Playing Computer Games – impact on health (part 1)

February 12, 2008 at 4:32 pm 1 comment

The effects of computer game play on health is a vast and highly debated area. More so now that studies have uncovered more positives than before. One point worth mentioning here is the reluctance of the press to report on studies of nil findings which may cause bias towards papers of findings of negative effects. One must not trust everything one reads as there exists the natural urge of the press to write with the aim to shock or intrigue their readers.

Again, this text hopes to simplify the areas of discussion, as they do overlap and relate to one another. This post will first look into the physical health effects of computer game play and the issues discussed surrounding it. This will include addiction, violence and aggression, as although these are also mental issues, they have simultaneous effects on physical health. After the physical health aspects are unravelled, the text will move on to the examination of debated mental health matters.

Physical Health


Marc Prensky in his book Don’t Bother Me Mom I’m Learning (2006) brings up Dr. David Walsh’s ideas around computer games and addiction:

‘Walsh uses the term “addiction” incessantly, never mentioning that there may be other factors than games, such as co-addictions or addictive personalities, which lie at the root of many people’s problems… he doesn’t mention or explain that a number of other pastimes, such as competitive sports, produce the same effects.’

Walsh shares his views with many other critics, however, more recently, issues have emerged which nullify the accusation that computer games promote addictive behaviour. For example, Prensky above says that Walsh fails to mention the number of other activities which have the same effect and that addictive behaviour is more likely to result in people who already suffer from addictive personalities. These people are susceptible to all types of addiction. Computer games do not promote addiction in those who are not susceptible.

Hand-Arm Vibration Syndrome

A British Medical Journal, published in early 2002, included a letter about a 15 year old boy who developed an injury know as hand-arm vibration syndrome. This injury is commonly associated with people who use handheld vibrating tools excessively, such as pneumatic drills. According to the publication, the boy developed the symptoms of the syndrome after playing up to 7 hours a day on his PlayStation controller with the rumble option enabled.

Sony responded by saying that consumers must adhere to manufacturer’s recommendations and stress to take breaks after every hour of play. Sony thoroughly test their products, however, this is the first time they have encountered a case like this one.

Many controllers incorporate force feedback technology and all are optional, as it can be disabled and enabled with ease. As with any product, manufacturers do provide recommendations for the use of their products. With excessive use, as reported in the mentioned publication, it is inevitable that there will be consequences.


A few cases of death have been reported in the press, all linked to excessive play of computer games. In 2002 a man was found dead in the toilets of a cybercafé in Kwanju, South Korea, where he was said to be previously glued to a computer, deprived of proper nutrition and sleep. Earlier in the same year, a mother in Louisiana sued Nintendo who allegedly caused her son, a 30 year old, to suffer seizures and consequently death. He was said to play an average of 48 hours a week.

Violence and Aggression

Violent and aggressive behaviour not only negatively affects the lives of the people who act out the behaviour, but also the people around them.

Dr Craig Anderson is one man who believes:

‘… violence in media causes violence in people who use those media. While most of his evidence is based on studies of TV, some involve games.’ (Prensky 2006)

It is not surprising that children who are exposed to a lot of violence in their lives are more likely to show violent and aggressive behaviour. This reflects the ‘nature or nurture’ debate and all boils down to parental responsibility. It is argued that parents have the responsibility of regulating the types of media content available to their children. As is the same with movies, computer games come with age and content notifications.

However, it does not all remain on the parents’ shoulders, as each and every child is different. Many understand that computer games are fictional and that such behaviour in the real world is unacceptable. Others, who are more susceptible to the influence, much like addictive behaviour, may have different reactions.

A point that is made by Prensky (2006) is that research studies, like Anderson’s, only measure the effects of computer games on violent and aggressive thoughts and behaviour, in the short term. Whether these behaviours are caused in the long term is still highly disputed, and of course, other activities show the same effects, such as rugby or football.

Emes 1997 cited in Prensky 2006 provides evidence of computer game playing being a ‘beneficial coping strategy’ as the activity encourages the release of aggressive energy.

Serious Games & off-the-shelf Games

In the 90s, along with the increased ability of games to provide more realistic graphic scenarios and the failure of edutainment to demonstrate profitability, a re-examination of the idea of games for non-entertainment purposes occurred. These games were later coined a ‘serious games’ by the development of the Serious Games Initiative in 2002.

Serious games have been used as tool to train personnel in a vast number of occupations, brought on by their ability to simulate real life situations. These games are incredibly popular within sectors which provide jobs of high risk, for example, the military. Employees become more skilled through practice in the virtual world.

Serious games have been used throughout healthcare to train staff, as therapy for patients or tools to enhance therapy.

