It’s just a game: Video games and their effects on college students

After a day of classes, he heads back to his dorm room and fires up the Xbox 360. He opens a case and places a game disc in the tray. It could be any number of games, really: Call of Duty: Black Ops, Fallout 3, Assassin’s Creed. The menu appears on the screen, the game begins, and for an hour or two, the worries of a semester full of papers, projects and exams simply disappear.

For college students across the nation, the above scenario is common. According to a 2003 report released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 65 percent of college students play video games at least occasionally.

The allure of video games seems to be stronger among men than women. Although women appear to play games just as much as men, men are far more likely to play games on consoles such as the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3. A 2008 Pew Internet & American Life Project report reveals that 35 percent of men play console games, compared to just 21 percent of women.

According to a Pew Internet & American Life Project report, 65 percent of college students play video games at least occasionally. (Photo by Jesse Peek)

What’s more, men may be more likely to enjoy—if not become addicted to—playing video games. According to an experiment conducted by the Stanford University School of Medicine in 2008, reward centers in men’s brains are more activated while playing video games than those of women. And the statistics seem to support this finding. For instance, a 2007 Harris Interactive survey reported that 31 percent of males between the ages of eight and 18 said they felt addicted to gaming—almost triple the number of females.

It’s clear video games have a huge presence in our society, especially among college students. What exactly is the nature of its impact, though? Two Malone professors and even a Malone gamer himself chimed in on the subject, with some different views of gaming.

A world of its own

Take a walk down the halls of PGB on any given afternoon and you’re bound to see guys sitting in front of their televisions, controllers in hand. If you’re in Upper Barclay, you might find senior music production major Joe Fensler doing the same thing. And oftentimes, he’s not alone.

While he’s at home, Fensler said gaming is mostly a solitary activity. At college, however, gaming takes on a much more social element. Fensler described a common scenario that illustrates how gaming quickly becomes social in men’s dorms.

“Normally, it’s weird,” Fensler said. “People know you’re playing something, so they drift into your room and just sit down.”

After that, controllers are passed around as guys take turns playing against one another.

“I would say it’s kind of created its own culture with the fact that people just like to hang out,” Fensler said. “It’s not like we sit there and always talk about life lessons—we’re kind of just hanging out.”

Fensler estimated he plays about 14-20 hours of video games a week on average over the summer. He plays much less frequently during school.

Fensler primarily plays console games on the Xbox 360 but he has also played World of Warcraft in the past. He said World of Warcraft was an exception to other types of games that are much less involved and addictive.

“That’s definitely one game that’s an exception to other games, I know,” he said. “You spend money, and you spend a lot of time playing it, because it takes a lot of time.”

Fensler played World of Warcraft for about two years before quitting several months ago. During that time, he estimated he logged about 40 days of total playing time as one character. Compared to other gamers, Fensler said he didn’t think it was that bad. He knew of some gamers who logged three months over the same period of time.

Fensler said he doesn’t put his social life on hold for the sake of video games. In more demanding games such as World of Warcraft, friendships develop among online gamers.

“You want to be nice to the people you’re playing with, because you talk to them a lot,” Fensler said.

World of Warcraft is known for its ability to suck gamers in for hours upon hours with a number of different quests and missions. Fensler admitted that some gamers can get a little too immersed in the game.

“You know there are certain people that are going to be on before you,” Fensler said. “You get on, they’re on. When you get off, they’re still on. And when you get back on, they’re on.”

“It’s worse when you’re that guy,” Fensler said.

Ultimately, however, he suggested that gaming could be good or bad, depending on the individual gamer and how he or she uses video games.

“I think in moderation, it’s a good thing. It’s just like everything else.”

Gaming jargon interpreted

Most people are familiar with texting lingo, but there’s actually an entire vocabulary that has developed among gamers. The language, born on gaming forums, instant messengers and in-game online multiplayer chats, can be a bit hard to decipher if you’re not a gamer. Here are a few common words you more than likely won’t find in the dictionary:

  • n00b (alternately, noob)- n. Shorthand for “newbie”; used to refer to novice players, or as an insult to someone who is playing like a “n00b.”
  • pwn- v. A variation on the word “own”; to pwn someone is to defeat them, usually in an extreme sense.
  • -zor- An apparently meaningless suffix that intensifies the word it follows (e.g.- n00bzor, pwnzor).
  • teh- n. An intentional misspelling of the word “the.”
  • uber- adj. A German word meaning “above” or “over”; used in place of words such as “very” or “really” to imply that something is of a superlative nature

Sites such as UrbanDictionary.com consulted for definitions.

With just five words, a sentence such as this one becomes possible: I uber-pwned teh n00bzors.

The most dangerous game

When it comes to the impact video games can have, Dr. Scott Waalkes has seen it himself.

In addition to having a son who went through a gaming phase, he has also played video games himself. But because of that, the professor of international politics sees the potential for harmful effects.

“Young boys and young men spend so much time on these games that they don’t learn to socialize and interact with people,” Waalkes said.

