If you have kids around you – your own kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, students, or little neighbors – I can safely assume that electronic video games are a part of your life. Like the Internet, they are everywhere. They exist on our desktop computers, laptops, handhelds, cell phones, iPods, and on the web. We also play them on dedicated gaming devices such as a PlayStation, PlayStation Portable (PSP), Gameboy, Xbox, Xbox 360, Sega Genesis, Gamecube, Nintendo 64, and so on. Even these are becoming multifaceted, helping its users to access a fountain of media. For example, in addition to playing games, the PSP allows the user to listen to music, view photos, watch videos, and connect wirelessly to the Internet. Video games are also becoming increasingly realistic. I bet you too have noticed that they are now quite sophisticated, vivid, and realistic in nature – and getting more so every year. In fact, it is known that one of the goals of the electronic video gaming industry is to make video games so realistic that, for example, you will not be able to tell the difference between a live broadcast of a boxing match and one that is being played via a video game console. My estimation is that this goal will be achieved before this decade ends.
Because video games provide realistic experiences that are unattainable and/or inappropriate in the real world, they have become part of a multibillion dollar industry that continues to show great promise for profits. According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) 2006 report entitled Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry (see http://www.theesa.com), I shouldn’t worry too much about video games and children because:
- 69% of people who play video games are actually head of households;
- The average age of gamers is 33 (Although fully 31% of gamers are under the age of eighteen). It seems as if an entire generation that began gaming as children has kept playing;
- The average age of the most frequent game purchaser is 40;
- Games rated as mature are only a small portion (15%) of the video sold that are rated for teens or for everyone;
- 89% of parents are present with their children during the time video games are purchased;
- 61% of parents believe that video games are a positive part of their children’s lives;
- Parents play video games with their children when they are asked to and because they view it as a fun activity for the entire family. They also view game playing as a good opportunity to socialize and supervise their children;
- Gamers devote more than triple the amount of time spent playing games each week to exercising or playing sports, volunteering in the community, religious activities, creative endeavors, cultural activities, and reading (79% of game players of all ages report exercising or playing sports an average of 20 hours a month.)
So, according to the ESA, video games are indeed pervasive although mostly used among adults who are playing games, more often than not, that are rated as appropriate for teenagers or younger. These adults seem to be getting plenty of exercise and do spend some kind of time with their kids. But I’m still concerned. Why? Because there are still millions of children playing video games; because chances are pretty good that many are playing electronic games that are violent and sexual in nature; because there exists some parents who may be role modeling excessive, maybe inappropriate video game playing; and because the jury is still out on the effects of various types of games on child development, behavior, and academic achievement to name a few.
That last sentence, ... the jury is still out on the effects of various types of games on child development, behavior, and academic achievement, may have taken you by surprise. When we learn about video games from the popular print, television, and related media, we are led to believe that we are nurturing a new generation of bullies, terrorists, womanizers, and murderers (note that the media typically focuses on violent games and not other more educationally oriented games). Read the research, however, and you’ll notice a sense of uncertainty and even misleading conclusions. Some research shows some short-term increases in aggression after playing violent video games, even when controlling for other variables such as levels of pre-existing mental and intellectual conditions. Other research shows no effects. Yet other research on the effects of violent video games are so poorly designed, it doesn’t matter what they show, the results are unreliable. The best studies in this area are correlational in nature, not causational. (Note that the extent of research in this area is relatively lacking, probably due to the very difficult nature of controlling for the many human variables that could make a difference in outcomes). What this means is that there seems to be a short term relationship or connection between playing violent games and increased aggression among players though it is quite uncertain that playing the games caused or led to the increased aggression.
Many alternative explanations exist for the connection between playing violent video games and increases in real live aggression. For instance, it could be that a child who is showing increased levels of aggression could be reacting to other factors such as a divorce or death. And it is the increased aggression that actually causes increased video game playing of a violent nature. That is, life events may change levels of aggression which in turn has an affect on our preferences for the types of video games we seek out. It could also be that your gender may play a part in how you are affected by video games. A larger percentage of males tend to play video games deemed as violent as compared to females (about 62% of males versus 38% of females). Also, there is some evidence to suggest that males are more desensitized to interpersonal conflict after exposure to media violence than females. Another explanation may involve personality factors such as temperament which also appears to have a role. People with mental health problems or those viewing media violence under the influence of alcohol or drugs might also be susceptible to violence. Individuals with mental health problems might believe the images they see and, as a result, transpose representations of violent behavior onto themselves, affecting their view of self and others around them.74
One court case in particular illuminated the disparity between what the media portrays and what others propose to be the overall truth. The case was described in a Brief Amici Curiae of Thirty-three Media Scholars in Interactive Digital Software Association, et al. v. St. Louis County, et al. The summary of the argument goes like this:
Both the St. Louis County Council, in passing Ordinance #20.193, and the district court, in upholding it, relied on the assumption that video games containing “graphic violence” cause violent behavior. The Council heard testimony from psychologist Craig Anderson that playing violent video games “for as short as 10 to 15 minutes” causes “aggressive behavior” and, more broadly, that “there is a causal connection between viewing violent movies and TV programs and violent acts.” The trial court relied on these statements, adding that according to Anderson, video games are “addictive” and “provide a complete learning environment for aggression.”
