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Playing the Blame Game: Video Games Pros and Cons

Play­ing the Blame Game
– Video games stand accused of caus­ing obe­sity, vio­lence, and lousy grades. But new research paints a sur­pris­ingly com­pli­cated and pos­i­tive pic­ture, reports Greater Good Mag­a­zine’s Jeremy Adam Smith.

Cheryl Olson had seen her teenage son play video games. But like many par­ents, she didn’t know much about them.

Then in 2004 the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice asked Olson and her hus­band, Lawrence Kut­ner, to run a fed­er­ally funded study of how video games affect adolescents.

Olson and Kut­ner are the co-founders and direc­tors of the Har­vard Med­ical School’s Cen­ter for Men­tal Health and Media. Olson, a pub­lic health researcher, had stud­ied the effects of media on behav­ior but had never exam­ined video games, either in her research or in her per­sonal life.

And so the first thing she did was watch over the shoul­der of her son, Michael, as he played his video games. Then, two years into her research—which com­bined sur­veys and focus groups of junior high school students—Michael urged her to pick up a joy­stick. “I def­i­nitely felt they should be famil­iar with the games if they were doing the research,” says Michael, who was 16 at the time and is now 18.

Olson started with the PC game Max Payne, which, she says, had an “engag­ing film noir-style plot” and “lots of shoot­ing.” Later she moved on to Star Trek: Bridge Com­man­der, which turned out to be more real­is­tic than she expected. “I found it really stress­ful, in my role as the cap­tain, to have the crew mem­bers stand there watch­ing me expec­tantly as I tried to fig­ure out the con­trols and give them orders before the ship exploded,” she says. With his father, Michael played James Bond games. “He would thor­oughly trounce me,” recalls Kut­ner, a psychologist.

Olson and Kutner—who are pub­lish­ing a book based on their research, Grand Theft Child­hood? this spring—were enter­ing a brave new world of play that is closed to many par­ents. For mil­lions of kids and quite a few adults, video games are cen­tral to their play and imag­i­na­tions. Today the Amer­i­can video game indus­try makes almost twice as much as movie the­aters, and con­sumers spent $18.85 bil­lion on video-game hard­ware, soft­ware, and acces­sories in 2007—triple what they spent in 2000. Sev­eral author­i­ta­tive stud­ies, includ­ing Olson and Kutner’s, have found that 70 to 80 per­cent of boys and approx­i­mately 20 per­cent of girls now play video games on an aver­age day.

Their popularity—and the bloody, pyrotech­nic action of some games—have fueled a wide range of fears. Politi­cians, pun­dits, preach­ers, and many par­ents accuse video games of dis­plac­ing more whole­some, tra­di­tional forms of play and con­tribut­ing to ills such as child­hood obe­sity, poor school grades, and, most of all, kid-on-kid vio­lence. Their fears echo ear­lier con­cerns about movies, comic books, rock and roll, and hip-hop, which all pro­voked oppo­si­tion when they first appeared.

As a result, advo­cacy orga­ni­za­tions like Moth­ers Against Videogame Addic­tion and Vio­lence and the Par­ents Tele­vi­sion Coun­cil have pressed for laws lim­it­ing video game vio­lence. Since 2001, fed­eral judges have rejected nine attempts to reg­u­late video games, cit­ing First Amend­ment pro­tec­tion. Cen­sors abroad have had more luck: Last year, both the British Board of Film Clas­si­fi­ca­tion and the Irish Film Censor’s Office banned the game Man­hunt 2 for its “unre­lent­ing focus on stalk­ing and bru­tal slaying.”

It is hard to argue that a game like Man­hunt 2 is good for kids. And yet accord­ing to the market-research orga­ni­za­tion NPD Group, only 16 per­cent of all games sold in 2007 shared Man­hunt 2’s rat­ing of “M” (“Mature”) for vio­lent or sex­ual con­tent, while 57 per­cent of games sold were rated non­vi­o­lent and safe for chil­dren. Video games today are defined by their diver­sity, rang­ing from the inno­cent quests of Don­key Kong to the com­plex strat­egy of Civ­i­liza­tion to the amoral bru­tal­ity of Grand Theft Auto. Even video games with vio­lence in them—like movies and books with vio­lent content—are not all the same. What’s more, new research shows that indi­vid­u­als expe­ri­ence the vio­lence differently.

