Tag Archives: video game

Boys who play video games seem to have lower depression risk — but not girls

Boys who regularly play video games at age 11 are less likely to display depression symptoms when they’re 14. But this doesn’t seem to be the case for girls. Taken together, the findings suggest that video games can have both a positive and a negative effect on mental health, and it’s not always a straightforward relationship.

Image in public domain.


If there’s one thing that has changed drastically in the past two decades, it’s computers. Computers used to be incredibly big, bulky, and not that capable. That couldn’t be further from the truth nowadays. The smartphone in your pocket is millions of times more powerful than the equipment that sent people to the moon, and year on year, they just get more and more powerful.

As a result, screens have become almost ubiquitous in our society. You have your small screen that you carry in your pocket, the big screen you work on, the even bigger screen you watch movies on, sometimes even screens on utilities. Screens are everywhere, and we’re not really sure if that’s a good thing — especially when it comes to kids.

Ever since computers became mainstream, researchers have voiced concerns about screens, concerns ranging from vision to mental health problems. But screens allow us to do different things and can have varying effects, and we should consider this instead of drawing any blanket conclusions, researchers say.

“Screens allow us to engage in a wide range of activities. Guidelines and recommendations about screen time should be based on our understanding of how these different activities might influence mental health and whether that influence is meaningful,” says Aaron Kandola the author of the new study.

At first, the general idea seemed to be that video games can have a negative effect on mental health, making children more aggressive and worsening their mental health. But a flurry of recent studies paints a very different picture, showing not only that much of this damage was overstated, but that in many instances, casual video gaming can actually improve the mental health of children.

In the new study, the results are a mixed bag. A research team involving from UCL, Karolinska Institutet (Sweden) and the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute (Australia) reviewed data from 11,341 adolescents who are part of the Millennium Cohort Study, a nationally representative sample of young people who have been involved in research since they were born in the UK in 2000-2002. They asked the teens at age 11 about how much they spend on social media, video games, and other internet activities. Then, at age 14, they asked them again about any depression symptoms.

After accounting for other factors that may affect the results (such as socioeconomic status, physical activity, or reports of bullying), the researchers look at how depression symptoms were linked with screen habits. At age 14, boys who played video games most days had 24% fewer depressive symptoms than boys who played video games less than once a month. This effect, however, was not observed on girls. Although it’s not clear why this happens, researchers link it with different screen use patterns between boys and girls.

“While we cannot confirm whether playing video games actually improves mental health, it didn’t appear harmful in our study and may have some benefits. Particularly during the pandemic, video games have been an important social platform for young people,” adds Kandola, who is a PhD student at UCL Psychiatry.

Sitting down and social media cause problems

The researchers note that the positive effect on boys was only significant among those with low physical activity. We all know (or should know) that sitting down for prolonged periods is really bad for your health, but it’s important to know that sitting down can affect your mind as well as your body. Kandola’s previous research has shown that sedentary behavior seems to increase the risk of depression and anxiety in adolescents. So it could very well be that sitting down (and not screen time itself) is causing harmful effects.

“We need to reduce how much time children – and adults – spend sitting down, for their physical and mental health, but that doesn’t mean that screen use is inherently harmful.”

Social media also plays a role. For girls, this role seems to be particularly important. Researchers found that girls (but not boys) who used social media at age 11 had 13% more depressive symptoms when they were 14. The same association was not found for more moderate use of social media. This fits with previous studies indicating that intense social media usage can increase feelings of loneliness and alienation.

The study only shows an association, not a cause-effect relationship. But it seems to suggest that not all screen time is equal, and video games can have a positive component. Researchers say that video games could support mental health, especially those that feature problem-solving, social, cooperative, and engaging elements. At any rate, reducing the amount of sedentary time seems to be a much healthier intervention than reducing screen time.

Senior author Dr. Mats Hallgren from the Karolinska Institutet has conducted other studies in adults, finding that active screen time (when you’re doing something like playing a game) seems to have a different effect on depression than passive screen time (watching something).

“The relationship between screen time and mental health is complex, and we still need more research to help understand it. Any initiatives to reduce young people’s screen time should be targeted and nuanced. Our research points to possible benefits of screen time; however, we should still encourage young people to be physically active and to break up extended periods of sitting with light physical activity,” says Hallgren.

The study was published in Psychological Medicine.

Trippy AI writes interactive text adventure game on the fly

Which path will you take? Credit: Flickr, Katy Warner.

Some of the earliest computer games had no graphics at all and instead relied on a text-based user interface. To this day, one of the most popular genres is text adventure gaming, sometimes called interactive fiction, where worlds are described in the narrative and the player submits typically simple commands to interact with the worlds.

If you’re old enough (like I am), you might remember Infocom’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Zork. The format has now replicated by a machine learning algorithm that uses neural networks to create a text-based adventure game in real-time.

