Videogames: A moral panic?

When I started the “Introduction to Digital Game-based Learning” module back in January 2009, I kept a special Diigo list for all of the gaming articles that I either came across or were suggested by my peers on the course. As you can see by the rather extensive bibliography at the end of the post, that there is a relative even number of articles that paint videogames either in a positive or negative light.

As Gee (2007) points out, there are two major issues with videogames that concern people, laypersons and experts alike. These issues are violence and gender. Gee (2007, p. 11) makes an interesting case:

Finally, despite some claims to the contrary, the fact of the matter is that the effect size of video-game play on aggression is smaller that the effect size for television, thereby rendering the claim that there is something special about the interactivity of games as a source of aggression suspect.

Gee’s arguments share a similar resonance to those made by UK teachers who feel that “television had a greater influence on children’s behaviour than computers and video games” (BBC, 2009a). Again, a recent EU report (Booth, 2009) seems to suggest that there is “no firm proof that playing them has an automatic negative impact on children’s behaviour”. Similar findings were published in “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin” which suggested that “that high levels of gore did not make playing the games more enjoyable”, with players preferring “challenge and being in control that they got from the games” (Devlin, 2009).

Infact, to the contrary, the EU report concluded that “computer games are good for children and teach them essential life skills”. The EU’s conclusion seems to be shared by another recent report from the UK’s largest music charity, Youth Music, which states that 2.5 million British children have been inpired to taking up a instrument for the first time after playing such games as “Guitar Hero“, “SingStar” and “Rock Band” (Telegraph, 2008). There have also been instances where videogames have been used to create fire drill simulations (BBC, 2009d); help to reduce the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (BBC, 2009e); help to improve the?”contrast sensitivity” in vision (BBC, 2009b).

Despite these positive illustrations; a number of negative ones come to the fore like a bad nappy rash and spring upon us a sense of fear and loathing with anything that is connected with technology and children. These have included a form of skin disorder dubbed as “PlayStation palmar hidradenitis” from using games consoles too much (BBC, 2009c) – this is in many ways a throwback to the Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) scares from using the mouse too often. However, when respected and eminent scientists, researchers and academics, like Baroness Susan Greenfield for example, wade into such debates, the Great Public prick up their ears and take notice.

Baroness Greenfield, a neuroscientist and the Director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, has written a new book called “The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century” in which she suggests that children having prolonged exposure to screen technologies (like computers and videogames) may have an affect on children’s brains and their ability to concentrate (Settle, 2008; Murphy, 2009). She makes the observation that:

The last 10 years have seen a three-fold increase in the prescription of the drug Ritalin, a drug used for Attention Deficit Disorder. One asks why?

A reason for this she suggests:

This might, and I stress might, be something to do with the increased exposure of young children to unsupervised and lengthy hours in front of a screen.

She has even gone as far as suggesting to her peers in the House of Lords that “it might be worth considering whether the rise in autism … was linked to the increasing prevalence of screen relationships” (Murphy, 2009). Dr Aric Sigman, a psychologist, has written an article in the “Biologist” claiming that a lack of face-to-face contact could alter the way genes work and may give rise to the likes of cancer, strokes, heart disease and dementia (Sigman, 2009; Murphy, 2009).

As Bennett et al (2008) speaking of the prevalence of the “digital native” in academic literature:

[it] sparked an academic form of ‘moral panic’ using extreme arguments that have lacked empirical evidence

I feel that we need to develop a realistic perspective of how videogames affects our children and members of our society that is based upon reasonably supportive empirical evidence, before we feel that we can say anything about it that is based on observations and rhetoric. What we might find is that there are a lot of factors that may be involved in these issues which are currently “invisible” to us. We may find to our ever-lasting regret that it might not be as simple as saying that “x causes y”.


BBC. (2009a). Pupil TV habits concern teachers. BBC News, 30.03.2009. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2009].

BBC. (2009b). Video games ‘can improve vision’. BBC News, 29.03.2009. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2009].

BBC. (2009c). Game consoles ’cause skin sores’. BBC News, 24.02.2009. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2009].

BBC. (2009d). Video game helps with fire drill. BBC News, 04.02.2009. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2009].

BBC. (2009e). Tetris ‘helps to reduce trauma’. BBC News, 07.01.2009. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2009].

Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology.

Booth, R. (2009). Video games are good for children – EU report. The Guardian, 12.02.2009. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2009].

Devlin, K. (2009). Players of gory computer games ‘like adventure not blood and guts’. The Telegraph, 16.01.2009. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2009].

Gee, J.P. (2007). What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy (Revised and Updated Edition). New York, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Irvine, C. (2009). Children spend six hours a day in front of TV or computer. The Telegraph, 19.01.2009. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2009].

Murphy, C. (2009). Online risks: from cancer to autism?. BBC News, 24.02.2009. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2009].

Settle, M. (2008). Is computer use changing children?. BBC News, 15.08.2008. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2009].

Shiels, M. (2008). Online time ‘is good for teens’. BBC News, 21.11.2008. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2009].

Sigman, A. (2009). Well connected? The biological implications of ‘social networking’. Biologist. 56(1), February 2009, pp. 14-20. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2009].

Telegraph. (2008). Computer games inspire children to learn musical instruments . The Telegraph, 05.12.2008. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1 April 2009].