Cognitive Daily

Video games: Are the myths true?

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.

Comments

  1. [...] I originally wrote this post for Word Munger, but I talked with Greta about it and we decided to move it over to Cognitive Daily. I do think Word Munger readers will be interested in it as well ¡ª it’s a fisking of Henry Jenkins’ arguments about why video games are A-OK. I also find the other essays on the site to be similarly biased. Can’t we recognize that you can make a more nuanced argument about a complex topic such as video games? Does it always have to be the Nazis versus the Commies? Isn’t there some other valid position? [...]

  2. #2 pdf23ds
    December 19, 2005

    I agree with your post as a whole, but…

    Jenkins is implying that since crime is down and gaming is up, that violent games can’t possibly lead to criminal behavior.

    On the contrary, I think he’s implying that a little sanity is necessary. Step back, look at the trends, and see that whatever effects video games are having, they’re not cataclysmic.

    I think the difference in interpretation depends on the extremity of the beliefs and attitudes of the supposed audience. Your interpretation would be right if he were writing this for cognitive scientists, but I bet he rather had in mind those extremely conservative parents who torture their kids with their paranoia-induced over-parenting.

    Again, Jenkins is not distinguishing between violent game play and non-violent game play.

    What percentage of video games, weighted by popularity, are non-violent? I’d wager 15-25%, if you count football as non-violent. I’d say the large majority are quite violent. So in this context, I think the difference isn’t meaningful.

    But even assuming most kids do not become violent after playing violent games, if some do, shouldn’t we be addressing that problem?

    First, a nitpick. Kids most likely don’t “become violent” after playing video games. If there’s an effect, it’s to exaggerate and reinforce existing tendencies. Different kids have different levels of existing tendencies.

    Second, “addressing” makes me cringe. How could one address this problem without resorting to censorship? How does one reduce violence in games when violence is the central idiom upon which the vast majority of games are built? Get rid of violence, and you get rid of RPGs and platformers and action/adventure and horror/slasher and FPS and WWII and real-time strategy… that’s most of the industry right there.

  3. games

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    December 19, 2005

    PDF,

    You may be correct in arguing that Jenkins didn’t mean to suggest that correlation = causation, but to suggest that crime is an insignificant problem in the U.S. is, at a minimum, an oversimplification. According to this site, the U.S. per-capita crime rate is more than twice the global average. Of course, video games are played around the world, so making global comparisons is also problematic in this regard.

    What percentage of video games, weighted by popularity, are non-violent?
    That’s quite difficult to say, but it is true that some of the most popular video games historically have been non-violent: Pac-man, Myst, Tetris, and the Sims come to mind. I can say this: the earliest studies dealing with video games and violence showed no correlation between game-play and violence. The connection was only observed when researchers studied violent games specifically.

    Regarding the question of reinforcing existing tendencies, one study has found that kids with the lowest trait hostility but the highest exposure to violent video games were more likely to get into physical fights than kids with the highest trait hostility but the lowest exposure to violent games.

    Re: “Addressing.” I specifically did not use the term “censoring” because censoring is only one approach to the problem, and there is limited evidence that it is successful. Ideally, steps taken to address the problem would be based on research on what’s most effective. Given this study suggesting that penalizing violence in games reduces aggressive behavior, and other research pointing to cooperative games such as Asheron’s Call 2 as games that lead to less aggressive real-world outcomes, encouraging this sort of gaming would be a start. But clearly much more outcome-oriented research needs to be done, with an emphasis on finding real solutions that work, instead of fiery rhetoric.

  5. #5 FRSanchez
    December 19, 2005

    I don’t think anyone should “censor” violent games. Adult games should be able to play whatever they want. But I do have a problem when 14 year olds can walk into a store and buy Manhunt or Grand Theft Auto. It’s unfortunate, but if their parents aren’t paying attention, I think the state has to set some limits. There’s an interesting debate on the violent video game restriction issue at http://www.commonsenseblog.org.