Indeed, the more one exam­ines the range of games on the mar­ket today, as well as the con­sid­er­able amount of research devoted to study­ing them, the more one real­izes how dif­fi­cult it is to gen­er­al­ize about the games and their effect on kids. “It’s a lot more com­pli­cated than peo­ple think,” says Olson. “We’ve been wor­ried about the wrong things and maybe over­look­ing some more sub­tle things that we might want to give more atten­tion to.” Kut­ner adds, “This is so per­va­sive in our soci­ety that it’s some­thing we need to pay atten­tion to, even if we don’t have kids, because it influ­ences how peo­ple think, just as mass media of all types over the past cou­ple hun­dred years have influ­enced how peo­ple think.”

Play­ing together

Olson, Kut­ner, and col­leagues ulti­mately ana­lyzed 1,254 junior high school stu­dents, mak­ing their $1.5 mil­lion study the largest and most author­i­ta­tive of its kind. They gave writ­ten sur­veys to the entire stu­dent body at schools across the coun­try and orga­nized in-depth focus groups with kids in the Boston area who had played M-rated games. In the focus groups, they also talked to about half of the kids’ parents—which, Kut­ner says, revealed that many moms and dads had lit­tle idea of what went on in the games their kids played.

In addi­tion to game-playing habits, the researchers looked at the emo­tional, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and socioe­co­nomic sit­u­a­tions of the kids, try­ing to under­stand which kids were most at risk to engage in vio­lent behav­ior. Their results, which they started to pub­lish last year, chal­lenge many pop­u­lar assump­tions, while also val­i­dat­ing some exist­ing con­cerns and rais­ing a few new ones.

Their study imme­di­ately debunked two myths: that gamers are anti­so­cial, and that the kids who play them are out of shape. For boys espe­cially, they found that today video games are a way to social­ize and con­nect with their friends, and that this bond­ing some­times facil­i­tates, rather than dis­cour­ages, par­tic­i­pa­tion in phys­i­cal play. “Since game play is often a social activ­ity for boys, non-participation could be a marker of social dif­fi­cul­ties,” Olson and Kut­ner, along with their Har­vard col­league Eugene V. Beresin, write in last October’s issue of the Psy­chi­atric Times. “These boys [who rarely played games with friends] were also more likely than oth­ers to report prob­lems such as get­ting into fights.” Olson sug­gests that today’s video games can serve as a source of social pres­tige for oth­er­wise dorky teenage boys, in the same way that sports bol­ster the pop­u­lar­ity of ath­letic boys. It’s an inver­sion of the older con­cern that video game play might cause social isolation.

And instead of siphon­ing time away from sports and out­door activ­i­ties, Olson and Kut­ner dis­cov­ered that boys who played sports video games were actu­ally much more likely to play those games in real life. “These are kids who are already into foot­ball or skate­board­ing,” says Kut­ner. In focus groups, the researchers heard that “they will use it as a way of improv­ing their skills, for mas­ter­ing a new move. They’ll per­fect it vir­tu­ally, and then go out on the court or the street and try it with a real bas­ket­ball or a real skateboard.”

This find­ing is echoed in another new study led by Uni­ver­sity of Texas, Austin, psy­chol­o­gist Eliz­a­beth A. Van­de­wa­ter. Based on sur­veys of 1,491 kids, Van­de­wa­ter and her col­leagues also found that play­ing video games didn’t take time away from sports or other active leisure activ­i­ties. And like Olson and Kutner’s study, their research dis­cov­ered that game-playing and non-gaming ado­les­cents spent the same amounts of time with fam­ily and friends. More­over, gamers often played with friends and saw it as a way of bonding.

