We learned from Alas, a Blog that Henry Jenkins has written an essay for PBS about video games, making the case that the public doesn’t understand what the games are all about. Normally articles here on Cognitive Daily only report on peer-reviewed research, but in this case, we felt it was important to make an exception. We feel that Jenkins makes some misleading statements in his essay, and we’d like to take this opportunity to point our readers to some research showing why this is so.
I’ve used indented quotations to give snippets from Jenkins’ argument; my responses are in normal text.
Myth 1. The availability of video games has led to an epidemic of youth violence.
According to federal crime statistics, the rate of juvenile violent crime in the United States is at a 30-year low.
Jenkins is implying that since crime is down and gaming is up, that violent games can’t possibly lead to criminal behavior. But, as Jenkins will later argue himself, correlation is not the same thing as causation. There are many causes of criminal behavior; just because crime overall is down doesn’t mean video games don’t contribute to criminal activity.
Researchers find that people serving time for violent crimes typically consume less media before committing their crimes than the average person in the general population.
This is another misleading statement. Media researchers have never argued that media consumption leads to aggressive behavior—they argue that violent media consumption leads to aggressive behavior.
It’s true that young offenders who have committed school shootings in America have also been game players. But young people in general are more likely to be gamers — 90 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls play. The overwhelming majority of kids who play do NOT commit antisocial acts.
Again, Jenkins is not distinguishing between violent game play and non-violent game play. But even assuming most kids do not become violent after playing violent games, if some do, shouldn’t we be addressing that problem?
According to a 2001 U.S. Surgeon General’s report, the strongest risk factors for school shootings centered on mental stability and the quality of home life, not media exposure.
That report censored the section that the Surgeon General commissioned to report on media violence. We report on the censored section, subsequently published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, in Cognitive Daily here, here, and here.
The moral panic over violent video games is doubly harmful. It has led adult authorities to be more suspicious and hostile to many kids who already feel cut off from the system. It also misdirects energy away from eliminating the actual causes of youth violence and allows problems to continue to fester.
Jenkins actually brings up some interesting points here—overreacting to the problem is a real concern—but I wish he were more specific about the problems and potential solutions.
Myth 2. Scientific evidence links violent game play with youth aggression.
Claims like this are based on the work of researchers who represent one relatively narrow school of research, “media effects.” This research includes some 300 studies of media violence.
What research area should these claims be based on? Aren’t media effects precisely the question we’re talking about?
But most of those studies are inconclusive and many have been criticized on methodological grounds.
Evidence, please? Generally it’s been found that studies with better methodology have stronger results:
It’s more than a little disingenuous to use the fact that methodology has been criticized as an argument when in fact the studies with better methodology show stronger results.
In these studies, media images are removed from any narrative context. Subjects are asked to engage with content that they would not normally consume and may not understand. Finally, the laboratory context is radically different from the environments where games would normally be played.
I suppose these are valid critiques of studies which employ these methods. But many studies focus on actual game players, doing it in their home environments. It’s true that some studies haven’t found links between violent games and violent behavior, but to dismiss all studies because of other, different studies with poor methodology is misleading.
Most studies found a correlation, not a causal relationship, which means the research could simply show that aggressive people like aggressive entertainment. That’s why the vague term “links” is used here.
Yes, correlational research is weaker than causal research, but when many, many studies with different methodologies point to the same result, it’s difficult to ignore. And Jenkins ignores the fact that other studies do show causal links.
If there is a consensus emerging around this research, it is that violent video games may be one risk factor – when coupled with other more immediate, real-world influences — which can contribute to anti-social behavior. But no research has found that video games are a primary factor or that violent video game play could turn an otherwise normal person into a killer.
This may be true, and it’s certainly possible that the alarmists who’ve used Columbine as an excuse for a moral purging of video games may have taken things too far. But it also doesn’t mean you should feel free to let your 6-year-old play Halo 2.
Myth 3. Children are the primary market for video games.
A sizable number of parents ignore game ratings because they assume that games are for kids. One quarter of children ages 11 to 16 identify an M-Rated (Mature Content) game as among their favorites. Clearly, more should be done to restrict advertising and marketing that targets young consumers with mature content, and to educate parents about the media choices they are facing.
Jenkins is right about this one. He goes on to point out that most games purchased for kids are bought by parents—but this fact doesn’t mitigate the problem that many parents don’t seem to understand that not all games are appropriate for kids.