Ben Sawyer from the Serious Games Initiative commented during an interview about the use of off-the-shelf computer games by surgeons and how the activity has improved results in healthcare.

‘Dr. James Rosser at Beth Israel Medical Center in NY is using games like Silent Scope and Super Monkey Ball as warm-up exercises before laparoscopic surgeons begin operating. The early results show this to be highly beneficial to their work.’ (Sawyer 2004)

Dr Rosser also found through study that surgeons who played computer games at a young age made on average 40% less mistakes during surgery. Games such as Silent Scope and Super Monkey Ball encourage steady and accurate balancing movements and help to warm–up and focus surgeons before performing intricate surgery.

Concerning children and health, exercise, obesity and nutrition are currently hot topics in the media. There are serious games available designed to educate and inform children on these subjects.

‘Depression and suicide? There are games for that too. Juvenile diabetes? Yep. Phobias? Smoking? Social adjustment? Safe sex and preventing socially transmitted diseases? Dealing with divorce? There are games for all of those.’
(Prensky 2006)

There is evidence supporting the benefits of playing health related serious games, such as the results of Debra Lieberman’s work, which show that:

‘Kids with chronic conditions who played the disease management games at home for six months reduced their urgent care and emergency visits by as much as 77 percent, while there was no change in clinical visits for kids who played non-health related entertainment video games at home for the same amount of time.’ (Prensky 2006)

Health and wellness is a much discussed area even within the game industry, with internationally renowned annual conferences such as Games for Health.


Common opinion in the anti computer games camp is that they encourage laziness instead of physical activity. However, games have changed greatly, especially in the last decade, and we are now witnessing the emergence of games which actually promote physical and cardio-vascular exercise.

Games like Dance Dance Revolution, EyeToy and Yourself! Fitness. Wii Sports also encourages physical movement, especially boxing and tennis, and even more so with the new Wii Fit. There is even a Wii healthy website ( which introduces Wii Fit and also provides 10 week workout plans for weight loss with Wii Sports. Some schools in the UK have even incorporated the use of the Wii into their PE lessons to encourage those students who would normally skip the lessons, to get fit.

In a study carried out in 2007 by Liverpool John Moores University, researchers, lead by Professor Tim Cable, compared levels of activity in gamers using the active Wii controller compared to gamers using traditional seated and inactive joypad-controlled consoles. Results showed that more active gameplay, such as that of the Wii, increased energy expenditure high enough to help burn calories and increased heart rates to values of 130 bpm compared to the inactive controller’s result of 85bpm.

Optical Aptitude

A research group at the University of Rochester have carried out studies of visual stimuli in action games and the effects game play has on optical aptitude.

‘… people who played action video games for a few hours a day over the course of a month improved by about 20 percent in their ability to identify letters presented in clutter—a visual acuity test similar to ones used in regular ophthalmology clinics.’ (ScienceDaily 2007)

Computer games of the action genre improve bottom line standards of players on traditional eye charts, also improving both centre and peripheral vision. These results suggest that similar games can be made for those that suffer specific visual imparements, such as amblyopia, to increase their optical acuity.

Professor Daphne Bavelier, a member of the research group on brain and cognitive sciences stated:

‘These games push the human visual system to the limits and the brain adapts to it. That learning carries over into other activities and possibly everyday life.’ (2007)


Handheld computer game consoles have shown to be incredibly effective distraction tasks for children who suffer from skin ailments and self-afflicted harm like neurodermatitis. An 8 year old boy was given a Gameboy as a distraction element to stop him picking at his face and causing more damage. It was a highly effective strategy and consoles, like the Gameboy, are now used increasingly for the same distraction purpose.


There have been many cases in medical literature on other negative effects of computer game play, including auditory hallucinations, enuresis, encopresis, wrist/neck/elbow pain, tenosynovitis (also called ‘Nintendinitis’) and peripheral neuropathy. Some of these effects are very rare and symptoms were treated by simply not playing the games which caused them.

(see part 2)

Author: Alexandra Matthews, Gaming & Learning

Copyright Gaming & Learning 2008


Entry filed under: Games, Interaction, Social Impact. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Vinnie  |  November 22, 2008 at 12:44 am

    Hey, thank you for making this article. I was currently “addicted” to a computer game. Addicted meaning that I was playing 10-12 hours only on the weekends. But now it has been a week. ahaha im trying to quit games and be more focused on the real world because I think that video games have a greater negative impact on ones physical and mental health. Thanks again I learned a lot and i believe all of it is true :)


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The purpose of this blog is to provide insight into the impact of computer games and pop culture, and effective ways of incorporating the positive surplus into learning experiences.

Please feel free to add comments and email me with any queries. I am also interested in relevant project collaboration.

Name: Alexandra Matthews
Location: UK

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