  6. #6 pdf23ds
    December 19, 2005

    “What percentage of video games, weighted by popularity, are non-violent?”

    “That’s quite difficult to say”

    No, it’s not, at least to a first approximation. Walk into any video game rental store, and count the number of games that have some form of violence depicted on their covers, especially the back covers. Since they stock games according to popularity (with the most popular games getting multiple copies in stock), this gets you a minimum value, skewed slightly towards the less popular games. (Though the most popular ones nowadays tend to be some of the most violent as well. E.G. GTA, God of War, Gun, etc.)

    I might just do that one of these days.

  7. #7 Emeric
    December 20, 2005

    Hello,
    FYI, the gamer’s average age is between 27 to 29 years old.

    I work in the video game industry, and although I don’t think video games are a disaster that transform children into mosnters, I can tell that Myth 3 is actually a myth.

  8. [...] It may be worthwhile to read the essay ¡°Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked¡± by Henry Jenkins, the Director of Comparative Studies at MIT, as well as a response to it found at the blog Cognitive Daily. Jenkins takes on some of the key issues related to video games and their impact on players, and argues that most of the claims are just myths. But the folks at Cognitive Daily do a good job of dissecting Jenkins’ arguments and showing where his supporting data contains some flawed logic. Both pieces can certainly help us to get a better sense of how we feel about video gaming, and whether our own attitudes are mostly myth or reality. One thing we should avoid is denying that this is a trend to which we should be paying attention. [...]

  9. #9 Dave Munger
    December 20, 2005

    PDF,

    Your method might help give a rough guess as to what games are most popular, but there are problems with it as well. What if people buy non-violent games but rent violent games for a quick thrill? What if people play non-violent games longer than violent games (or vice-versa)? Like I said, it’s difficult to say. You could also look at industry sales figures, but again, this wouldn’t really take into account how much time people spend playing each game.

  10. [...] Update (21/12) De discussie gaat verder op Cognitive Daily: [¡­] 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 [¡­] ridiculous. [...]

  11. #11 Tommy
    December 22, 2005

    I think everybody agrees that games, like books, music and tv can have a good or bad influence on people, there is a reason why “mein kampf” is banned in so many countries.

    But there is a game rating system that doesn’t seem to broken. And still then a violent game won’t transform a 6-year old in a killing machine or a a 16 year old.

    It isn’t hard to believe that more factors contribute that somebody looses control and becomes violent. If that is so why are we only looking at violent video games and not at the other factors and/or cobination of them?

    I still guess it’s the most easiest to pick on because of
    a) money in the games business
    b) so easy to make a link between a a violent game and violent behaviour.
    c) it’s visible, i mean moving pictures

    It’s clearly that “mein kampf” is more dangerous, however I think the average american would rather had his child read “mein kampf” then play GTA.

    So yes it’s a problem but I don’t think people are getting informed from a non biased source.

  12. #12 Dave Munger
    December 22, 2005

    Personally, I’d rather have my son play GTA than read Mein Kampf. It’d also be a lot harder to get him to read Mein Kampf.

  13. #13 hector
    December 22, 2005

    “when kids become immersed in the game world, they often lose patience with the comparatively dull drudgery of the real world.”

    – kids have always been impatient with the drudgery of the real world, as have most adults. This is why there has always been a huge appetite for escapist art forms. I’m sure that the knightly romances that Cervantes makes so much fun of in Don Quixote also encouraged a small percentage of their consumers to act out violently. Twas ever thus.

    If there is a real social problem here, it is that current economic trends have resulted in more and more jobs being nothing but drudgery, thereby increasing the desire for escape. The best solution to the perceived problem would be jobs that people find fulfilling. Like that’s going to happen ¡­

  14. #14 Robert
    December 23, 2005

    I had a longer point to make about the capacity to discriminate between the educational and entertainment capacities of a medium (summary: we most certainly can have it both ways, and only grossly simplistic ad hoc reasoning would suggest otherwise), but I think the other point I wanted to make is sufficiently important that the first point should not distract from it.

