You’ve heard it all before: video games, especially violent ones, are evil. They warp the minds of children. They make you hurt people. Just ask those who remember the Columbine or Heath High School shootings, in which everything related to media, from Doom and Castle Wolfenstein to Marilyn Manson and Rammstein, was blamed for the kids’ violent outbreaks.
The video game controversy isn’t a new one. The first arcade game came out in 1971; the first game to be pulled off the shelves was Death Race just five years later, in 1976. Among the games to be scrutinized, criticized, and banned are the following: Custer’s Revenge*, Mortal Kombat, Night Trap, Phantasmagoria, Grand Theft Auto (pick one), MechWarrior, Doom, Quake, Redneck Rampage, Postal 2, Nightmare Creatures, Castle Wolfenstein, and Resident Evil. Of course I’m missing some. Probably every single video game that involves someone getting run over by a car, tossed out of an airplane, shot in any part of their body, torn to pieces, or whatever else has been banned somewhere. The ESRB was created in 1994 to help alleviate the problem of children getting games they shouldn’t be getting (and to help prevent the government from getting involved in regulation), but as anyone who has been to Wal-Mart knows, it’s not enforced as much as it probably should be, assuming the ratings work in the first place. Jack Thompson, anti-video games activist, has been suing people left and right since 1996. He believes that video games desensitize kids to violence and makes them more prone to aggression. Law professor Kevin Saunders is in Thompson’s camp as well, and says video games cause violence and violence should be included with obscenity in a category of unprotected speech (in other words, video games shouldn’t be protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment). And there are studies that agree with him.
For instance, a study was published in 2007 called Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, which claimed that exposure to media violence poses a significant risk factor for later aggressive and violent behavior. In their introduction the authors go so far as to claim that “the scientific debate about whether exposure to media violence causes increases in aggressive behavior is over and should have been over 30 years ago.” Anderson and his colleagues argue that society should have “more productive debates” about reducing rates of exposure to media violence, and to use public policy options that will be most effective. And in 2009, The American Academy of Pediatrics’s Council on Communications and Media wrote in policy statement titled “Media Violence“: “Exposure to violence in media, including television, movies, music, and video games, represents a significant risk to the health of children and adolescents. Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed…”
This month’s study on video games and aggression comes out of the University of Missouri and is titled This Is Your Brain on Violent Video Games: Neural Desensitization to Violence Predicts Increased Aggression Following Violent Video Game Exposure. It will be published in an upcoming edition of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This study is different from most that we hear about because it focuses on college-age students, not children (arguably**). Basically what they did in the study is take 70 students (out of a pool of 2000), half of which scored above the 75th percentile on previous exposure to violent video games and half of which scored below the 25th percentile. In other words, 35 of these gamers had played a ton of violent video games and 35 played pretty much no violent video games. These 70 students were then randomly assigned to either play a violent or non-violent video game for twenty-five minutes and then play a competitive game in which the subject can choose the level of white noise that goes through the loser’s headphones. The researchers found that those who played a violent video game for twenty-five minutes were more likely to choose a louder noise level for the loser, thereby showing aggression.
* If you haven’t heard of this game, look it up. It’s creepy.
** I kid, I kid. Kind of.
The problem with the University of Missouri study is that it doesn’t reflect real life. At all. 25 minutes of video game playing time is, frankly, not a lot of time. Most hardcore gamers play much more than this in a day. The researchers acknowledge this. Still, they claim, look at what happens to people on just 25 minutes. Bruce Bartholow, lead researcher for the study, stated, “We’re concluding that even a fairly short-term exposure to violent games has some significant effects not only on the brain’s response to violence but also on aggression. We would expect that a longer exposure would probably have bigger effects.”
But what exactly happened in the study? Some college kids played a competitive game shortly after playing a violent video game and chose a louder (and thereby more obnoxious) level at which the loser would be forced to hear the white noise. Sure, it’s aggression, but can we say it’s substantial? Can we say it’s realistic? How often do we get placed in a situation like that? And even if we do want to say it makes people more aggressive when competitive, that wouldn’t be enough to say that playing a lot of video games is going to cause you to shoot up a school or work. That requires a leap that involves many more variables than 25 minutes of video games. Granted, nowhere does the Mizzou study say that these students are going to go on a rampage and kill people (and hopefully scientific honesty would prevent them from even attempting to make that claim), but that won’t stop people like Jack Thompson from trying to spin it that way and frighten moms and dads into thinking their children should never touch a video game again, even if it’s something as harmless as Tetris.
My main beef with any study that claims that video games cause or predict aggressive behavior is: how long do these aggressive behaviors last? Very few people play Far Cry 2 for a few hours and then immediately get up, buy an M-16 and grenades from… wherever you would buy an M-16 and grenades from, and shoot up their local post office. I would be surprised if even the most aggressive feelings that resulted from a video game would not last longer than thirty minutes or so in an average human being. By no means am I attempting to debunk the Mizzou study; I haven’t even been able to read it yet because it hasn’t been published. I just find it difficult to generalize from the findings like I know others are going to attempt to do, especially since the study did not find that those who were more intimately familiar with video games were innately more prone to aggression. Think about it. If the researchers think that longer exposure to violent video games would increase aggression, wouldn’t the 35 video gamers who placed above the 75th percentile in regards to violent video game exposure have been more aggressive than the gamers who didn’t play violent video games?