But if video games are not dis­plac­ing real-world play and social­iz­ing, then where is the time to play them com­ing from? When the Uni­ver­sity of Texas researchers com­pared game-playing and non-gaming ado­les­cents, they found that play­ing games cut into read­ing and home­work. In results pub­lished last year in the jour­nal Archives of Pedi­atric and Ado­les­cent Med­i­cine, they report that “ado­les­cent gamers spent 30 per­cent less time read­ing and 34 per­cent less time doing home­work.” (Depress­ingly, even non-gaming boys spent only eight min­utes a day with a book.)

Iowa State Uni­ver­sity psy­chol­o­gist Craig Ander­son, a lead­ing expert on research into video-game vio­lence, says that while video-game play does appear to hurt school per­for­mance, this has lit­tle to do with the con­tent of the games. “The best bet at this point is that it has to do with the amount of time taken away from other activ­i­ties that would typ­i­cally improve school per­for­mance,” he says. “It’s no dif­fer­ent from TV: Kids who watch a lot of TV typ­i­cally are not spend­ing it on edu­ca­tional programs.”

The bot­tom line, accord­ing to both stud­ies, is that video games become a social, health, and edu­ca­tional prob­lem when played to the exclu­sion of other activities—which, Olson points out, can be true of any pas­time, from sports to hang­ing out with friends.

I played games along with other things,” says Olson’s son Michael of his child­hood. “It never really sup­planted any­thing. I was out­side. I was meet­ing with friends, build­ing forts in the back­yard. But every­one else was play­ing the games and that was part of how we played together.”

Single-person shooter

But unlike movies and TV, which are fun­da­men­tally pas­sive view­ing expe­ri­ences, vio­lent video games call for play­ers to actively shoot, stab, or blud­geon ene­mies to death. Does research show that these vio­lent games pro­mote bel­liger­ence and blood­shed in the real world?

A movie’s the same, even if you watch it mul­ti­ple times,” Kut­ner points out. “You may get addi­tional insights, but it’s the same thing. With video games, you are inter­act­ing with the movie and it changes based on that, and so it’s a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing. In a way, we dimin­ish these pro­grams by call­ing them games. In other con­texts, the same thing would be called a simulation.”

In his 1999 book Stop Teach­ing Our Kids to Kill, Lt. Col. Dave Gross­man, a psy­chol­o­gist and his­to­rian, argues that “single-person shooter” video games repli­cate mil­i­tary train-ing, low­er­ing children’s innate resis­tance to killing other human beings, with­out also instill­ing in them the mil­i­tary dis­ci­pline that might keep impul­sive behav­ior in check.

Cho Seung-Hui, who mur­dered 32 peo­ple on the Vir­ginia Tech cam­pus in 2007, was ini­tially reported to have played video games obses­sively (a claim since debunked by the Vir­ginia Tech panel that inves­ti­gated the inci­dent), and many com­men­ta­tors have instinc­tively linked game vio­lence with cam­pus killings. Cho “adopted the type of behav­ior of pro­tag­o­nists in films and com­puter games,” wrote Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia psy­chol­o­gist Dewey Cor­nell shortly after the mas­sacre. “The spe­cial effects and gra­tu­itous vio­lence seen in the mass media ulti­mately desen­si­tize human­ity, and Cho’s case illus­trates how dan­ger­ous the reper­cus­sions can be.”

The obvi­ous prob­lem with this charge is that mil­lions of kids and adults play video games every day with­out ever engag­ing in any vio­lent behav­ior. In fact, as video games have surged in pop­u­lar­ity dur­ing the past decade, youth vio­lence has declined.

Accord­ing to a study released in Jan­u­ary of 2008 by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, the num­ber of school killings fell con­sid­er­ably from 1992 to 2006—a period of time that includes the noto­ri­ous 1999 Columbine mas­sacre. Many lead­ers, includ­ing Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, blamed the Columbine tragedy on the killers’ fas­ci­na­tion with games like Doom and Wolfen­stein 3D.

