It is unfair for me to write about the issue of games and violence without acknowledging that I am not inclined to believe there is a causal relationship. I have played games my entire life even Wolfenstein when I was barely old enough to understand basic DOS. I learned to read and write by playing adventure games. I also do not have children, so these thoughts are all coming from a person with no experience raising a child. So go to your kitchen and fetch a salt shaker. Now lick your wrist. Pour salt on that spot then lick that.
This post was originally meant to be a comparison between two books, one claiming games make you violent and the other claiming they do not. Unfortunately, neither selected book really made a good case for either argument. The leading book that claims there is a causal relationship is Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents. Written by Craig Anderson, Douglas Gentile, and Katherine Buckley, it summarizes three studies of varying types that test the correlation between aggressive behavior and playing video games. The book pretty much shoots itself in the foot right off the bat by establishing a problematic definition of aggressive behavior. It must be “(a) a behavior that is intended to harm another individual, (b) the behavior is expected by the perpetrator to have some chance of actually harming that individual, and (c) the perpetrator believes that the target individual is motivated to avoid the harm.” (13) The problem is that the book is a study of children and adolescents. How many small children wrestling with one another have a large enough comprehension of consequences and intent to be able to consciously register any of these things? The book is rife with moments where what’s being claimed contradicts common sense and the definition of aggression. For example, a lengthy exposition of why studies on aggression during the 1990s are flawed due to socioeconomic upbringing is generally considered bad because kids from privileged backgrounds are already less likely to be violent. Your common sense should kick in here: if the connection between games and violence is literally that playing them makes you more aggressive, why does wealth undermine it so drastically? Some difference is to be expected, but it doesn’t help the argument that playing the games by themselves is inherently bad for a child.
That’s pretty much the theme of the book. A study where small boys play a violent game and are then as individuals are put in isolation with another boy showed that a high percentage of these boys started wrestling. Why this is conclusive proof of a causal connection is never really explored. Kids like to wrestle, what about this is unusual? All of these tests involve isolated lab experiments or questionnaires that track self-reported behavior. Although this methodology is useful for proving something like smoking being the cause of lung cancer, something like aggressive behavior is just too vast and complicated. An aggressive act doesn’t occur in a void, nor is the perpetrator necessarily going to give an accurate account of their own conduct. Although the book repeatedly claims to control for variables like socioeconomic background, you can’t help but wonder “Control what exactly?” Whether or not there is a bully in the subject’s class? She’s having a bad day? At one point the text takes great pains to assure me that I am misinterpreting the data if I think it doesn’t prove anything, and that a trained psychologist is the only one who can best explain it. Fortunately, such claims don’t hold much weight because they wouldn’t last five minutes in a court of law. As several federal judges that the book’s authors testified before have pointed out, doesn’t it make more sense that aggressive children also like aggressive video games?
The book that chose to focus on proving that there is no causal relationship between aggression and aggressive games was Grand Theft Childhood. The problem is that the book doesn’t disprove it, most of its findings back up what the other book found: there is a correlation between the two. Kids who play M-rated games excessively are more likely to get into fights, have problems at school, and engage in aggressive conduct. It’s just not clear what that means or which behavior is causing the other. The book decides to approach this from a common sense point of view. Throughout history people have reacted strongly to new media by claiming that it is causing violence and corruption. Radio, television, and comic books have all received similar treatment from politicians, doctors, and religious leaders. Most of this discussion is targeting parents; there is an impressive amount of money to be made by claiming that something is harming YOUR child. Studies that prove that games cause violence get more attention and grant money. Politicians, such as the Governor of Louisiana during post-Katrina politics, can cover up their abysmal failure as leaders by changing the subject and jabbering about saving children. Most scientific studies cited by politicians and religious leaders in these moments are taken drastically out of context or have been cited and diluted so many times that they are now more fiction than fact.
From South Park
The most refreshing thing about the book was actually the secondary analysis that studied things like which gender preferred games with story (boys do, but only by about 10%) or the prime motivators for playing games being pride and competition. There was a connection between depression and excessive gaming as an escape. Much like the violence connection, however, it’s not really clear that the game is actually making the person more depressed, just that it is a noticeable symptom.
The book ends with a lengthy section about how parents can better understand the content of games and how kids will manipulate their parents into buying violent products. It’s difficult to be sympathetic towards these complaints because parents will usually refuse to play the game themselves to get a grip on what’s going on. I’m not really inclined to support that attitude. At least the Mom who played GTA IV for an hour before banning her children from it understands what’s going on. The book draws on this discussion to emphasize that most kids absorb their parents values and that the more that they discuss banning something, the more attractive it is to a child for potentially generating artificial thrills rather than in its actual appeal. In other words, they’re just playing it because you made such a big deal out of it. The last few chapters are a weird glossing of various issues like the idea that games are blamed for obesity or stupidity. As with the games and violence argument, the chief function of the book is to disprove the causal relationship by pointing out that we don’t really know either way.
Frankly, in the case of both books, I don’t think anyone involved understands a thing about video games or even the nuances of individual titles. Neither of the book’s authors actually plays games, though Grand Theft Childhood did a solid effort at getting a basic understanding of distinctions between genres. I have trouble praising it since most of its arguments are just a rehash of the things Henry Jenkins was writing about long before anyone else. The problem is that there are cultural norms and preconceptions built up over the past thirty years that are rarely accounted for in these studies. For example, someone going on a massive killing spree is not odd in an FPS. I realize that visually it looks like I’m engaging in mass murder but that’s barely even a conscious thought for the average gamer who is engaging in a ludic experience. However, someone playing Tomb Raider but only progressing so that they can find unique places to make Lara Croft drown is definitely behaving in a disturbing manner. That’s the main problem with either book. They’re written by people who don’t play games enough to explain them to other people who don’t play games. That works about as well as you’d expect.