Monday, April 30, 2007

Video Games DO Cause Violence: Slate's Iconoclasm is Convincing for Once

It was with a disproportionately heavy heart that I finally gave in and read the recent Slate article, Don't Shoot: Why video games really are linked to violence by Amanda Schaffer. Not because I'm not willing to believe there is some link -- there is certainly some link in such a complex causal chain as personality and behavior. But Slate tends to preemptorily declare "That's it, the answer is wrapped up" in any number of scientific arguments, most especially their execrable "Economics" articles, often by taking one study and generalizing it to be "the answer" (Steven Landsburg and Tim Harford being the "execrablers" in most cases). So I assumed the game-violence article would be along the line of a different recently published article by Slate I'm refusing to read, "Whose life is worth more, a drug dealer or a prostitute?" (Answer: "What the fuck is wrong with you, what kind of assclown asks that?" If there is an answer that doesn't make me feel bad about the human race, I'm rather sure it won't be written by Tim "Scientist" Harford.)

But in actuality, the article (on violence) convinced me. I feel Michael Moore's "Bowling for Colombine" was unfairly lambasted on a number of levels (though he does make it easy for people by seemingly making a number of lazy incorrect assertions and sensational claims in his movies, I think), as it really was a movie that set out to test a series of ideas, and came up with a counter-intuitive (or at least, unexpected from Michael Moore) conclusion: guns really DON'T kill people, violent culture does. That is, he went through a variety of theses, from video games (nope: Japan has more violent video games and less violent crime) to gun ownership (nope: a variety of countries have more firearm ownership and lower crime) and settled on the violence at the root and promoted by any number of facets of US culture (as reflected, perhaps, in our continued imperialism and relatively blasé attitude towards, for example, the 20 to 50 times more Iraqis that have died than our own troops). It really was quite clever and, to me, well done and convincing (though undermined, most agree, by picking on Charlton Heston at the end, especially since Heston's NRA had more to do with the thesis he discarded, that of gun ownership itself being the problem). The point here is that Moore discarded video games as a prime factor, and prima facie at least, I agreed with him. But Schaffer's article reviews three seemingly-prominent studies (as an academic, I can't really trust them 'till I read them myself) with three different methodologies, bolstering her case from longitudinal, comparative, and experimental perspectives.

Nicely, as well, she bothers to distinguish between types of video games, and (seemingly a-purpose) parallels the useful aspects of video games to the downside of violent video games:
"When video games aren't about violence, their capacity to teach can be a good thing. For patients suffering from arachnophobia, fear of flying, or post-traumatic stress disorder, therapists are beginning to use virtual realities as a desensitization tool. And despite the rap that they're a waste of time, video games may also teach visual attention and spatial skills. (Recently, a study showed that having played three or more hours of video games a week was a better predictor of a laparoscopic surgeon's skills than his or her level of surgical training.) The games also work for conveying information to kids that they will remember. Video games that teach diabetic kids how to take better care of themselves, for instance, were shown to decrease their diabetes-related urgent and emergency visits by 77 percent after six months."
The implication here, which I think Schaffer intentionally includes (though oddly doesn't spend a lot of time playing up) is that these useful effects of games work on the same principles that make violent games harmful -- they decrease arachnophobia via desensitization (parallel: violent games desensitive kids to violence), they teach and emphasize a skill set (hand-eye coordination etc. useful for surgery or, unfortunately, assault and murder), and impart information (how to keep up with your diabetes, or how funny and easy it is to beat someone to death witha baseball bat). And it's worth noting, though Schaffer does not, that the military is increasingly using video games to train soldiers (or so I hear) and there are anectdotes of Iraqi soldeirs, especially younger ones, comparing the killing and blowing-up of people and things to games they've played at home. As Schaffer does point out,
"The connection between violent games and real violence is also fairly intuitive. In playing the games, kids are likely to become desensitized to gory images, which could make them less disturbing and perhaps easier to deal with in real life. The games may also encourage kids (and adults) to rehearse aggressive solutions to conflict, meaning that these thought processes may become more available to them when real-life conflicts arise, Anderson says. Video games also offer immediate feedback and constant small rewards—in the form of points, or access to new levels or weapons. And they tend to tailor tasks to a player's skill level, starting easy and getting harder. That makes them "phenomenal teachers," says Anderson, though "what they teach very much depends on content.'"
Of course, she doesn't go into remedies, which is where the whole thing often goes off the rails, as most agree adults have the right to play whatever the hell game they want, and most agree parents should be the point-guards for what their kids play, not stores or the government. And if parents have neither the time, knowledge, or inclination to keep the kids off Grand Theft Auto, well, where does that leave us... (plus the fact that of course it's not one to one, so how do you choose which kids are "mature" enough to kill drug dealers in video-game-land and which aren't? I've always found it interesting that even though I occasionally like to indulge in playing GTA and its ilk, I often feel a deep, deep discomfort or disgust at even the pretend mayhem I'm causing... which I think is likely a good thing...)

Schaffer has a very reasonable wrap up, saying:
"Given all of this, it makes sense to be specific about which games may be linked to harmful effects and which to neutral or good ones. Better research is also needed to understand whether some kids are more vulnerable to video-game violence, and how exposure interacts with other risk factors for aggression like poverty, psychological disorders, and a history of abuse. Meanwhile, how about a game in which kids, shrinks, and late-night comics size up all these factors and help save the world?

A little trite, but all in all, not a bad place to start.

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