Much ado has been lately about the connection between video games and gun violence. It’s been a media target for some time, and the recent Sandy Hook shootings have only added to the frenzy. I saw this video the other day and thinks it speaks volumes.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to embed the video, but it is worth your time.
Adam Sessler is right. There seems to be something that happens when a new form of media comes on the scene. People with more traditional sensibilities almost always rally against it, simply because it is new and unknown. Video games have been facing that stigma for some time. Here is a research paper I wrote on the subject, particularly how it relates to youth aggression. This is an important issue that I think we need to be paying more attention to, rather than just pointing fingers.
Interactive Electronic Entertainment: Culprit or Scapegoat?
Ever since the creation of film in the early twentieth century, the debate over media violence and its effect on aggression has been ongoing. By the mid-1970s, however, society thought it had everything figured out. While violent media certainly had its detractors, most people were willing to accept it as long as it stayed on the screen, static and un-interactive. However, a new, highly interactive medium came along to throw a proverbial wrench in the works; this medium was video games. The increasingly interactive and violent video games of the early 1990s led to concern from both parents and lawmakers about the harmful effects that this interactive violence could have upon children, particularly after it was revealed that the shooters of the Columbine massacre on April 20, 1999, enjoyed the violent shooting game Doom. Since then, many experts have weighed in their opinions, ultimately finding a causal relationship between short-term adolescent aggression and violent video games. The evidence, however, shows that increased aggression has not been proven to correlate to violent or antisocial behavior later in life, and that insisting so ultimately causes parents to overlook more imperative issues regarding the world their children are being raised in.
Today, the issues regarding negative associations between adolescent aggression are even more numerous and controversial, partially because video games have become so popular. According to Wagner, “Video games are in 80% ofU.S.homes with children; they generated $6 billion in 2000 and $11 billion by 2003” (par. 9). According to aMichiganStateUniversitysurvey of youths from fifth grade through college, they are spending more time playing video games than watching television (Wagner par. 2). In Kutner and Olson’s survey of middle school youth, just 17 children out of 1,254 had never played video games (89-90). Given the prevalence of video games in family homes acrossAmerica, it’s easy to see that they’re not going away anytime soon. It’s also easy to see the concerns that parents may have about the effects these video games may have upon their children, particularly the violent ones. This concern makes any reasonable evidence concerning the effects of these games very important for parents.
The first question that parents may ask regarding the video games that their children play is “Will playing these games really make my child more aggressive?” According to the research of Craig A. Anderson of the American Psychological Association, the answer is yes. Anderson’s General Affective Aggression Model suggests that “playing a violent video game can cause violent thoughts, feelings, and even physical symptoms (elevated heart rate) that, if repeated over time, can change habits of behavior , leading to more aggression” (Brake 269).
According to Anderson’s research, “violent video games are significantly associated with: increased aggressive behavior, thoughts and affect, increased physiological arousal; and decreased prosocial (helping) behavior” (Anderson par. 4). Also,Anderson says that high levels of violent game exposure have been linked to criminal behavior (par. 9). Although many might think that this connection only exists with graphically violent video games, studies have also found increased aggression after playing unrealistic and fantasy violent games (Anderson par. 11). If Anderson’s research is any indication, parents might have a lot to worry about when it comes to their children playing video games, but the problems don’t stop there.
Research has shown that video games are inherently addictive, causing a child to lose track of time and play while ignoring all else (Skalski and Fitzpatrick, 274). While visions of a pasty, isolated child who badly needs a shower, playing uninterrupted for days straight, are frightening enough, children who are addicted to video games may experience symptoms of withdrawal when these games are taken away (Skalski and Fitzpatrick 274), not unlike the symptoms of an addiction to a drug. Worst of all, addiction to games may lead to increased capacities for aggression (Skalski and Fitzpatrick 273). This risk of addiction is further complicated by the fact that video games are becoming increasingly realistic, and that the increase of violent behaviors in games increases the risks that are associated with these behaviors (Skalski and Fitzpatrick 274).
The most disturbing fact about the effects of violent games on youth is not the previously stated evidence, or even the effects themselves, but simply the fact that research on the issue as a whole is so weak and thin (Freedman 42), and there are still many questions that people are asking that have not been answered sufficiently. Part of the problem lies simply in the fact that the medium as a whole is relatively new, and, because of that, the content has not been as thoroughly analyzed as that of movies or TV (Sherry 285). Additionally, results on the effects of violent video games thus far are mostly similar to those on TV and movie violence (Wagner par. 4), and it seems as though most researchers have just assumed that video games are as simple in their effect on users as those other mediums. Another complicating factor lies in the fact that the results of experimental studies on the effects of video games have been mixed. Some have found a link between violent video games and aggression, while others have found no link or even a decrease in aggression as a result of such exposure (Ferguson26). Brake concludes that, if a connection between video games and violence exists, it is only one of many factors (269). Obviously, there is a lot for parents and those concerned with the fate of youth to be worried about. But, given so much inconsistent evidence, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what we all should be most concerned about.
Another problem is the fact that this issue is much more complex than first meets the eye. While Anderson’s research is certainly a cause for concern, there is evidence that suggests that he is not seeing the whole picture. The correlation between media violence and aggression raises the possibility that it causes children to be aggressive, but it is still only a possibility. The challenge is proving causality (Freedman 45). In other words, the fact that video games can cause aggression holds very little significance if it does not specifically increase long-term aggression. The other main concern is that playing video games will lead children to become violent criminals. However, the evidence for school shooters does not support the idea that their playing of violent games has a direct effect on their decision to shoot (Ferguson 29); and, youth violence has decreased significantly over the last decade, so much that, according to Kutner and Olson, “You are more likely to be struck and killed by lightning than to die in a school shooting” (8). Just because criminals sometimes blame violent video games such as Grand Theft Auto for their actions doesn’t mean that they’re telling the truth. It’s common for criminals to place blame for their actions on something else, including video games (Ferguson 34).
The overall trends in violent crime do not support the correlation between increased aggression and violent acts, either. According to a survey by Griffiths and Hunt, only 12% of school violence perpetrators expressed interest in violent video games, as compared to over 90% of non-violent males who play violent video games (Ferguson29). Additionally, if violent video game sales have increased in recent years, violent crimes have actually decreased dramatically (Ferguson33). Given this evidence, it really does not seem logical to blame all of society’s problems on violent video games. And, if short-term aggression does not lead to long-term aggression or violent behavior, thenAnderson’s research is insignificant.
There is, however, further evidence suggesting that not only isAnderson’s evidence inconsequential, but it may also be outright false. First off,Anderson’s research is the only one of its kind out there. So, even with his conclusions, “Neither the quality nor quantity of research on video games does much to inspire confidence in solid conclusions about their effects” (Kutner and Olson 58). Also, studies that take into account variables such as personality, family violence or genetics find that these variables weaken the link between video game violence and aggression (Ferguson27).Anderson’s studies did not consider these variables. Freedman even concluded that, “due to weak evidence, exposure to media violence does not cause aggression, or if it does the effects are so weak that they cannot be detected and must therefore be vanishingly small” (200-201). It can be concluded that, whileAndersonhad good intentions, his studies may have been at least partially influenced by politics
Politics, in fact, have played a large role in the lynching of video games in the media as the cause of all of our youth’s violence. “Video games present something of a ‘straw man’ by which politicians can create an appearance of taking action against crime” (Ferguson 30). The media contributes to these biases, often paying “greater attention to negative news about video games than to positive news as it better suits their agendas” (Ferguson30). The most egregious example of these biases is the shooting at Virginia Tech. Pundits were quick to blame video games for the shooter’s behavior, even though “police found no video games, consoles or other equipment when they searched his room” (Kutner and Olson 195). Another contributor to these biases is simply the generation gap between legislators and members of the media and young adults and children, who are the primary players of video games (Kutner and Olson 201).
All of these biases lead to a moral panic, where frightened, uninformed parents take the war on video games to a legislative battle. “As moral panic develops, research is ‘cherry picked’ that supports the panic. Research supportive of the moral is accepted without question,” whereas research that questions the panic is ignored (Ferguson32). This moral panic came to a head when the Illinois Legislature’s 2005 bill to ban the sale of violent video games to minors was presented to the State Court by Craig Anderson and Florida Attorney and anti-video game activist Jack Thompson. Although it was a state battle, national attention was focused on the decision of this court, as their decision could influence other states to take similar action against video games.U.S.District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly saw through the political posturing and moral panic, however, when he discredited the merit of Anderson’s research. “Dr. Anderson provided no evidence supporting the view that playing violent video games has a lasting effect on aggressive thoughts and behavior—in other words, an effect that lingers more than a short time after the player stops playing the game” (Kutner and Olson 203). Kennelly also took a stand against political influence in the family household. “If controlling access to allegedly ‘dangerous’ speech is important in promoting the positive psychological development of children, in our society that role is properly accorded to parents and families, not the state” (Kutner and Olson 205).
Despite all of these issues, the most important issue for parents has not yet been raised. Using video games—or any other kind of media for that matter—as a scapegoat for the problems of our youth shifts the focus away from the much more important and pressing issues regarding the way children are raised, which include “a range of social, behavioral, economic, biological and mental health factors” (Kutner and Olson 190). Kutner and Olson conclude that there is little evidence that solving the violent media debate will solve our violent crime problem (108), and that, compared to other factors in the children’s environment, the influence of media exposure is relatively small (121). In the meantime, however, what is to be done with video games?
The solution for parents is to make video games work for their family rather than against them. Each family should decide for themselves how to do this, but here are a few tips. Children often incorporate their parents’ values and judgments into their interpretations of the violence they see in video games (Kutner and Olson 218). Given good values and judgments, they will be able to take these judgments and apply them to their confrontations in the virtual world. Another tip is to simply let children play video games, particularly because “the appeal of violent video games is likely related to normal sensation-seeking and to testing the limits of acceptability” (Kutner and Olson 116). Furthermore, playing with violent themes helps children overcome being frightened. The emotional arousal caused by these games lets the children experiment with these sensations when they know they’re safe (Kutner and Olson 119). It’s also important to know that, for many young players, video gaming is a very social activity, whether kids are playing Halo at their friends’ houses or World of Warcraft online, where they are likely to make interactions with new people and perhaps make new friends. Defeating a real person in a game helps children figure out social relationships (Kutner and Olson, 130-131). So, allowing them to play with friends lets them form these important bonds themselves. Also, be aware of the real-world violence that is going on in or around your household. Realistic violence, like on the news, is thought to be more likely to desensitize children than video game violence, which children often know is fake (Kutner and Olson 107). Finally, it’s important to know that some children are more vulnerable to the influence of media, while others are more resistant (Kutner and Olson 121). In other words, parents should know their children and their limitations.
It’s important to understand than not all video games are appropriate for children to play. However, it’s also important to realize that video games have some distinctly positive benefits for children. Some educators believe that many electronic games, even those that are not explicitly educational, can help children learn (Brake 270). Video games have also been used as a form of physiotherapy, and can improve hand-eye coordination. Game play has also been cited as a positive influence on nonverbal portions of IQ tests (Brake 271). Some children have used games that include aerobic exercise, like Dance Dance Revolution or Wii Fit, in weight reduction plans, and P.E. programs and gyms have begun to use them as well (Kutner and Olson 216). Video games are also very positive for children with learning disabilities, particularly ADD, because, in the virtual world, they can truly succeed at something while coping with their feelings of anger or isolation (Kutner and Olson 134-135). Finally, while a major concern for many parents is that their children will not be able to fully understand the real-world consequences of their actions in the virtual world; there is evidence to suggest that that is not the case. In Kutner and Olson’s studies of middle-school youth, the kids understood the real-world consequences that acting like their favorite game character would have, and expressed a desire to avoid such consequences (122). It appears as though children are actually keenly aware of the real-world consequences of their actions in video games, perhaps more often than many parents might give them credit for.
The increased levels of violence in video games have led to much controversy, including political grandstanding and plenty of concerns from parents and lawmakers. Lost in the mix, however, is the true problem: thinking that simply getting rid of video games to solve all of the problems of youth causes parents and lawmakers to ignore more pertinent issues regarding the current state of youth and how to properly raise them. And, while video game violence and its effect on aggression and criminality in adolescents is an important debate with valid concerns, it does not mean that parents should simply look for a scapegoat to fit our preconceived notions. Rather, parents should examine the evidence, and then draw their conclusions based upon that evidence. Based upon that evidence, it’s easy to see that, although we should remain vigilant and alert in regards to the potentially harmful effects of video games and violent media in general, video games alone will not transform a child into a hardened criminal. Ultimately, while it is important for parents to know their children and their limits, they should also understand that if a kid or teenager goes out and kills someone, video games have been the least of his/her problems.
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