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The perception of video game players as inactive, maladjusted nerds has persisted for years, but a series of recent studies shows those stereotypes are founded more in fantasy than reality. Not only is the gamer demographic expanding to encompass just about everyone, but playing games might even make you a better person.
We've come a long way from the '80s image of a gamer, which was influenced by the fact that early gaming consoles like the Amiga and Atari were in fact early personal computers aimed at, well, nerds. Add to this the people associated with "Dungeons & Dragons" and, later, the marketing of video games as children's toys, and the popular picture of gamers is easy to understand.
Now gaming is a nearly $100 billion dollar market, making it a titan on (or above) the level of movies, music and books worldwide. You don't get numbers like that catering to a niche of basement dwellers.
"Those typical stereotypes you see in the past, they don't really exist very much any more," said Matthew Grizzard, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Buffalo whose research involves the cognitive and psychological effects of games. "We've grown up with the medium — it's just so ubiquitous now."
A recent study (PDF) commissioned by game-streaming site Twitch.tv found that gamers defy common expectations. Gamers tend to be young, social and employed, doing fewer things alone and reporting good relationships with friends and family. They're generally more educated, and are concerned about ideological issues like having a good impact on society and supporting ethical businesses.
Almost half of gamers are female, as well, multiple estimates show. This wasn't always the case, and many games are still marketed with a male audience in mind — but it's simply no longer true that gaming is a boy's club.
The moral compass
Such diversity and pro-social behavior is not only good to see, but another recent study suggests that gaming may actually have promoted it. Players feel real guilt when they perform immoral actions in a game, like accidentally shooting a hostage or letting a teammate die. Grizzard's research suggests this guilt informs real-world actions.
"Our findings suggest that emotional experiences evoked by media exposure can increase the intuitive foundations upon which human beings make moral judgments," Grizzard explained in a release describing his study.
Other skills have been shown to get boosts as well. Spatial reasoning and fine motor skills can be improved with 3-D action games; children who played games drew and wrote more creatively and scored higher on standardized tests; simple games like "Angry Birds" cause relaxation and improve moods; and complex strategic games can improve problem-solving skills.
But what about those highly publicized tendencies toward violence and aggression? Hardly a violent tragedy like a school shooting goes by without someone pointing out that the perpetrators play violent games. Leaving aside the fact that there are few young people left who don't play video games, the notion that the pastime creates violent behavior has been challenged by studies year after year.
The latest blow to the violent-gamer hypothesis came from researchers at the University of Rochester and Oxford University. What they found was that people playing games do become aggressive and take it out on others, yes — but when the game is frustrating, not violent.
Lead researcher Andrew Przybylski of Oxford wrote at the time that "when people feel they have no control over the outcome of a game, that leads to aggression." Whether the game was violent or not, he said, had no effect.
There's a dark side, too
This overall rosy prognosis for gamers is promising, but there's a dark side to consider as well. Games, like other media, may contribute to things like desensitization to violence, and the ability to play and comment online anonymously produces the usual toxic brew of racism, sexism and profanity.
More concerning is the possibility that, as games become larger and more immersive (such as with the Oculus virtual reality headset), gamers will spend more time in them than in reality. Video game addiction is an acknowledged problem, and people will empty their bank accounts and neglect their health and social life to keep on top of a massively multiplayer game like "World of Warcraft" of "League of Legends."
Grizzard told NBC News these are valid concerns — but don't relate the whole story. "If you want to get people thinking about these issues, sometimes the best way is to show it from opposing viewpoints," he suggested. "But we're starting to ask more difficult questions than 'are video games bad for you?' or 'are video games good for you?'"
In the meantime, avoiding games entirely might actually be the riskier course. Games appear to alleviate the effects of dyslexia in kids — perhaps more effectively than traditional treatment — and may also put off the decline of cognitive abilities later in life. In other words, you might want to make gaming a habit — before doctors start prescribing it.
Don't worry: With hundreds of millions of gamers in every demographic and walk of life, you won't have to play alone.