First-person shooter video games, research has found, tend to make people less sensitive to emotions and more likely to approach problems aggressively. So what do you think happens, then, when girlfriends or spouses complain to frequent gamers that they are playing too much and should spend more time with them?
"This is a recipe for relationship disaster," said Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State University professor who studies media's impact on families.
It also was the motivation for a new survey-based study by Gentile and colleages, which analyzed the responses of more than 1,300 couples to the role of media in their relationships. Gentile said there has been a wealth of research showing the impact of gaming on players, but not necessarily on the people close to them. The study found that the amount of time spent quarreling over media usage increased proportionately with the amount of time partners (mostly men) spent playing video games. More than the violent or racy content of the games, it was the time spent playing them that instigated relationship problems.
Gentile said game players are missing the opportunities to connect with loved ones around them and to pick up and learn their feelings and emotional cues. Gamers, as a result, can be oblivious when people around them drop hints that they are playing too much.
"It has its major effect in what you're not doing," he said. "It's not so much what you are doing, but what you're not doing every hour that you play a game."
(Today's blog is part of the Daddy-O tech week, which explores the pros and cons of technology and electronic communications in families and relationships. Post your thoughts on this issue in the comments below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas for this series.)
The impact of gaming is unique compared to other media usage because it demands a player's full concentration. By comparison, couples can watch a move together and even discuss it afterwar. Fitting the stereotypes, the study found that gaming by women did not increase arguments over media consumption for couples. The researchers theorized that women often played games to try to share an interest with their male partners. Often, this leads to another problem. Frequent gamers then think they are justified in playing a lot because their spouses or partners are also playing or going on their computers. Consider the following post on a med help web site a couple years ago by a married mother of three:
"The problem is my husband bought the dreaded xbox360 when it first came out ... He plays from the time he gets up to the time he goes to bed! We don't have sex anymore b/c he can't seem to get off long enough to spend time with me. He gets upset if u walk in front of the t.v. (God forbid he die on the game!). He got real good about playing only after the kids and I went to bed. BUT, Halo 3 came out Monday night at midnight. He went to the store to get it (at midnight) and played all night long. Now, all he plays is that game. I hate the xbox so much. I hate looking at it. I hate hearing it. I just HATE it! He says that I stay on the computer all the time, but that's b/c he plays video games all the time and I have nothing else to do."
Gentile's study found that frequent game playing led to fights over media use and that frequent fights over media use led to more physical and emotional aggression by spouses and partners. The study didn't prove cause and effect, though, just a relationship. It's possible that gamers simply have personality types that make them more prone to aggression.
Regardless, the study helps build the evidence base regarding game playing as a potential thorn in relationships. Couples should at least be ready to discuss the issue and compromise over game playing, especially in relationships in which only one person likes video games.
"I would assume that, ideally, couples would want (media usage) to be shared," Gentile said. "But if they have very different tastes, if the guys want to play shooter games and the girls want to play Sims, and they can't compromise, well there's an opportunity for conflict, or for just going off and doing your own thing, in which case the media is no longer offering a shared experience and bringing you together."