Futurism reports that the game was made by Northwestern University neuroscience graduate student Nathan Whitmore, who was inspired by the Mind Game from the science fiction novel Ender Game. The Mind Game adapted to the interests of each student in real-time, and was used by the Battle School staff to analyze the student’s personality and psychology.

The AI is based on the amazing (and, quite frankly, scary) GPT-2, the fake news-writing algorithm created by OpenAI. We covered GPT-2 in a previous story.

If this all sounds exciting, you can have look for yourself by playing the game. Follow the instructions on the page by first copying the code to your Google Drive account. Don’t be intimidated by the install process — it’s quite straightforward.

Personally, I had a lot of fun playing GPT Adventure, although the environment can get glitchy fast, making the game seem incoherent. I mean… just check out this exchange out (the upper case text is the AI).

Now, imagine the same format only, this time, with motion graphics as well. With a bit more coherence, such a game would look and feel like traveling through a dream. And at the current rate of development, it might not be long before we get the opportunity to play such a game.

So, if any of you had the chance to play GPT Adventure, paste some interactions in the comments section. This should be fun!

Yet another study finds that violent video games don’t make teens more aggressive

Credit: Pixabay.

Many parents are concerned that some violent video games such as Grand Theft Auto might influence their children to engage in antisocial behavior — but their concerns are probably misplaced. As far as aggression goes, a new study found that British teens who played video games containing explicit violence were not more aggressive than their peers who didn’t play video games at all.

“The idea that violent video games drive real-world aggression is a popular one, but it hasn’t tested very well over time,’ said lead researcher Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute. “Despite interest in the topic by parents and policy-makers, the research has not demonstrated that there is cause for concern.”

Psychologists at the University of Oxford surveyed 1,000 British teens, aged 14 to 15, about their gaming habits and behaviors, finding that half of girls and two-thirds of boys played video games. In order to minimize biases, the researchers also interviewed the participants’ parents or caretakers.

Violent content in video games was assessed as objectively as possible, with the official Pan European Game Information (EU) and Entertainment Software Rating Board (US) rating system, two official video game content rating systems, rather than the participants’ perception of violence in the games they played.

An important part of the study’s design was preregistration. Before the study began, the researchers publically reported their hypothesis, methods, and analysis technique.

“Our findings suggest that researcher biases might have influenced previous studies on this topic, and have distorted our understanding of the effects of video games,'” says co-author Dr Netta Weinstein from Cardiff University.

“Part of the problem in technology research is that there are many ways to analyse the same data, which will produce different results. A cherry-picked result can add undue weight to the moral panic surrounding video games. The registered study approach is a safe-guard against this,” says Przybylski.

It’s not hard to understand why parents can believe violence in video games might be a bad influence on their children. As anyone who has played has played an online video game knows, there’s a lot of trolling and momentary outbursts that qualify as antisocial behavior. However, repeated studies have shown no correlation between playing video games and aggressive tendencies in teenagers.

In 2016, a review of 300 studies on violent video games and children’s behavior was released by the American Psychological Association Task Force on Violent Media. The review concluded that violent video games present a “risk factor” for heightened aggression in children. However, critics have pointed out that many of the studies used to support this conclusion relied on anecdotal evidence or were poorly designed (for instance, surveying children right after they played an emotionally engaging video game).

Previously, ZME Science reported that video game aggression can stem from frustration, not violence. The study found that failure to master a game, getting stuck or losing over and over again led to frustration and aggression, regardless of whether the game was violent or not.

The authors of the new study hope that their approach might be mimicked in other fields where there’s a lot of prejudice and conclusions are often based on anecdotal evidence.

“Researchers should use the registered study approach to investigate other media effects phenomena. There are a lot of ideas out there like ‘social media drives depression’ and ‘technology addiction that lowers quality of life’ that simply have no supporting evidence. These topics and others that drive technological anxieties should be studied more rigorously – society needs solid evidence in order to make appropriate policy decisions,” Przybylski said.

The findings were reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science

Climate change protest sign.

New role-playing game engages people from all backgrounds with climate action

Climate change is no joke — but it can be a game.

Climate change protest sign.

Image via Maxpixel / Public Domain.

More specifically, it can be the subject of an MIT Sloan role-playing video game. Dubbed World Climate Simulation, the game puts players in the shoes of UN members partaking in climate talks. Its developers report that over four-fifths of participants who played the game showed an increased desire to combat climate change, regardless of their political beliefs.

Climate UN-change

“The big question for climate change communication is: how can we build the knowledge and emotions that drive informed action without real-life experience which, in the case of climate change, will only come too late?”, asks Prof. Juliette Rooney Varga, lead researcher of the study and Director of the University of Massachusetts Lowell Climate Change Initiative.

