After Newtown, Legislators Target Video Games

Posted: Dec 24, 2012 3:44 PM
Senator Jay Rockefeller has introduced legislation to "study the impact of violent video games on children." This was followed by NRA head Wayne LaPierre blaming - in part - video games as a factor in recent school shootings.

Michael Brown wrote on Townhall that these are important steps to take, asking if those who deny the link between video games and violence - including the game companies themselves - are in denial.

It's a common complaint and, as a fairly avid gamer myself, one that makes me sigh with frustration and want to dismiss it out of hand. But it shouldn't be so easy.

Buzzfeed's John Herman wrote in the wake of the Newtown shootings about how realistic and, often, stomach-churning some video game violence has become.

Games like Postal 2 and the Soldier of Fortune series were not representative of the industry as a whole and were clearly intended to offend, so it was easy for defensive gamers to deflect criticism — these were niche titles, after all. But Grand Theft Auto 3 was not a niche title, nor were any of its wildly successful follow-ups. The Battlefield and Call of Duty series have become some of the most successful entertainment franchises in history. Much of the deliberate provocation of the early 2000s has become standard in the world's top-selling (and far more realistic) games. Modern Warfare II's notorious airport massacre scene drew criticism, of course. But the next sequel in the franchise became the fastest selling game in history.

All this is to say that while uninformed anti-game sensationalism may be unproductive, gamers' reflexive defensiveness is worse. It's prevented us from having a meaningful conversation about an industry that is emotionally and morally stunted, where per-title revenue can dwarf even the most successful films of all time but which seems immune from discussions of taste and artistic merit. A higher-up at one of the largest game publishers in the world once confided in me that when his bosses showed him early footage from a popular first-person shooter produced by another studio in the company, he couldn't bring himself to watch to the end.

Whereas the most popular video games twenty years ago starred portly plumbers jumping on top of mushroom-shaped brown blobs, the most popular games today are military shooters that strive for realism above all. That's not to say that Call of Duty teaches gamers how to shoot a gun, but that they try hard to portray real-life warfare and violence as realistically as possible.

Moreover, video games are a part of a broader media environment that may desensitize and foster aggression. As neuroscientist Jordan Grafman of the National Institutes of Health put it:

So those teenage boys who experienced more aggression or violence say in their neighborhoods, at home, watch more movies, play more video games that involve violence, they’re the ones that showed the most desensitization.

The implications are that people who show more rapid desensitization to violent pictures are going to be more accepting of violence. There's going to be more toleration of it, not only as they observe others— friends, family members, acquaintances—but also in their society at large and potentially in their own behavior. And that is dangerous for the integration and the wellbeing of their local community. And it also may potentially put them into dangerous situations if they’re willing to be more aggressive without having the emotional breaks we all use and the cognitive breaks we all use to stop our aggressive and violent behavior.

I think the important issue here is limiting the frequency and the intensity of their exposure to aggression. And that ranges everything from using computers and devices to making sure if they live in a community where there is a lot of aggression that they have alternative activities to participate in.

This isn't to say that violent video games cause violence. Or even that there's a meaningful link. There is a legitimate discussion to be had, though, especially among parents concerned with the best way to raise their children.

Some things that are important to take into consideration: video games may reduce violence by giving aggressive kids an outlet, or merely replace other aggression-inducing activities.

However, Kierkegaard explains, there is no obvious link between real-world violence statistics and the advent of video games. If anything, the effect seems to be the exact opposite and one might argue that video game usage has reduced real violence. Despite several high profile incidents in US academic institutions, "Violent crime, particularly among the young, has decreased dramatically since the early 1990s," says Kierkegaard, "while video games have steadily increased in popularity and use. For example, in 2005, there were 1,360,088 violent crimes reported in the USA compared with 1,423,677 the year before. "With millions of sales of violent games, the world should be seeing an epidemic of violence," he says, "Instead, violence has declined."

Banning Straws
John Stossel
And as three researchers found recently, despite the link between video game play and aggression, scientists have seen no real-world link:

The report , released earlier this year, states: "Psychological studies invariably find a positive relationship between violent video game play and aggression.

"Yet to date, though there is evidence that violent video games cause aggression in a laboratory setting, there is no evidence that violent video games cause violence or crime."

It adds: "We argue that since laboratory experiments have not examined the time use effects of video games, which incapacitate violent activity by drawing individual gamers into extended gameplay, laboratory studies may be poor predictors of the net effects of violent video games in society.

"Consequently, they overstate the importance of video game induced aggression as a social cost. "

There's certainly evidence out there that video games - especially as a part of a violent media ecosystem - may desensitize people psychologically to violence. There's also evidence that violent video games, TV shows and movies may foster aggressive behavior in young adults. But it's also likely that video games provide an outlet for antisocial behavior and prevent real-world incidents. It could be that youths who used to play and watch football - another leisure activity linked to aggression and violence - merely play video games instead.

It's important not to rush to judgment in the wake of a tragedy, and it's important not to take a black-or-white approach in characterizing complicated issues. It could be that additional study is needed, but it may be the case that a study funded by the federal government is going to be plagued by confirmation bias.