Dabe Alan

Violent games, violent behavior: science, law, policy are arguable, parental responsibility isn’t

Violent games, violent behavior: science, law, policy are arguable, parental responsibility isn’t

When Southington, Connecticut community action group SouthingtonSOS declared it would host a donation drive to collect and destroy violent video games, it drew ire. The spectre of censorship and book burnings was troubling enough, but the fact that the group’s stated mission was to “encourage courageous conversations between parents and children,” only made things worse. You don’t start a constructive discussion after destroying something, a point argued earlier this week.

The event has since been canceled. SouthingtonSOS representatives have stated the collection and destruction of games is now unnecessary; the group says they’ve started a conversation, and they’re happy with that. We think there’s still discussion to be had, so the Report spoke to several experts to collect their thoughts.

If you’re looking to speak with your family or community about violent games, here are some points to address.

Choose your data, any data

Chris Ferguson, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Texas A&M, already gave the Report his thoughts on SouthingtonSOS’ event, but the conversation doesn’t stop there. Whether or not science determinately links real-life violence to violent games is one of the most hotly-contested issues in the violent video games debate. Some studies say they do, some say they don’t. Who do you trust, and why the inconsistency?

Ferguson says the fault lies within the psychology research community.

“I think for many of these individuals, they’ve stopped functioning as scientists and have become like advocates or activists with a particular cause they believe in very sincerely. It’s sort of a ‘the means justify the ends’ [mentality],” Ferguson told the Report. “In order to get to whatever desired result they want, whether it’s censorship of video games or whatever else, they’re willing to kind of smudge the lines of truth – or at least it seems that way to me – when they represent the research of other people.”

Ferguson also said it’s important to note the methods and word choice used by researchers. “There is a difference between what we think of as aggression and what we think of as violence,” he said. I asked him to explain other common problems and misconceptions he’s experienced about the link between video games and violent behavior.

“First off, most of these studies are with college students, not kids. Two, most of these aggression measures… they’re having people fill in the missing letters of words. So if they put in the missing letter to spell ‘explode’ instead of ‘explore,’ then that’s being aggressive,” Ferguson explained.

“Another problem with a lot of these studies… there’s a problem throughout psychology and research in general, is what’s now being called the methodological flexibility problem. What it basically means is that too many of our research studies, too many of our measures allow scientists to basically pick and choose from outcomes those that best fit their hypotheses going in.”

Ferguson pointed to a study from Malte Elson, a research associate in the Social Foundations of Online Gaming project at the University of Münster in Germany, that showed how easily data can be manipulated. “When reviewing the literature on media violence research in the laboratory, I found that there are at least thirteen different versions of the [Taylor Competitive Reaction Time Test] (in terms of procedure and analysis),” Elson explained via email.

“What my colleagues and I did then was use the data from our own studies (that employed the TCRTT), and simply ran all possible analyses on our data. And this is the fun part: The results show that, depending on which analysis method I believe to be the correct one (or simply, which analysis I report/omit in my publications), media violence increases aggression, decreases it, or has no effect at all.”

I asked Ferguson if this was a widespread problem. “When we submit journal articles for peer review, we don’t have to submit our data,” he admitted. “I’ve never once, as a reviewer, ever gotten data from an author who was trying to publish a scientific study. We just take them at their word. They could just make their numbers up! We have no idea.”

The unexpected morality of Hitman and GTA

Dr. Cheryl Olson is co-author of Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do. She’s a public health and behavior expert. She’s also a parent.

She once watched her son play one of the Hitman games. “You think, ‘Hitman, my god, what could be worse?’” Yet Olson says it’s important for parents to interact and engage with their child, to find out what about the game is so appealing. At first glance and upon hearing the name, the appeal of Hitman seems to be murder. Olson, however, said there was a sense of justice in the game.

“After watching, I asked, ‘Are you trying to kill anyone who’s not evil in this game?’ And he thought about it and, across the game, the only person he had [killed] who wasn’t some horrible pimp or murderer or individual the world would be much better off without, was a corrupt journalist,” she said. “Obviously your goal is to kill people. But even in a game like that, there’s kind of a moral compass in the game. You are punished in the game for killing randomly everybody.”

“Understand what kids are getting out of games. They’re looking to compete, they’re looking to explore different roles and being different ways, and a lot of times, the attraction of violent games is because it’s competitive and complex, and not because it’s gory. That’s what kids tell me.” She noted that even the infamous and often-cited Grand Theft Auto teaches a valuable lesson about how, once a person becomes involved in a gang, it’s almost impossible to escape, and you can’t trust anyone.

Olson also said it’s important to maintain an even-handed attitude of discussion with children, and that talking down to them may only further obfuscate existing tension. “If you say, ‘These games are trash, I don’t want them in my house,’ what is that saying to your kid? ‘The things you like are stupid.’ Is that the message you want to give without exploring it first?”