But when the U.S. Secret Ser­vice and Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion ana­lyzed 37 inci­dents of school vio­lence and sought to develop a pro­file of school shoot­ers, they dis­cov­ered that the most com­mon traits among shoot­ers were that they were male and had his­to­ries of depres­sion and attempted sui­cide. While many of the killers-like the vast major­ity of young males—did play video games, this 2002 study did not find a rela­tion­ship between game play and school shoot­ings. In fact, only one eighth of the shoot­ers showed any spe­cial inter­est in vio­lent video games, far less than the num­ber of shoot­ers who seemed attracted to books and movies with vio­lent content.

In short, try­ing to curb vio­lent video games (or tar­get­ing kids who play video games) would seem to have lit­tle or no effect on lev­els of school violence.

How­ever, the story does not end there: Video games may not directly cause school shoot­ings, but dozens of empir­i­cal stud­ies have shown a strong link between video game play and aggres­sive feel­ings. When Craig Ander­son and col­leagues ana­lyzed 54 inde­pen­dent stud­ies involv­ing 4,262 par­tic­i­pants in 2001, they found that play­ing vio­lent video games increased aggres­sive emo­tions and behav­iors, and mea­sur­ably decreased help­ful behav­iors. Researchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Mis­souri mon­i­tored brain activ­ity in video-game play­ers and found that the games trig­ger a part of the brain that dri­ves peo­ple to act aggres­sively. And in 2004, a team of researchers stud­ied 607 eighth– and ninth-grade stu­dents in the Mid­west and dis­cov­ered that there was indeed a cor­re­la­tion between play­ing vio­lent video games and get­ting into fist fights, though the study was not able to say if one caused the other.

That last study reflects the chicken-and-egg conun­drum of a lot of video-game research: Are trou­bled kids more likely to play vio­lent video games, or do vio­lent video games help cre­ate trou­bled kids? “That’s a ques­tion we can’t answer right now,” says Cheryl Olson. For decades, researchers have been try­ing to untan­gle the con­stel­la­tion of fac­tors involved in youth vio­lence, from qual­ity of neigh­bor­hoods to home envi­ron­ment to media influ­ence, but so far they haven’t been able to deter­mine the degree to which any one of them contributes.

Part of the rea­son why data seem to con­tra­dict each other, Olson sug­gests, might lie in the dis­parate moti­va­tions play­ers bring to the games. “Ours was the first study to ask a decent-sized group of kids, “Why do you play [M-rated] video games?’” she says. “We came up with 17 or 18 rea­sons why they might play. And we were struck that many of the kids said they were play­ing to help with emo­tional regulation—to get their anger out, to feel less lonely, to reduce stress, a lot of things we didn’t expect.” For these kids, Olson sug­gests, vio­lent video games might play a pos­i­tive role in man­ag­ing unruly emo­tions. “If I had a bad day at school,” said one focus-group par­tic­i­pant, “I’ll play a vio­lent video game, and it just relieves my stress.”

Craig Ander­son isn’t con­vinced by this “emo­tional reg­u­la­tion” hypoth­e­sis. “Kids report that’s what is going on,” he says, “but in fact there’s no evi­dence that actu­ally happens.”

In fact, Olson and Ander­son could both find sup­port from a new study by psy­chol­o­gists in New Zealand and Aus­tralia. The study mea­sured the indi­vid­ual per­son­al­ity traits of 126 teenagers, then tested their reac­tions to the vio­lent video game Quake II. They found that play­ing the game made hos­tile peo­ple angrier, helped calm more intro­verted per­son­al­i­ties, and had no appar­ent affect on peo­ple with mild and sta­ble per­son­al­i­ties. In other words, one kid might indeed play the game to blow off steam in a healthy way, even as it feeds another’s anger.

Method act­ing

Olson and Kutner’s work also sug­gests a pos­i­tive and para­dox­i­cal dimen­sion of play­ing video games with vio­lence in them: help­ing kids to grap­ple with life’s scari­est experiences.

