TCS Daily


Game Off?

By John Luik - December 2, 2005 12:00 AM

Ever since Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) weighed in on video games in late summer -- alleging them responsible for "a silent epidemic of media desensitization" and for "stealing the innocence of our children" -- there has been a chorus of criticism about the games. One video in particular, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a violent game that had hidden sex scenes, attracted so many complaints that the Federal Trade Commission is scheduled to begin an investigation. The game was even banned in Australia.

Sen. Clinton's worries about video games have now been joined by those of the National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) which has just issued its 10th annual review of the video game industry. According to its "MediaWise and Computer Game Report Card", which was released at a press conference with David Walsh, president and founder of NIMF and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the game industry continues to put America's kids at risk by producing games that while immensely profitable, are increasingly violent and sexually explicit.

For some, these complaints about video games are nothing more than a reflection of the cultural and generational divide between those below and above age 40. For instance, the Economist recently noted that "The opposition to gaming springs largely from the neophobia that has pitted the old against the entertainments of the young for centuries. Most gamers are under 40, and most critics are non-games-playing over 40s." That may well be true, though studies suggest that about half of Americans play some sort of video game. As for age and bias, I am both not a game player and rather regrettably well past 40, but the evidence leads me to side with the kids who want to play.

The real case against video games, however, is more than simply a difference of opinion about a new media form pitting old against young. Since the time of Socrates, new forms of expression and art have been met with skepticism, but the skeptics have never divided neatly along age lines. With video games, the critics' case centers around three specific worries: that the games are in some sense addictive; that they retard the development of skills, particularly social skills, in the young and lead to their atrophy in the not so young; and that they encourage violence.

The claim about addiction is difficult, not least because the term is so ubiquitous and thus so meaningless. Americans are supposedly addicted to a never-ending list of things, but with so many of these addiction claims the central element seems to be nothing more than liking something that someone, somewhere believes is bad for you.

With video games the addiction claim appears to be that they promote excessive use in that they absorb too much time. Boys, for instance, play on average a dozen hours a week, girls about half of that. It's difficult to make sense of this argument since there's no clear evidence that doing something for 12 hours a week constitutes addiction, and a good many studies suggest that kids watch television on average over 20 hours a week.

As for the more serious side of addiction, the social science evidence increasingly suggests that individuals are rarely addicted to just one thing, as the old image of the drug addict suggests. Instead, addiction researchers suggest that it makes more sense to speak about an addictive personality which has characteristics that lead to compulsive behavior in multiple ways. In other words, the focus of addiction research has moved from the substances of addiction to the addicted personality. This means that the addiction claims about video games have the causality moving in the wrong direction. Rather than video games "addicting" people, addictive personalities are likely to be attracted to video games.

But what about the games' supposed effects on skill development, particularly in the young? To a large extent these worries are part of a larger concern peddled by Sen. Clinton and others like the NIMF about the lost innocence of childhood in which a good many features of modern life are alleged to have combined to ruin a traditional childhood. But whatever the legitimacy of these worries in some areas, the effects of video games on skill development is not one of them.

While there are undoubtedly bad video games that contribute not a wit to skills, the overall effect of interactivity on children's intellectual and social development, as a variety of researchers have noted, is generally positive. Games are now commonplace as learning tools not simply for children but for adults. Succeeding at such games not only requires identifying, analyzing and solving problems, but an ability to master both the explicit and implicit rules of the games, as well as considerable multi-tasking, all skills that constitute, as the Economist put it, "an ideal form of preparation for the workplace of the 21st century...."

All that may be fine, reply the critics like NIMF, but what about the problem of violence? For example, in a paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in August, two researchers from Saint Leo University claimed that a review of the research literature on video games and aggressive behavior in children showed that the games increase aggression. Many of these studies, however, are based on self-reports or qualitative estimates and questionable measures of aggression as opposed to quantitative data from properly controlled experiments.

Professor Jonathan Freedman of the University of Toronto in an extensive review (2001) of the psychological evidence about video games and violence, notes that while there is evidence that people who like and play video games tend to be more aggressive than those who play and like them less, like addiction, this finding is merely an association that says nothing about the direction of causation. Indeed, more aggressive individuals might be attracted to video games as opposed to influenced by them. Some researchers have suggested that rather than promoting aggression, video games might actually release it.

As for the effects, both short and long term, of playing certain violent video games, Freedman concludes that there is minimal evidence that there is a short term increase in aggressiveness and "not the slightest evidence that playing violent video games causes any long-term or lasting increase in aggressiveness or violence." This echoes the conclusions of a five year study by the Australian government which found that there was "at best only weak and ambiguous evidence that violent games bring violent behavior."

These conclusions are corroborated by other strands of evidence. For example, most theories on aggressive youth behavior point to sources such as dysfunctional parenting and compromised emotional and intellectual capacities, not violent video games. And with half of all Americans playing video games, you would expect, if the causal claims about the games and aggression were true, to find some evidence in crime figures. Yet despite the widespread use of the games, violent crime has fallen by 50% in recent years.

John Luik is writing a book about health policy.

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2 Comments

Game On!
I was eight years old when I met Super Mario and began being entertained by colored pixels. Twenty years later, I find myself surfing internet websites "agressively" searching for the next blockbuster video game. I also find myself playing the piano, guitar and assembling a PC from indivisual components. I even have spent time modifing system files pertaining to the graphics processing unit in my computer to suite my specific wants or needs. My point is this...Playing videos games, as far as I can tell, has only had positive effects on my social AND physical well being. When I play a video game, in my mind, I'm also playing the piano or guitar. My eyes and ears are simultaneouly collecting information from a source, my brain processes and my fingers react. Rinse and repeat. Whether my fingers end up tickling the ivory's, plucking strings or pressing plastic buttons, it's both a great exercise for the brain and entertaining! While some games do have explicit material and extensive violent scenes that I find immoral, I remember my father telling me stories about his childhood "cowboys and indians" sagas where he would chase his little brother with a platic revolver firing non-stop. Except this was outside with tangilbe props, not simulated on a monitor. He turned out to be a dentist so draw your own conclusions. :-) As for the addictive aspect of this argument, I side with Dr. Luik in that personalities vulneralbe to compulisiveness are more likely to become gaming "addicts." Unless there is some secret transdermal nicotine device embedded in the control pads.

Blood and sex sell best...Democrats never understand anything

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