An X-Boneheaded Argument

Mytheos Holt

12/9/2013 12:01:00 AM - Mytheos Holt

In the 1980s, a group was formed which warned of an emerging danger to America’s youth. That danger was a new, and increasingly popular form of entertainment that, while seemingly harmless, allowed children and teens to tap into their more violent and morally questionable urges while hiding under the guise of harmless escapism. In fact, the group argued, it was necessary to understand this form of entertainment if one wanted to understand the then-increasingly prevalent and seemingly unexplainable wave of crime, to the point where it manufactured police training manuals based on a document explaining the phenomenon in question. Meanwhile, the group’s founder appeared all over the mainstream press, including 60 Minutes and Geraldo Rivera’s show.

Given that the 80s were also the arguable birthplace of mass market home video games, made by companies like Atari and Nintendo, the reader might conclude that they were the target of this crusade. But they’d be wrong. The form of entertainment in question was table-top roleplaying games, such as Dungeons and Dragons, and the group warning about their danger was a little organization called Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, or BADD, which alleged that Dungeons and Dragons, or “D&D,” was a cover for recruitment into Satanic murder-suicide cultism, using the deaths of various mentally unstable teenagers who (allegedly) had played the game as evidence. In fact, the founder of the group – Patricia Pulling, who coincidentally was also the author of its main document, The Pulling Report – was the mother of one such child.

There was just one problem: The whole argument was laughably, unimaginably false. In fact, today, the only people who still read The Pulling Report are tabletop role-players looking for a laugh. The idea of police investigators interrogating high schoolers about whether they role play as elves or dwarves, and what class they are (an actual recommendation of the report itself) rises to the level of absurd comedy. D&D has become so mainstream it gets pop cultural spoofs on shows like The Big Bang Theory and Community, and claims pop culture figures like Vin Diesel and Patton Oswalt as enthusiasts. Patricia Pulling, and BADD, if they are remembered at all, are remembered as punch lines, or as symbols for how bad parents can use senseless, irrational moral panic backed by quack “scholarship” as a way to distract from their own failures.

And apparently, anti-video game crusaders are desperate to emulate them. This is not surprising, seeing as the anti-video game movement is possibly the most poorly substantiated, technophobic form of activism since The Pulling Report itself. Fittingly, they have now found a scholar to produce a document with precisely as much credibility. Meet Brad Bushman of Ohio State University, an academic who has authored a study allegedly showing that teenagers both “eat more [and] cheat more” after playing violent video games.

The problem, as Techdirt points out, is that the study has so many holes it may as well have been designed by King Koopa. For starters, its means of telling whether people make poor decisions was to set a bowl of M&Ms in the same room as players of both violent video games (tellingly, both from the Grand Theft Auto franchise) and non-violent video games (pinball and golf simulators), and then to see how many M&Ms got consumed in spite of a warning that the candy was unhealthy. To quote Techdirt:

Let’s stop right here for a moment and consider the credibility of researchers who (presumably with a straight face) told teenagers that eating too much candy would make their tummies hurt. The health implications of a single bowl of candy in a research setting are effectively nil, but this ridiculous instruction is used as evidence that violent video games adversely affect players’ judgment.

According to Bushman’s research, players playing violent games ate more than those playing non-violent games. Ipso facto, violent game players have less self-control.

Another problem? The study treats short-term immorality after playing violent video games as if it’s a systemic pattern that lasts over the long term. Players were, for instance, given the opportunity to cheat on a quiz game after playing the games, and also allowed to blast “losing” players with a loud noise. Those playing violent video games were more likely to do both, which should surprise precisely no one who’s ever been inside an Xbox Live chatroom. However, despite behaving like a bloodthirsty sociopath when behind a controller, it’s a well-established fact that not every user of Xbox Live transforms into one when he or she leaves the game behind to, say, order pizza. But don’t take my word for it, take the word of a much better done study of 11,000 children, undertaken over 10 years, which showed that video games have no effect on someone’s long-term behavior.

Moreover, the strongest correlation in the study wasn’t between violent video games and immoral behavior, but between people with fewer moral qualms and immoral behavior. This was tested with a “moral disengagement” questionnaire that was handed out to participants before play, to test their moral fortitude. To no one’s surprise, those who scored worst on this questionnaire (which had problems of its own, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment) also behaved the worst after playing video games.

If Bushman were simply a misguided or inept researcher, this sort of thing might be forgivable as a one-time failure. However, seeing as he’s been attacked for shoddy research practices in this area before, as has his frequent research partner and anti-video game fellow traveler Craig Anderson. Anderson, in fact, has even been embarrassed as an expert witness on the subject. It is telling, therefore, that these two men produce the lion’s share of anti-video game research, while studies undertaken by virtually any other researchers turn up completely different results.

These men are, in short, not scientists, but ideologically driven latter-day Patricia Pullings trying to make a panic out of a new and, at this point, thriving art form. On one level, this is not so problematic. Such alarmist charges are endemic when an art form comes into its own, as I discovered when TheBlaze allowed me to defend one of the greatest video games of the recent generation, Bioshock Infinite, from utterly unjustified charges of anti-Americanism.

However, as I believed at the time of that article and continue to believe now, the idea that conservatives could even think of joining in the crusade against video games is extremely sad. Especially at a time when the art form’s most relevant and visible critics are not the increasingly irrelevant anti-violence coalition of religious fundamentalists and aging hippies, but rather radical feminists bent on willfully misinterpreting and censoring great video games just as they attacked the great books. In other words, video games are an art form that conservatives, who prize innovation and entrepreneurship, should be defending. After all, if guns don’t kill people, it’s a real stretch to imagine that pixels kill people, and conservatives should not allow themselves to be straw manned as Luddites for thinking so.

Which is a massive reason why this kind of “scholarship” needs to be exposed for the hack job that it is, so that art and creativity of the kind that D&D unleashed on the tabletop can be equally celebrated on the PC or console, and the new frontier of technology can be allowed to expand where neither the Pullings nor the Bushmans of the world are allowed to touch it.