Teens’ psychopathology is reflected in their virtual videogame behaviors, study finds

Psychopathology is linked to different in-game playing patterns among teen boys, according to new research published in PLOS One.

“I’m interested in this topic, one might say, as a sublimation of my own ‘gamophilic’ nature,” remarked study author Aviv Segev of Tel Aviv University. “I got my first PC when I was only 6 (then – with no hard-drive, 5.1” discs and green-screens), and I was captivated by the options and spectacular abilities that were available then.”

“At several points of my development I spent many hours playing, working, interacting and learning in front of the screen,” he added. “As I grew up, I was exposed to the negative views of computer games and as I became a psychiatrist, I witnessed the polarization of the research in this field – ‘good’ or ‘bad’, with only few authors emphasizing the complex and intricate relationships between computer-games and mental health problems.”

“It was clear to me, as a previous gamer (my current occupation – both at work and at home – doesn’t leave me much time to play), that like everything else, there is no black or white,” Segev said. “I felt that we’re throwing the bathwater out along with the baby – computer games can’t be ALL bad, they surely have some benefits (part of my English literacy is through video-games, for example – quest games encouraged me to open the dictionary).”

“I also felt that this is a very prominent recreational activity for today’s youth and it is important not to negate this activity in a way that will increase alienation.”

The researchers studied three groups of male teens: One group with externalizing psychopathologies like ADHD and conduct disorders, one group with internalizing psychopathologies like depression and anxiety, and a third control group with no psychopathologies.

The study revealed that teens with psychopathologies tended to behave differently when playing Grand Theft Auto IV — an open-world game that allows players to perform a variety of violent and nonviolent actions.

The teens with psychopathologies were less likely to adhere to the game’s missions than did the controls. They also “died” more frequently in the game and evaded the police less often. Teens in the externalizing group were also more likely to engage in comprising actions that were not rewarded by the game mechanics.

The teens in the control group made significantly more gains in the game.

“I think that the most important take-away from the study is that when we’re talking about playing video-games, it is important to understand how many factors are involved in the process, and as Prof. Daphna Bavelier mentioned, ‘One can no more say what the effects of video-games are, than one can say what the effects of food are’.”

“In this study, we unveil another important aspect that should be addressed when studying video-games – and that is the player himself,” Segev told PsyPost. “We showed that children suffering from psychopathology actually play different when the game itself gives them the ‘freedom’ to manifest their difficulties – similar to the real world.”

“The ‘player-factor’ actually can change the game into a whole different experience: is the game meant to be an endless spree of destruction, or is it to be a focused journey to achieve exciting make-believe goals?”

But when the teens played Need for Speed: Shift, a much more structured racing game with clearly pre-defined goals, the researchers found no differences in gaming behavior.

“This was only a pilot study, and we should test our finding on different games, larger samples and along a time axis, rather than single-point-testing,” Segev said. “We should examine if we can identify similar pattern of psychopathology in different games, which might lead us to develop ‘game markers’ that can alert parents or friends of emotional difficulties or distress.”

“Moreover, we should examine whether a vicious circle is being created: first, children suffering from psychopathology play video-games in a way that enhances their exposure to violent content (even when playing in the same game title) – as we have shown. As a second step, this exposure might be more influential on them, being already more sensitive, impulsive and sometimes volatile. Thus, they not only play in a more violent pattern, they might be actually more prone to be affected by this violence.”

The study, “Real and virtual worlds alike: Adolescents’ psychopathology is reflected in their videogame virtual behaviors“, was also co-authored by Hila Gabay-Weschler, Yossi Naar, Hagai Maoz, and Yuval Bloch. It was published online July 14, 2017.