Myth 4. Almost no girls play computer games.
Historically, the video game market has been predominantly male. However, the percentage of women playing games has steadily increased over the past decade. Women now slightly outnumber men playing Web-based games.
Again, he’s right on target here. But just because more females are playing games doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the larger social impact of games.
Myth 5. Because games are used to train soldiers to kill, they have the same impact on the kids who play them.
Former military psychologist and moral reformer David Grossman argues that because the military uses games in training (including, he claims, training soldiers to shoot and kill), the generation of young people who play such games are similarly being brutalized and conditioned to be aggressive in their everyday social interactions.
Grossman’s model only works if:
* we remove training and education from a meaningful cultural context.
* we assume learners have no conscious goals and that they show no resistance to what they are being taught.
* we assume that they unwittingly apply what they learn in a fantasy environment to real world spaces.
Perhaps Grossman’s model is extreme, but Jenkins’ refutation makes no sense. Isn’t military training done within a “meaningful cultural context?” And don’t soldiers still learn to kill? Why should we expect video gamers to “show resistance” to what they learn in games? They purchased the games, and they play them because they want to. And we don’t have to make the assumption that what’s learned in games is applied to the real world—there are studies that back this up.
That being said, a growing body of research does suggest that games can enhance learning. In his recent book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Gee describes game players as active problem solvers who do not see mistakes as errors, but as opportunities for improvement. Players search for newer, better solutions to problems and challenges, he says. And they are encouraged to constantly form and test hypotheses. This research points to a fundamentally different model of how and what players learn from games.
You can’t have it both ways—if video games are good for teaching good stuff, they’re also good for teaching bad stuff. Yes, video games can be wonderful teaching tools, but they can also have powerful negative effects.
Myth 6. Video games are not a meaningful form of expression.
Jenkins is right; this is a damaging myth.
Myth 7. Video game play is socially isolating.
Much video game play is social. Almost 60 percent of frequent gamers play with friends. Thirty-three percent play with siblings and 25 percent play with spouses or parents. Even games designed for single players are often played socially, with one person giving advice to another holding a joystick.
I have to admit, I have been surprised at how video gaming has evolved into such a social activity—and the complexity of modern games is simply astonishing. However, though I haven’t found a research study that addresses my concern, the often unrealistic reward scenarios of video games are troubling to me. In the real world, we don’t get points for every little thing we do. I don’t get 5 points for brushing my teeth, or 100 points for giving money to charity. It seems to me that one reason video games are so addictive is that we get a little boost for almost everything we do—it’s so unlike the real world that it’s a refreshing change. But when kids become immersed in the game world, they often lose patience with the comparatively dull drudgery of the real world. And that can have real, social consequences. I’d like to see more research about that.
Myth 8. Video game play is desensitizing.
Media reformers argue that playing violent video games can cause a lack of empathy for real-world victims. Yet, a child who responds to a video game the same way he or she responds to a real-world tragedy could be showing symptoms of being severely emotionally disturbed. Here’s where the media effects research, which often uses punching rubber dolls as a marker of real-world aggression, becomes problematic. The kid who is punching a toy designed for this purpose is still within the “magic circle” of play and understands her actions on those terms. Such research shows us only that violent play leads to more violent play.
I agree, such research may not be the best way to measure aggression. But not all research is done that way. The army uses video games to desensitize soldiers to the real blood and gore of the battlefield. In the Anderson and Dill experiment I link to above, participants believe they are hurting real people, and are indeed more aggressive after playing violent games. Other studies have found that kids who play violent games are more likely to get into physical fights.
The take-home message
I don’t want any of this to be taken as a blanket condemnation of video games. I think some of the die-hard opponents of gaming shoot themselves in the foot when they suggest that all games are bad, or that games somehow are causing the deterioration of all moral values. If I believed all that, I wouldn’t play them myself (yes, I do play them). And this argument simply isn’t convincing to the majority of kids who play games, and to the growing number of adults who play them as well. If so many people play games, and games are so rotten, then why haven’t we all become plug-in drones, or delinquents, or worse?
But to suggest that video games don’t have any negative effects at all, or to suggest, as Jenkins does, that little needs to be done to ensure that games have only positive influences, is equally ridiculous. Video games are a powerful influence on society, for both good and bad. Until we can move beyond the dire rhetoric employed by both sides of the debate, the only certainty about video games will be that whatever decisions we make as a community—or a nation—about how to use and regulate games, will be uninformed ones.