“I’ve seen more young men that are less socially cued-in and connected and are often more plugged in to media, to gaming, than they are to social things,” he said.

Waalkes said video games have both positive and negative effects upon our culture. On the positive side, Waalkes said he thinks video games make gamers quicker and more technologically savvy, in addition to being a fun and rewarding diversion. However, he also thinks gaming has the potential to become an addictive and destructive behavior.

“I think there’s something valid and perfectly helpful and socially appropriate to have a game that has some sort of rewards,” Waalkes said. “It seems to me there’s nothing wrong with that. The danger is when it becomes addictive. That’s the worry that I have.”

Waalkes said he has noticed a change in how serious men are about college and their plans after graduation.

“I have seen what feels like a shift in seriousness about life in general—direction, decisions for the future, those kinds of things,” he said. “Which, maybe ten years ago, when I first started, I was more likely to see young men who were serious about what they wanted to do. And now, maybe, there’s just fewer of those than there used to be.”

Waalkes contrasted this with many young women he sees at Malone who are “very organized, ‘with it,’ [and] focused.” He said such women “have a plan of what they want to do” that’s lacking in many of the men he sees.

Is this tied, at least in part, to video games? Possibly. Waalkes mentioned how video games can compete against—and often totally eclipse—reading.

“A big worry I have is the decline in reading,” he said. “The competition between a fast-moving video game, with music and noise and lots of flashing and instant rewards—the competition between that and a plain old book usually means that the video game is going to win.”

Waalkes pointed out that there are types of learning that are associated with playing video games, such as engaging in problem-solving. He was also adamant, however, that video games cannot replace an actual education.

“What I sense is that video game interaction is kind of superficial,” Waalkes said. “It’s fast-moving, it’s quick, but it’s not necessarily developing the critical thinking and reasoning kinds of skills that reading does…You’re never going to be able to replace college with a video game.”

Overall, Waalkes said that video games aren’t inherently evil. Although he saw a number of dangers that could come about as a result of too much gaming, he admitted that games can serve to bring friends together.

“I don’t like video games,” he said. “But I’ve played them, and they have their place—a limited place.”

More than a violent distraction

Violence in video games has received a lot of media exposure. Whether it’s living a life of crime in Grand Theft Auto or picking off enemies in the Halo series, violence is an integral part of many video games, especially first-person shooters.

Associate professor of communication arts Dr. Andrew Rudd is acquainted with many of the theories about violence in video games. And although he doesn’t believe that violent video games produce violent gamers, he does believe they say something about society as a whole.

“On a macro level, I do think that the preeminence and prevalence of first-person shooter games does reflect a general cultural devaluation of life, and maybe just as profoundly, a general cultural devaluation of the validity of the ‘other,’” Rudd said. He pointed out that many first-person shooters tend to demonize or vilify other national groups and promote an ethnocentric view of the world.

In addition to other forms of media such as movies and television, Rudd said the stories and ideologies embedded in video games end up having profound effects.

“They shape how we talk about things, they shape what we talk about, they shape who gets to talk and when,” he said.

Rudd said a number of far-reaching cultural and civic problems are reflected in video games. He said that “video games sustain a mythology of violence as a means for solving problems.” In essence, the stories games tell are merely playing into much larger culturally-held beliefs.

However, Rudd is also not prepared to blame all the world’s problems on video games, either. Indeed, he focused a lot on the positive benefits of gaming and how they actually empower gamers to take more control of their lives.

“Anything that helps humans play more builds their sense of identity and capacity for action,” Rudd said.

When compared to other forms of media, Rudd pointed out that video games allow for much more interaction and choices.

“Arguably, video games actually invite teenagers to take a more active role in media consumption than television or radio [do].”

Playing responsibly

With rising prices—new games on most consoles are $59.99—gaming can quickly become an expensive hobby in addition to being time-consuming. Ultimately, however, gamers such as Fensler see video games as an activity that can be economical and rewarding—if done the right way.

“If you watch what you do, it doesn’t have to be expensive,” Fensler said. “It doesn’t have to be a waste of time. It can definitely be a waste of time, don’t get me wrong. People can spend way too much time playing video games.”

He also described how gaming can become a habit, one that feeds on itself and doesn’t die easily.

“When you play a lot, usually afterwards you kind of continue that,” he said. “Even if it lessens a little bit, you’re still going to keep playing a lot.”

Fensler, who said he has played his fair share of games in the past, hasn’t let gaming define him. He is very passionate about music and enjoys playing guitar in addition to his classes and social life at Malone.

When asked how much of a priority video games are in his life, Fensler didn’t hesitate.

“[They're] not important, really,” he said. “It’s something I like to do.”

Apparently, millions of other college students—and adults in general—might say the same.

Jesse Peek is a staff writer for The Aviso.

For more information, check out:

“The Video Game Revolution,” a PBS multimedia website

IGN, a news site devoted to video games

“Let the games begin: Gaming technology and college students,” a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project

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