Both the County Council and the court were mistaken. Most studies and experiments on video games containing violent content have not found adverse effects. Researchers who do report positive results have generally relied on small statistical differences and used dubious “proxies” for aggression, such as recognizing “aggressive words” on a computer screen. Indeed, research on media violence more generally has also failed to prove that it causes – or is even a “risk factor” for – actual violent behavior. As psychologist Guy Cumberbatch noted:
The real puzzle is that anyone looking at the research evidence in this field could draw any conclusions about the pattern, let alone argue with such confidence and even passion that it demonstrates the harm of violence on television, in film and in video games. While tests of statistical significance are a vital tool of the social sciences, they seem to have been more often used in this field as instruments of torture on the data until it confesses something which could justify publication in a scientific journal. If one conclusion is possible, it is that the jury is not still out. It’s never been in. Media violence has been subjected to lynch mob mentality with almost any evidence used to prove guilt. 75
This torturing of research data on media effects has been driven by a “causal hypothesis” held by some psychologists, that youngsters will imitate fantasy violence. There is some common-sense appeal to this hypothesis. But seemingly common-sense notions do not always turn out to be correct. And researchers’ attempts to reduce the myriad effects of art and entertainment to numerical measurements and artificial laboratory experiments are not likely to yield useful insights about the way that viewers actually use popular culture. Likewise, in a field as complex as human aggression, it is questionable whether quantitative studies can ever provide an adequately nuanced description of the interacting influences that cause some people to become violent.
Violent crime rates across the United States have fallen significantly in the past decade, even while fantasy violence in entertainment has increased – and while video games, especially violent ones, have become a staggeringly popular form of entertainment. Youth violence in particular has seen dramatic reductions. This does not mean that youth violence is not a serious problem – or for that matter, that media messages do not have powerful effects. But those effects are much more diverse and difficult to quantify than believers in the causal hypothesis generally acknowledge. And efforts to address real-world violence by censoring entertainment are profoundly misguided. 76
On the other hand, when looking at the larger body of evidence as a whole as compared to individual studies, there does seem to be some legitimate concern. Dr. Craig A. Anderson, a distinguished professor at Iowa State University’s Department of Psychology, has reviewed the last 50 years of research on media violence and aggression and has this to say:
On average there is a clear effect: exposure to media violence (including violent video games) increases subsequent aggression. Some of the few contradictory studies can be explained as being the result of poor methods, others may suffer from a too small sample size. But the main point is that even well conducted studies with appropriate sample sizes will not yield identical results. For this reason, any general statements about a research domain must focus on the pooled results, not on individual studies.77
As you can start to see, playing violent video games, especially among children, is a controversial topic on many fronts – political, educational, spiritual, personal, and social. The primary message that I want to convey to parents and other adults who take care of children is this: video games are kind of like breakfast cereal – there are plenty to choose from and some are healthier than others. The whole family can enjoy them and they are an important part of an overall sensible and well-balanced lifestyle. Balance and moderation is key. Like all technology, I believe that the benefits and risks of video gaming among children must be ultimately determined by their caretakers and, as a result, have an impact on how they parent.
- Philo G. (1997). The media and mental distress. London: Longman Group United Kingdom.
- Cumberbatch, G. (2004). Video Violence: Villain or Victim? A review of the research evidence concerning media violence and its effects in the real world with additional reference to video games. Available online: http://tinyurl.com/3xgyr4
- Brief amici curiae of thirty-three media scholars in interactive digital software Ass’n, et Al. V. St. Louis County, et Al. (September 24, 2002). Available online: http://www.fepproject.org/courtbriefs/stlouis.html
- Anderson, C. (2002). FAQs on violent video games and other media violence. Available online: http://tinyurl.com/anuj4
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