The team’s approach revolved around three elements: “information grounded in solid science, an experience that helps people feel for themselves on their own terms and social interaction arising from conversation with their peers,” explains co-author Andrew Jones of Climate Interactive.

In the game, developed countries pledge money through the Green Climate Fund to help developing nations cut emissions and adapt to climate change. The game’s core mechanics are handled by a real-life climate policy computer model known as C-ROADS. This model has been used to guide UN climate negotiations in the past, as it is a very powerful simulator of expected outcomes. Players’ choices were run through C-ROADS and resulted in immediate feedback on how each would ultimately affect the environment.

The group worked with 2,000 participants of various socioeconomic backgrounds and ages recruited from “eight different countries across four continents”, explains an MIT Sloan press release. Through the game, the team looked at each player’s beliefs regarding climate change, their emotional responses to its effects, and willingness to address the main drivers of climate change. By the conclusion of play trials, participants showed greater urgency in tackling the issue, the team reports.

Post-trial questions.

Post-survey responses to questions regarding (A) how engaging the World Climate simulation was as a learning experience, (B) the effects the simulation had on motivation to address climate change and (C) desire to learn more about climate change science, solutions, politics, economics, and policies.
Image credits J.N. Rooney-Varga et al., 2018, PLOS One.

The idea behind the game was to try and bridge the huge divides that the political spectrum imparts on the discussion, the team explains. By putting people in charge of tackling the issue and letting them see how their lives will be impacted, the game aims to engage those that aren’t very concerned about climate action.

Hands-on experience

The team reports that players go headlong into the first round of climate negotiations, usually being quite lax in the changes they call for. However, after C-ROADS showed the outcome of these talks to their health, prosperity, and welfare, the team adds, they generally went into the following rounds with a much more aggressive approach to achieving emissions cuts.

“The first round of negotiations ends with a plenary session in which a representative from each delegation delivers a short speech describing their pledge and negotiating position, including concessions they seek from the other parties,” the paper explains.

“In our experience, the first round of pledges always falls short of the emissions reductions required to limit expected warming to 2 °C and are often qualitatively similar to the actual pledges that emerged from the Paris Agreement, leading to warming of approximately 3.3 °C by 2100.”

“Participants often express surprise that the impact of their pledges is not greater and ask many questions about the structure and dynamics of the climate system as they seek to understand why the simulation results differ from their expectations.”

Perhaps more importantly, they were also more hopeful in the eventual success of environmental actions, as well as a greater desire to understand climate science and the impact of climate change. Urgency is key to actually undergoing the societal, economic, and political changes required to combat climate change. The other two traits will help keep our eyes on the goal during difficult times and limit the effect of mumbo-jumbo à la ‘clean coal‘.

“It was this increased sense of urgency, not knowledge, that was key to sparking motivation to act,” said Prof. Juliette Rooney Varga, lead researcher of the study and Director of the University of Massachusetts Lowell Climate Change Initiative.

In the end, the team hopes to push environmental talks to the forefront of national and international dialogue and policy-making and to take political interest out of climate action.

“Gains were just as strong among American participants who oppose government regulation of free markets – a political ideology that has been linked to climate change denial in the US – suggesting the simulation’s potential to reach across political divides,” the paper reads.

“Research shows that showing people research doesn’t work,” said John Sterman, co-author of the study and professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “World Climate works because it enables people to express their own views, explore their own proposals and thus learn for themselves what the likely impacts will be.”

Schools in France, Germany, and South Korea have adopted World Climate Simulation as an official educational resource, the team adds.

The paper “Combining role-play with interactive simulation to motivate informed climate action: Evidence from the World Climate simulation” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

"Bring Home Water", a game that mimics a complex quantum problem. Credit: YouTube

Gamers help solve quantum physics problem where A.I. failed

After an A.I. beat the human champion at Go, a game almost infinitely more complex than chess, some might feel like tossing the towel and letting our robot overlords take their rightful place. Not so fast! We’re still good for something. Pressed to find a solution for a complicated quantum physics problem that neither the researchers themselves nor an algorithm could properly solve, Danish physicists turned to the gaming community. They devised a game which mimicked the task at hand while also keeping it fun, and found some gamers came up with novel “outside the box” solutions which the algorithm couldn’t even touch. Points for humanity!

"Bring Home Water", a game that mimics a complex quantum problem. Credit: YouTube

“Bring Home Water”, a game that mimics a complex quantum problem. Credit: YouTube

The problem the researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark were trying to solve deals with moving atoms around without wrecking the information they contain, which is essential to the functioning of a quantum computer. Using lasers, scientists can trap atoms in an optical lattice so you can use them to code qubits or quantum bits which can be 0 and 1 at the same time, unlike classical bits.