Let’s not forget that the games being used in the study–Call of Duty: Finest Hour, Hitman Contracts, Killzone, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City–have sold how many copies? Millions. That’s a huge amount of people that are going to get more aggressive from playing these games, especially if the amount of aggression goes up with the length of gameplay. And these games are old, all from around 2004. Since then, games have gotten even more violent and gory, and sales have increased. There are estimates saying that somewhere around 90% of boys and 40% of girls play video games. And yet, according to the CDC, youth violence has declined since 1993 and leveled off since about 1999. The number of drivers aged 16 or 17 that have been involved in fatal crashes is declining as well, which is the opposite of what you would imagine if people are going out there and emulating games like Grand Theft Auto and Burnout. What’s the deal, then? With more and more people playing video games, especially violent ones, we should be seeing an increase in dangerous or violent behavior. But the studies and what we’re actually seeing aren’t lining up. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson, co-founders of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, sum it up best in their their book Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Video Games when they say, “It’s clear that the ‘big fears’ bandied about in the press–that violent video games make children significantly more violent in the real world; that children engage in the illegal, immoral, sexist and violent acts they see in some of these games–are not supported by the current research, at least in such a simplistic form. That should make sense to anyone who thinks about it. After all, millions of children and adults play these games, yet the world has not been reduced to chaos and anarchy.”
It wasn’t until later that people suggested that perhaps bullying, isolation, and depression were also factors in the Columbine shooting. Marilyn Manson suggested, among other things, that perhaps it’s the kind of culture that “sit[s] back and tolerate[s] children owning guns, and […] tune[s] in and watch[es] the up-to-the-minute details of what they do with them,” that is the problem. Of course, he was blamed for the shooting, which made some people dismiss his comments. And we’re a video game site, so why trust us? Well, psychologist Peter Langman, who literally wrote the book on murder by children, offers an explanation that also lets Manson and others off the hook. In his book, Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, he states of the Columbine shooters, “These are not ordinary kids who were bullied into retaliation. These are not ordinary kids who played too many video games. These are not ordinary kids who just wanted to be famous. These are simply not ordinary kids. These are kids with serious psychological problems.”
Other studies support this. One study at the Swinburne University of Technology for example showed that children already prone to neuroticism and aggression were more aggressive after playing violent video games, but for most children there was no real difference in behavior. And according to the U.S. Surgeon General, the strongest risk factors for school shootings include things like mental stability, socioeconomic stability (i.e. money problems), and the quality of school and home life. Notice how media exposure isn’t on that list. Oh, and the study I mentioned at the beginning of the article? Dr. Anderson’s research has been pretty heavily criticized for many things, including overstating his results and failing to acknowledge the study’s limitations.
I feel like we are against the idea that video games cause violence more than we think. In 2005, Devin Moore’s lawyer tried to claim that Grand Theft Auto (oh, and childhood abuse) caused him to kill three police officers. Moore even said, “Life is a video game; everybody has to die sometime,” after his arrest. His lawyer failed to convince the jury, and Moore was convicted of capital murder. Oddly enough, even though the video games weren’t enough to get Moore off the hook, the victims’ families filed a civil suit against Rock Star Games (the manufacturer of GTA) and two stores, claiming Moore killed the officers after playing Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I think this shows, more than anything, our conflicted feelings about violent video games. On the one hand, we want to blame video games for having an influence on our children. On the other, we want to hold people responsible for their actions, and you can’t do that if you’re blaming video games. Really, what we want more than anything is a scapegoat, someone to blame when things go wrong.
That seems to be exactly the case. Dr. Guy Cumberbatch writes in a report (emphasis added): “The evident weakness in the individual studies and the general pattern of inconsistent findings would not normally lead us to expect researchers to make any strong claims about video games. However, this is far from the case. As with other research on media violence, some of the strongest claims are made on the most flimsy of evidence… The real puzzle is that anyone looking at the research evidence in this field could draw any conclusions about the pattern, let alone argue with such confidence and even passion that it demonstrates the harm of violence on television, in film and in video games.” Quite simply, it’s not intellectually honest to make the claims that Jack Thompson makes, yet we do. We want to blame something, and the media, especially video games, are easy targets.
My recommendations should be old hat by now: watch what your kid is playing, but don’t assume that playing a couple hours of Metal Gear Solid or Left 4 Dead is going to make him/her into the next Tony Montana. Explain to your children what they’re playing is a game and that you shouldn’t hurt people in real life. And if your children seem to be changing in a negative way, see what stressors are in their lives and get help as needed. Aggression isn’t always a bad thing, but like most things, it can only be useful in moderation. If your son or daughter gets aggressive while being competitive, but no one is getting hurt, there isn’t a problem. It’s when your child starts pulling away, harassing others, and/or is isolating him- or herself that you should worry.
Long story short, behavioral problems in children (and adults) have existed long before video games. They may exacerbate aggression in someone who isn’t stable no matter what the age of the person in question, but I seriously doubt that any video game is ever, on its own, going to cause someone to reenact what s/he sees on the screen. We are not mindless zombies who take orders from pixels on a screen. If we want to stop youth violence, we need to ensure that the environment in which these youth are in is healthy–that they have enough food to eat, that they are not being harassed at school, that their home lives are stable, that they receive love and positive regard, that they have structure and understand that every action has consequences, that they have positive role models they can interact with, and that people are watching over them in case stressors come up.
If we can eliminate those risk factors, then we can really talk about what influence the media has on our children.