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Virtual Violence

Video games, especially so-called “violent” games, are the latest in a long string of new entertainment media to be accused of “ruining the youth of America.” Video games as the cause of all sorts of societal ills have been preceded by dime novels, comic books, violent TV shows, and movies and songs with sexy or racy lyrics. In 2002, Gerard Jones published Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence (Basic Books), the first book, as far as I know, to critically examine the hysteria over alleged effects of make-believe violence in the media on children. It focused on all media, not just video games, and concluded that such media posed no threat.

Moral Combat (book cover)

Since Jones’ 2002 book, video games, especially violent video games (hereinafter VVGs), have been the focus of worry that VVGs lead to adolescent violence, even school shootings (think Columbine), and are as addictive and dangerous as drugs. Markey and Ferguson show in their new book Moral Combat that not only are video games, even the violent first-person shooter games, innocent of the charges made against them, video games can and do have positive influences on their players. The authors begin with a brief history of video games and other supposedly harmful media. For example, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, a crusader against comic books, believed that comics caused juvenile delinquency and that Batman and Robin encouraged homosexuality. His 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent (Rinehart) was an important part of the crusade against comics. It turns out that Wertham “overstated and potentially even fabricated much of his data” (p. 32) that he used to castigate comics.

The crusade against video games is a moral panic akin to that seen in the panic over ritual satanic child abuse.

Markey and Ferguson argue, correctly in my view, that the crusade against video games is a moral panic akin to that seen in the panic over ritual satanic child abuse. Throughout the book they make the interesting point that the crusade is led by those who have little familiarity with the video games they attack, the gamers involved, or the gaming culture that has grown up around the games. They note that the researchers who do research aimed at showing the games’ deleterious effects are largely older individuals who have little knowledge of the gamers or contact with the gamers.

The anti-game moral panic has been heavily fueled by laboratory studies that purport to show that playing VVGs leads to increased aggressive behaviors. It was these studies that led to condemnation of the games by such organizations as the American Psychological Association. The APA group that wrote the condemnation of games was packed with anti-game researchers who evaluated their own research. Certainly nothing could be fairer!

The research on which the condemnation was based was shoddy. The laboratory conditions under which games’ effects were tested were very different from playing in the real world. Typically, gamers played a game new to them for a short period of time. They were then given some test of aggressiveness. As gamers know, playing a new game can be frustrating at first. When other studies controlled for the frustration effects, the so-called aggression effects went away. I say “so-called” because the measures of aggression were, to say the least, unrealistic. Subjects who played games were “more likely to expose others to loud, irritating noises, report feeling more hostile on a questionnaire, give longer prison sentences to hypothetical criminals” or, my personal favorite, “give hot sauce to people who do not like spicy food” (p. 54). Happily, the great popularity of VVGs seems not to have resulted in a rash of miscreants sneaking around surreptitiously putting hot sauce in innocent peoples’ meals. I’m so relieved!

By far the most serious charge against VVGs is that they are involved in school shootings, the worst being the 2012 slaughter of 20 children by Adam Lanza. At least one uninformed initial comment from law enforcement held that Lanza thought that carrying out the shooting would be like accumulating points in a VVG. In fact, Lanza did play a video game with what might be called obsessive interest. But it wasn’t a violent one; it was a dance game, Dance, Dance Revolution, in which the player gets points for being a better dancer. The reality of the relationship between VVGs and school shooters is the exact opposite of the school shooter stereotype. School shooters are much less likely to have been involved in VVGs than normal, non-shooters. Nonetheless, this stereotype has been ensconced in lists of “warning signs” of possible school violence.

The finding that shooters are less likely than others to play VVGs leads naturally to the question of why this is so. After all, if shooters are alienated loners and game players are also loners, shouldn’t shooters be game players? The answer to this seeming contradiction is that game players are far from the social isolates that older observers and non-gamers perceive them to be. Certainly, there are those individuals that live in their mother’s basement playing games all day. But they are the exception. Especially as gaming has become more popular, it has evolved into a much more social activity in which multiple gamers can play together. The authors describe research that shows “that most games are played in very functional social networks and are in fact social outlets for the people who play them” (p. 174) and that “particularly young people use video games to develop and maintain friendships” (p. 175). A quick Google search showed that there are numerous video game clubs (called meetups) and on-line newsletters for and about games and gamers. This sounds to me very much more social than that very socially approved hobby that I spend a good deal of time (and money) on—stamp collecting.

As if school shooters weren’t bad enough, video games are also said to be addictive, like a drug, even releasing quantities of dopamine when gamers play. In an outburst of hysteria typical of moral panics, on July 8, 2014 the British newspaper The Sun stated that video games were “as big a health risk as alcohol and drug abuse.” Does playing video games release dopamine? Of course it does. So does any other fun and pleasurable pastime. But the amount of dopamine released in gaming is dwarfed by that released by drugs. Drug addiction is qualitatively and quantitively different from game playing.

Having said that, do some gamers spend too much time and money on their games? Of course they do. And that can be a problem. But compare gaming to stamp collecting, as I did above. I’ve collected stamps since I was in grade school, as many did then. I spent a great deal of time playing and working with my stamps, and I was a bit of a loner for it. I know adults who fit the loner profile. I knew of children and adults who stole to support the philatelic habit. And I’m sure I get a nice squirt of dopamine in my nucleus accumbens when I finally obtain a desired stamp for my collection. And yet, during the heyday of stamp collecting, no one condemned it as a dire threat to the youth of America.

If games have no real negative consequences for the great majority of players, do they have any benefits? The answer here is yes. I noted above that modern gaming is a very social activity. It may help bring individuals who would otherwise be loners out of their shell and help them learn to interact with others as they engage in an enjoyable social activity. As to claims that game playing has beneficial cognitive effects for the young and the elderly, the evidence is less clear. My read is that there is some data showing that game playing may improve motor coordination, which is nice. As to claims that brain-training games can improve cognitive function in the aged or even slow down Alzheimer’s Disease, not only do these claims lack any evidential support, there is much evidence that they are false. It is true that playing a specific game makes you much better on that specific game, but there is little or no transfer of learning to other situations. The entire brain training industry is selling electronic snake oil.

Moral Combat presents a thorough and well-referenced look at the actual effects of video games. The writing is never pedantic and is often humorous. It is an enjoyable and informative read. In the end, it is clear that video games, violent or otherwise, don’t need to have large beneficial effects to justify their existence and use. They just need to be harmless fun, which they are. END

About the Author

Dr. Terence Hines is a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at the Psychology Department, Pace University, Pleasantville, NY and adjunct professor of neurology at New York Medical College in Valhalla, NY. His research focuses on paranormal belief, the cognitive representation of numbers and, when he has time, the nature of bilingual memory. He is the author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. He received his undergraduate education at Duke University and his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. When not cogitating about brain stuff, he transforms into a student of how data from local postal activity of the 19th century in the US can illuminate the economic history of that time period.

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