Olson reports that many kids in their focus groups said they liked play­ing vio­lent video games because they knew the fight­ing wasn’t hap­pen­ing in real life. In fact, many of the kids reported being much more scared by TV news. “They told us, “The news is real, and that makes me scared.’” In con­trast, they could con­trol the vio­lence in video games. “There are things you can try out in a game that you can’t do in real life,” says Olson. “Some of the boys in our focus groups really liked the fact that you could choose to be a good guy or a bad guy. They can ask, “What kind of per­son would I end up being?’”

Olson’s son Michael says he and his friends do not play games just because of vio­lent con­tent. Instead, they are look­ing for a com­pelling sto­ry­line, intrigu­ing char­ac­ters, and inter­est­ing choices. “A good game to me makes you feel like a method actor,” he says. “It just draws you into the story and draws you into a character.”

These insights res­onate with research into children’s pre­tend play. In stud­ies of kids with imag­i­nary friends, Uni­ver­sity of Ore­gon psy­chol­o­gist Mar­jorie Tay­lor has found that kids often cre­ate pre­tend char­ac­ters who do sin­is­ter, nasty, and even vio­lent things. (See Taylor’s essay on page 28 of this issue.) “Like adults who think things through before they act, this gives chil­dren an oppor­tu­nity to play it through before they encounter the sit­u­a­tion in real life,” says Tay­lor. “If some­thing is both­er­ing you, you can con­trol it or manip­u­late it in the world of pre­tend­ing. That’s a way of devel­op­ing emo­tional mastery.”

U.S. Cir­cuit Court Judge Richard A. Pos­ner offered a sim­i­lar con­clu­sion in his 2001 opin­ion block­ing an Indi­anapo­lis ordi­nance that would have reg­u­lated video-game arcades. “Vio­lence has always been and remains a cen­tral inter­est of humankind and a recur­rent, even obses­sive theme of cul­ture both high and low,” he wrote. “It engages the inter­est of chil­dren from an early age, as any­one famil­iar with the clas­sic fairy tales col­lected by Grimm, Ander­sen, and Per­rault are aware. To shield chil­dren right up to the age of 18 from expo­sure to vio­lent descrip­tions and images would not only be quixotic, but deform­ing; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it.”

That doesn’t mean that any­thing goes. Olson says many pre­cau­tion­ary steps can be taken to mit­i­gate the harm that vio­lent video games might cause. “I would def­i­nitely want to show real­is­tic con­se­quences,” she says, when asked how she would design one of these games. “There are a num­ber of games with sto­ry­lines that show the con­se­quences of vio­lence: Kids are get­ting orphaned or peo­ple are suf­fer­ing.” She says the vio­lence should never be depicted as funny, or the per­pe­tra­tors as attrac­tive, and the play­ers should be rewarded for mercy and moral choices—as they are in the game SWAT, for example.

But to help kids make the right choices about video games, par­ents and other adults first need to under­stand what kids are play­ing. Olson and Kut­ner urge par­ents and researchers alike to learn more about these games, and even play them with kids. This will help both groups develop a more nuanced under­stand­ing of gam­ing and be able to tell the good games from the bad ones.

It’s a great thing devel­op­men­tally for the child to teach the par­ent some­thing,” says Olson. “A lot of kids said they’d love for their par­ents to play games with them.”

Jeremy Adam Smith is the man­ag­ing edi­tor of Greater Good and author of Twenty-First-Century Dad, forth­com­ing in 2009 from Bea­con Press. We bring you this post thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine, a UC-Berkeley-based quar­terly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.

For recent exam­ples on the pos­i­tive value of some games (for chil­dren and adults), and how to nav­i­gate the field from a cog­ni­tive health point of view:

- Inter­views with Brain Scientists

- Prod­uct Eval­u­a­tion Checklist

- Nin­tendo Brain Train­ing and Math in UK Schools

- Posit Sci­ence Pro­gram Clas­sic and InSight and Alzheimer’s Australia


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