It’s when you move the atoms using so-called optical tweezers to perform operations that things start to crumble. Move them too slowly and the system loses its quantum state. Too fast and again you disrupt the system.

“There is a shortest process duration with perfect fidelity, denoted the quantum speed limit (QSL),” the authors write in their paper published in Nature, “which imposes a fundamental limit on the process duration.”

“We had atoms in arrays like eggs in an egg tray, and we wanted to pick up atoms and move them around,” said Jacob Sherson, a quantum physicist at Aarhus University in Denmark. “But atoms, they are not really balls; they are more like waves. So as soon as you pick them up, they start to slosh and have motion, and it’s very hard to move these things fast.”

The researchers tried to give the task to supercomputers, but it proved far too complex. The variables and possible combinations were simply too much for the algorithm. That’s when the physicists realized it’s time for some raw human brain power. You see, we humans are very good at solving patterns, filtering information and using what’s called “intuition” to jump many steps and arrive at a possible solution.

To mimic the sort of challenges the physicists were facing, a game called “Bring Home Water” was developed. In the game, the player has to collect a liquid gathered at a low point of a flexible line and move it to the desired location. The player has to do this carefully, mind the speed and momentum.

By grabbing and flexing the surface, the player is essentially emulating the optical tweezer. The physics did such a good job with the game that the players’ scores could more accurately determine where to place the tweezers relative to the atom to perform a quantum operation.

“One can do things in games that cannot be done in reality, so gamers are used to experimenting with possibilities that go beyond the classical laws of physics,” Sabrina Maniscalco of the University of Turku in Finland, who was not involved in the study, wrote in a commentary for LA Times. “Perhaps this ability to think outside the box allows them to make the creative leap necessary to tackle quantum problems.”

The solutions found by the human players were far more effective than those found by the computer. Using data from the best players, the researchers tweaked the algorithm so it handles things better. It’s 30 percent faster now. It went so well that the Danish team wants to release another game to tackle other problems. If you’re interested you can play the game by downloading Quantum Moves from the App Store or Google Play.

Previously, citizen science games helped researchers make some serious breakthroughs. Galaxy Zoo asks gamers to identify and classify a huge body of galaxies while FoldIt lets you fold proteins. Using FoldIt, some gamers cracked a decade old HIV puzzle in only ten days.

People follow the norm… even the norm is a computer, and wrong

People tend to follow the norm – that’s pretty well documented, and well understood. However, a new study has found that not only do people tend to follow other people, but they also follow the lead of a computer – even when it is blatantly wrong.

World of Warcraft is one of the most played computer games in history. In it, the player constructs an avatar and then completes quests.

In modern society, real life interactions and discussions are becoming rarer, substituted by computer or mobile phone interaction. Many routine tasks are delegated to virtual character, we often talk to people who are very far away from us in real life, and many people spend several hours every day playing computer games with a virtual avatar. This new study conducted by Ulrich Weger of the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany shows that for better or for worse, this type of activity enables people to acquire and practice real-life skills and new viewpoints. Weger and his team wanted to see how this affects people in day to day activities.

[Also Read: Interview with researcher Simone Kuhn about video games and the brain]

Participants in the study were asked to play an avatar computer game for seven minutes and then answered some questions where they had the chance to override wrong answers given by the computer. It was found that actually playing the game makes people identify with the computer, and follow its lead – even when it gave wrong answers. This further confirms that humans have a tendency to follow others’ lead, even when it’s a non-human lead.

The reason why such behaviour happens is something called information conformity. Conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms. Information conformity is applying that set of behaviors to (of course) information. Researchers believe that as more and more people play video games for longer and longer times, it’s important to understand how this affects us in real life activities.

“Parents, educators, and players will need to take these consequences into consideration and take appropriate countermeasures,” says Weger. “For instance, at the very least it would be appropriate to reflect on what it really means to be human. We need to examine how this humanness can be educated and strengthened when it is shifted towards a more robot-like nature during virtual journeys as an avatar. The long-term consequences of such virtual reality gaming is also difficult to estimate – for instance in terms of a potential alienation from real-life encounters. By the time we know for sure what the consequences really are, it is likely going to be more difficult, perhaps impossible, to take appropriate countermeasures.”

Video games have received much attention in recent years, and rightly so. After the initial surge of disapproval coming from parents, scientists are starting to understand that video games can actually improve cognitive abilities. In 2013, a study found that playing video games improves spatial orientation, memory formation and strategic planning and further research showed that violent games don’t encourage violence in real life. Still, as this study found, there are still many effects we are just starting to understand.

Reference: Weger, U.W. et al (2014). Virtually compliant: Immersive video gaming increases conformity to false computer judgments, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, DOI 10.3758/s13423-014-0778-z