so I made this handy diagram for you:
Now is when it gets extra sketchy. Playing the CVGs did cause alpha wave changes in participants, but each game had different effects. And most of those effects were not statistically significant compared to controls. This does not bode well for their hypothesis. That’s not to say that there isn’t something of merit in this data. Figuring out which CVGs have the strongest effect on alpha waves and then figuring out what elements caused the change in order to design a game for the specific purpose of treating stress would be really interesting! And as I said before, their control condition is not great. Re-doing the study with a more appropriate control would probably give them better results. But they don’t betray even a hint of dissatisfaction with the results. They keep using adjectives like “remarkable” and “significant,” even when they are talking about the results that are the definition of not significant.
The researchers also had participants re-take the POMS after playing the CVGs. The results are all over the place, with almost half of the results (10/21) not statistically better than the control condition. If I got these results, I’d say, “Oh well,” redesign the study, and have another crack at it. Not Rusoniello, O’Brien, and Parks. Oh no, they wrote this paper as though these were exactly the results they were looking for. Which is a shame, because I think they’re really on to something, and the false positivity just makes them sound like charlatans.
I left this paper feeling disillusioned and grumpy, but thought to myself, “Fear not, Jane McGonigal cited one more paper on video games and depression. There’s no way that both of them are terrible!” I picked up the second paper and started reading, but the abstract was worryingly familiar. As was the title. As were the researchers. It was the exact. Same. Study. But it’s obviously an earlier version of the one I read first, as it only includes Bejeweled II. Same control condition, same measurements (EEG, HRV, POMS), same terrible survey results to justify the whole shebang.
At this point I’m mad at Jane McGonigal. It’s not “research” if you just cite the same terrible study twice. You either have a high schooler’s understanding of research standards or you lack integrity. YOUR TED TALK IS A LIE.
I do think that video games can be used to relieve stress and combat mild depression. It’s probably not something magical about the games themselves, but the act of quietly focusing on a task–something unrelated to whatever it is in your life that is stressful or sad–that is both challenging (but not too challenging) and rewarding. Of course that would relieve stress. And we should totally look into it. There is a ton of potential here! We could identify the most stress-relieving, meditative elements of various games and combine those elements into an anxiolytic, mood-elevating game that anyone can carry around in their pocket in case they’re feeling down. We could design a game to enhance cognition and memory in those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. There are so many opportunities. But we have to at least pretend like we give a fuck about the integrity of the research while we’re pursuing them.
Katie Bainbridge studied neuroscience at Sarah Lawrence College and Oxford University. She likes brains, babies, and baby brains. She works in science publishing and hopes to pursue a PhD in educational neuroscience. She lives in New York City with a scruffy musician and a kitten. Katie believes, above all else, that humans are awesome.Contact: