Video games still don’t cause violence
The needlessly-provocative headline and the fact that his piece in no way supports it?
Perhaps the appeal to scientific authority that depends on a selective reading of the alleged “consensus”?
Or maybe this odd statement:
“Common sense says that consuming any media will have a psychological, chemical effect on the brain, and often (but not always) a physiological effect on behavior. We know this because the same holds true for everything we do: regularly viewing pornography can lead to desensitization during actual intimacy, performance anxiety, and low libido[.]”
Appealing to “common sense” is always risky, but this seems rather egregious. I don’t think that this is common sense at all – although fans of Pat Robertson and James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” might disagree.
There’s also this childish and completely unnecessary slight to the academic I cited:
I won’t deny that Dr. Mr. Kierkegaard did in fact find what he claims he found in the subjects he tested.
Mr. Wilbur seems to mainly object to the Kierkegaard paper I cited in my essay, which itself was never meant to be academic.
The Kierkegaard paper I cited was about how existing “studies” on the connection between video games and violence were at best inconclusive, and at worst, designed specifically to find a positive result. Nicholas Wilbur’s objections to it seem mostly based on statements that Kierkegaard took pains to point out he wasn’t making, and Wilbur goes on to cite a lot of scientific research that shows that video games cause “spikes” in aggressive “expectation” and ideation.
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but no shit.
Nick’s appeal to scientific authority is worth poking holes in – particularly his careful excision of this sentence in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ July 26, 2000 “Joint Statement on The Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children”:
Although less research has been done on the impact of violent interactive entertainment (video games and other interactive media) on young people, preliminary studies indicate that the negative impact may be significantly more severe than that wrought by television, movies, or music. More study is needed in this area, and we urge that resources and attention be directed to this field, [sic]
He also cites this Ohio State study, which purports to be the “first experimental evidence that the negative effects of playing violent video games can accumulate over time.” This is a study with an N of 70, conducted on a homogenous group of French university students over a period of… wait for it… three days. And it claims to provide evidence that the supposed “violence-causing” effects of video games are akin to the cancer-causing effects of smoking cigarettes.
No, really. I’m not making this up. Here’s study co-author Brad Brushman:
“Playing video games could be compared to smoking cigarettes. A single cigarette won’t cause lung cancer, but smoking over weeks or months or years greatly increases the risk. In the same way, repeated exposure to violent video games may have a cumulative effect on aggression.”
I’m sorry, but this statement is laughable, given the study’s methodology. Seventy French university students – this includes the control group – over three days, and you reach this conclusion? I’d say this rather proves Kierkegaard’s point.
But let’s grant Nick his “science” for the moment. Do video games cause spikes in brain chemistry associated with aggression? Well, why wouldn’t they? If you drop me into Doom or Gears of War, I have to move my character around aggressively and shoot demons and “the locust” respectively. Playing non-aggressively doesn’t work – you get fake killed and have to start the level over.
In which of Nick’s cited studies are these “aggression peaks” in brain chemistry compared to the neurologic effects of other activities – like, say, high school football, game hunting, or intramural wrestling? They’re not – which again proves Kierkegaard’s point, which is that the research done so far on video games and behavior have been designed with a specific result in mind. And nowhere does anyone credibly claim that these surges in “aggression” lead to actual violent ideation or behavior.
So rather than turn this into a battle of Lexis-Nexis/JSTOR searches, let’s do some actual science right here. I’ll apologize in advance for being a bit of a pedant, but it feels necessary at the moment. Here’s how it works: You formulate a theory to explain some phenomenon – let’s say, “When kids play violent games, they mimic that behavior and become more likely to be violent themselves.”
From this naturally flows testable hypotheses. Let’s make one: “In places where people play more video games, more people will act violently.” Now, when you conduct an experiment, you don’t set out to prove the hypothesis. Instead, you try to disprove the “null” hypothesis – the exact opposite of what your theory says should happen. In this case, the null hypothesis is this: “In places where people play more video games, violence will show no change or will be reduced.”
If we can show that the null is not the case, our hypothesis will stand. Let’s go to the data, helpfully provided by the Washington Post:
Oh dear. From this chart, it looks like increased video game use tracks with decreased violence — well, except in the United States, the clear outlier. That doesn’t help our little theory much. It definitely doesn’t disprove the null – which means we have no choice but to reject our positive hypothesis and admit that we simply can’t show that video games cause violence.
And Nick doesn’t seem to disagree with this. Other than maligning an accomplished researcher, I’m not really sure what his point is. If it’s about our “culture of violence” and how we need to engage that discussion, who is he arguing against? Not me, certainly. But let’s be clear about the directionality of “culture” – that’s something we create, not something that’s simply foisted upon us. When I was little, my brother Zach and I watched “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” religiously on Saturday morning, and our mom begrudgingly bought us the beefy action figures that the show relentlessly advertised. Her stipulation was that we could only have the “good guys,” and refused to provide us with the Skeletor and Beast-Man figures we so dearly wanted to have our He-Mans beat up. But I happen to know several former “Battle-Damage” Skeletor owners who have grown up to be very pleasant people. Others have wound up being assholes, but Skeletor wasn’t the problem.
It was around this same time that my grandmother bought us an Atari 2600, and I’ve been playing games – including incredibly violent ones – since then. I played Doom and Quake religiously in the ‘90s, and bought a first-gen Xbox and the ultra-violent Ninja Gaiden while stationed in Korea in 2003. I know what “gibbing” means and laugh when I see it happen on my screen (most recently, like, yesterday, in the fantastic real-time strategy PC Warhammer 40,000 franchise game Dawn of War II. Dumb Orks).
By the standards and conclusions reached in the studies my friend Nick cites, I should by now be a case study in violent psychosis – remember, these “aggressive” tendencies are supposedly cumulative. But as just about anyone who knows me can tell you, in real life I’m pretty chill – non-aggressive to a fault, I’d say. Over the course of my life, I’ve been in one actual fight – and that was with my brother on Christmas so it hardly counts.
None of this is to say that all content is appropriate for children, and I’ve never claimed that it was. A Twitter friend, after seeing me rave about Rockstar Games’ (of Grand Theft Auto infamy) triumphant Red Dead Redemption, asked me if it was a game he should get for his 12-year-old son. I unequivocally said no – Red Dead Redemption is full of killing and cursing, involves depictions of rape, and has a very Western-genre storyline that is unsuitable for kids. And so does Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Parents need to be involved in monitoring the content their kids consume, and as an adult, I’m responsible for what I consume. To help, the games industry, like the film industry, has voluntarily adopted a content-rating schema to prevent children from purchasing games with overly violent, sexual, or drug-related content.
As long as we have horrific massacres like the one in Sandy Hook, we’ll have people looking for scapegoats – they’ve done it with comic books, with rock and then rap music, and with movies. Basically the blame goes to anything poorly-understood by “adults.” Degenerate youth, you read the wrong things. You listen to the wrong things. You watch the wrong things. And now you play the wrong games. This is intellectually and morally lazy, provides cover for the parties actually responsible for the tragedy, and vilifies the innocent.
If Nicholas wants to “have the discussion,” I’m all for it. And maybe he should play a game or two – he might find out the discussion about violence is already happening.
Nota bene: For the TL;DR version of this, see John “TotalBiscuit” Bain’s brilliant YouTube video commentary on tragedy and violence. I got the WaPo chart from him.
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