Olson said that parents can still address their concerns in a positive light by respecting their child’s choices and coming to them with questions instead of demands. She suggested parents adopt an attitude of “you’re a smart, good kid, and if you like this there must be something to it, so help me figure out what that might be.”

It’s also important, Olson said, for parents not to overreact if they see aggressive behaviors in their child. A “rosy-eyed view” of the past tends to cloud parents’ judgment, Olson said.

“It’s not like these things haven’t happened before, but people tend to have a rosy view of the previous decade or century and think, ‘Oh, everything was great then. We were lynching people, but I forgot about that.’” In other words, violence is not unique to one time, or one generation.

“If you look at the data on what kids actually do, especially middle-school kids, which I study, they get into fights, they do all kinds of nasty things a lot. A friend of mine who’s a psychiatrist said that what we should be studying is not why kids become violent, but how do we teach them to not be violent, to not be aggressive, because they start out aggressive little creatures in many ways, and we socialize that out of them,” Olson said. “We work with their innate ability to empathize and build on that as opposed to their innate ability to be aggressive.”

“Learning about normal, healthy child development, teaching about that I think would be a huge help, too. Knowing, ‘This is yucky, but it’s normal,’ it doesn’t mean your kid is a lost cause.”

Control and responsibility in parents’ hands

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that video games are a protected form of expression. In the court’s decision, they examined previous studies which suggested games caused violence and came to the conclusion that, “these studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason.” In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting however, Senator Jay Rockefeller has called for yet more studies and research into the connection – or lack thereof – between violent games and violent acts.

Douglas Gentile, Associate Professor of Psychology at Iowa State, is also cited in the Supreme Court’s decision. His studies focus on the link between violent media, games included, and aggression. Gentile says his studies have definitively shown a link between violent media and aggression, but like Ferguson, he also says it’s important not to confuse aggression with violent acts.

“We’re always conflating extreme violence with aggression, and we’re misinterpreting the research. Here’s the thing: Everyone has aggressive thoughts and feelings. Not everyone commits mass murder,” he told the Report. “When you have those aggressive thoughts and feelings, are you more likely to say something unkind to your spouse? Are you more likely to do something that hurts them? Yes you are. Do you do it every time? No, because we don’t act on every thought we have – thank god.”

Gentile says he doesn’t think legislation is the answer, though. Instead, he would like to see the games industry offer more information so that parents and families can make their own decisions. One way to do that is via ratings. “We should be improving the ratings systems, because ratings have serious flaws, which make them pretty much unusable, which is why parents don’t use them.”

I asked Gentile what flaws he was referring to, and how they could be addressed. “One of the biggest ones, in a national study we recently did, is all the ratings systems are age-based. That’s their basic feature. We did a national study with 700-some parents, asking them… we had 37 detailed descriptions of content – violent content, sexual content, language, etc, all the things parents care about – we said, ‘What’s the age at which this is appropriate for children to see?’ Parents never agreed. Ever,” he said.

“We could not find content that even a minimum majority, 50%, agreed on. That, ‘Oh, at this age, this is an acceptable thing,’ which means the ratings are always invalid for a majority of parents. Whatever that rating number is on it, most parents disagree with it. So they’re never valid.”

“So one way would be to use a universal system. Why is there a different rating system for TV and video games and music and movies?” Gentile asked me if I knew the different symbols for television ratings. I admitted that I don’t. “Aha! Funny! The media we consume most, isn’t that the one everyone should know best? But no one… when you ask parents, their accuracy is 4%. You know, what does the D symbol stand for? National accuracy is 4%. What’s FV mean? Family viewing? No, fantasy violence.”

Olson, like Gentile, also wants to see the games industry give more options and control to parents. “It would make sense for the video game industry to look at how can we give parents more control in the in-game settings over the level of violence,” she said. “See if you could give parents a chance to dial down the violence level, make the blood green… I think that would be a really smart move for the video game industry, because what people are looking for is something they can control to reduce their fear.”

Modern consoles do come with features that allow parents to control what games and content can be played, and there have been efforts to educate parents about their use, but many may still be unaware they exist at all, and they only block games in entirety. Gentile and Olson argue it would be best if parents could have control over individual aspects of games as well. There is some measure of responsibility on the part of parents when they bring consoles and video games into their home: It takes some effort to learn about and understand these devices, and it’s not as easy as looking at ratings on the back of a DVD.

That’s really the crux of this whole situation; every family, every child, every individual is different and will respond differently to the violence around them. It’s not up to us to provide a one-size-fits-all answer, because there isn’t one.

In fact, this article itself is only the beginning. These aren’t solutions, they’re the beginnings to conversations.