    This second point concerns the methodology of the Anderson and Dill experiment, and I don’t really think I have to say much more than this: Anderson and Dill have done nothing more than replicate the Milgram experiment, but with even lower stakes for the amount of “harm” delivered to the “learner.” They constructed a scenario where a recognizable authority figure represents that it is acceptable for the subject to inflict a particular kind of harm on another person. The subject both surrenders moral culpability to the authority figure and, especially in an experimental setting, trusts that the authority figure is exercising due care in limiting the amount of actual harm that can result from the experiment. Even if the “competitors” are increasingly zealous in delivering “punishment,” they are still acting within the bounds of what they believe to be “approved” behavior, and such acts cannot be considered any more than perfectly ordinary and well-understood effects of competitive behavior under the influence of adrenaline. The fact that Anderson and Dill established a unique mechanism for displaying that reaction changes little.

  15. #15 Dave Munger
    December 23, 2005

    Robert,

    I can understand your point about the lab scenario not being realistic, but how does it explain the fact that people are more zealous in “punishing” others after playing violent games compared to non-violent games? Even working within your model, they haven’t just replicated Milgram, they’ve shown that playing violent games results in a stronger effect of obedience to authority. It’s not a null result with respect to violent video games.

    You argue that the response is the result of “well-understood effects of competitive behavior,” but in fact, in the Anderson and Dill experiment, competitive behavior was controlled—both games were equally arousing and competitive; the difference was the level of violence in the games. In the Carnagey and Anderson follow-up to the experiment, participants played the same game, and the only difference was whether video game violence was punished or rewarded, and a similar effect was found.

    There’s another difference from Milgram—the participants themselves were subjected to pain, so they were well aware of what they believed to be real consequences of their actions.

    Still, your point is well-taken. This type of lab “aggression” is not exactly the same as real-world violence. I’d be very interested to hear your other argument about why we can “have it both ways” with violent video games not teaching people to be violent, but educational video games still being effective in teaching useful skills.

  16. #16 Joe Clay
    December 29, 2005

    I haven’t fully assessed all of the issues relating to this topic, but I can give my opinion from personal experience. When I was a kid (I am 21 now), I was rarely disallowed watching movies regardless of their rating¡ªin fact I saw many rated R movies as I was first entering school. Many of my friends were banned from watching shows like the Simpsons, South Park, or In Living Color where I was allowed free reign. I played violent video games and non-violent video games. I’m probably one of the quintessential subjects for studies like this and yet I’m one of the most non-violent people you will ever meet. I have a high IQ and I’ve always been able to determine what is reality and what isn’t. I think that’s the one factor all of these studies leave out: what is the ability of the child to determine right and wrong?

    Also, though I’m not sure of how it’s possible, are there any studies where a child’s violent tendencies are measured BEFORE they play violent video games and then after? Isn’t it possible that violent video games reduce the tendency of an individual to become violent? Hitting a punching bag, a violent act, is considered therapeutic whereas beating a person in a video game boxing match is considered violent, or derivative of future violence?

  17. #17 Dave Munger
    December 29, 2005

    Joe,

    Those are all good questions. The type of study you describe—a longitudinal study—is the holy grail of video game violence studies, but very difficult to conduct. You’d need to convince randomly selected families to either allow or disallow violent games for an extended period of time. In both groups, you’d face ethical issues: censorship or exposure to objectional materials.

    We’ve described several different types of studies here on Cognitive Daily (you can find them by clicking on the “video games” category), and as I mention in this post, the converging evidence suggests that there is a link between playing violent games and real-world violence.

    Of course, not everyone who plays violent games will commit violent acts. Think of it this way: does every drunk driver get in an accident? Do even most drunk drivers? Does this mean we should allow drunk driving? Most people would say no, but most people would also say that banning drinking would be going too far.

  18. #18 Joe Clay
    December 30, 2005

    Good points and thank you for the additional information as I just found this site yesterday. As far as the tendency of people to commit violent acts, I believe that it varies based on the individual.

    To use your example, the drunkenness of an individual determines how poorly they will drive. If a person has a high tolerance, the same amount of liquor will not affect their performance as greatly. Perhaps, it goes similarly with children and violent video games. The greater a persons tolerance¡ªor understanding¡ªthe less likely they are to commit a violent act.

    Personally I despise censorship, so I would never consider that to be an option to correct this issue, however I do think the role of the parent affects this greatly. These days the role of the parent has diminished. The world seems to be speeding up and people are working more and more. Parents are not as present. I think it could be possible that we are lacking knowledge of other related correlations.

    Thanks for keeping up good discussion!

  19. #19 Jonathan
    January 3, 2006

    This article seems to be misleading from both sides. It appears to me that both sides of the argument have their own agenda, and there is no real objective discussion of the issue at hand.

    Also, all credit to Mr. Jenkins, but it must have occurred to some people that he doesn’t necessarily make the best argument for video gaming. So if the purpose of Cognitive Daily is to discuss the issue of violent video gaming, it is not fair to take one article and suggest that it is the only decent article.

    If the purpose is to take a point of view you disagree with and rip apart a single essay written on the subject to make you feel better, then you on the right track-but are also wasting our time.

  20. #20 Dave Munger
    January 3, 2006

    Jonathan,

    The purpose of our article was to correct misleading statements by Henry Jenkins. The purpose of Cognitive Daily in general is to report and discuss peer-reviewed research. Since Jenkins misrepresented research that we have reported on here at Cognitive Daily, we felt it was important to set the record straight.

    I agree with you, it’s rare to find “real, objective discussion” of the issue of video games and violence. That is our goal here, not only when discussing this issue, but all aspects of cognitive psychology research. If you have a specific example of where our response to Jenkins’ statements (or our other reporting on this issue) was not objective, I’d appreciate hearing about it.

  21. #21 Tyler Campbell
    August 29, 2006

    The research is hardly convincing and you guys should recognize it. Children/adults who report watching lots of violent TV at a young age are likely to have permissive/avoidant parents who supply less parental support and/or have personal problems (chemical imbalance, etc.), thus the subject has a biological disposition and a behavioral model for aggressive behavior. Every scientist knows correlation is not causation (small r @that).
    Adults self-reporting about violence/childhood are likely primed by questions about domestic violence. If the report (are reminded) a violent incident, they are likely to recall from childhood a violent incident (viewing of violent media). Also, these adults in question are more likely to consistantly report childhood viewing of violent media following reporting acts of domestic violence in order to mentally use logic to justify their actions.
    Show me a report where there is non-biologically predispositioned child who does not differentiate serious violence with horseplay, and virtual characters with live humans.

  22. #22 Dave Munger
    August 30, 2006

    Show me a report where there is non-biologically predispositioned child who does not differentiate serious violence with horseplay, and virtual characters with live humans.

    I don’t believe there is such a report. But that’s not really the point. There’s plenty of evidence that playing some types of violent games causes people to be more aggressive, whether or not they’re confusing video game characters with real people. Unfortunately, much of the research has been conducted on adults (e.g. college freshmen), and what most parents are interested in is the impact on 5- to 13-year-olds. I think one point we can agree on is that much more research needs to be done to understand the relationship between violent games and real world violence.

    That said, your claim that the research is “hardly convincing” is false. The research is very convincing, as far as it goes. You should not let your 5-year-old play Carmageddon. Games such as this which reward violent, antisocial behavior are probably the worst.

    Should you let her play Super Smash Bros? We don’t know — it’s a completely different type of game, which to my knowledge hasn’t been studied.

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