Violence & Video Games, Yet Again.

Manhunt (video game)

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While there is an abundance of violence in the real world, there is also considerable focus on the virtual violence of video games. Interestingly, some people (such as the head of the NRA) blame real violence on the virtual violence of video games. The idea that art can corrupt people is nothing new and dates back at least to Plato’s discussion of the corrupting influence of art. While he was mainly worried about the corrupting influence of tragedy and comedy, he also raised concerns about violence and sex. These days we generally do not worry about the nefarious influence of tragedy and comedy, but there is considerable concern about violence.

While I am a gamer, I do have concerns about the possible influence of video games on actual behavior. For example, one of my published essays is on the distinction between virtual vice and virtual virtue and in this essay I raise concerns about the potential dangers of video games that are focused on vice. While I do have concerns about the impact of video games, there has been little in the way of significant evidence supporting the claim that video games have a meaningful role in causing real-world violence. However, such studies are fairly popular and generally get attention from the media.

The most recent study purports to show that teenage boys might become desensitized to violence because of extensive playing of video games. While some folks will take this study as showing a connection between video games and violence, it is well worth considering the details of the study in the context of causal reasoning involving populations.

When conducting a cause to effect experiment, one rather important factor is the size of experimental group (those exposed to the cause) and the control group (those not exposed to the cause). The smaller the number of subjects, the more likely that the difference between the groups is due to factors other than the (alleged) causal factor. There is also the concern with generalizing the results from the experiment to the whole population.

The experiment in question consisted of 30 boys (ages 13-15) in total. As a sample for determining a causal connection, the sample is too small for real confidence to be placed in the results. There is also the fact that the sample is far too small to support a generalization from the 30 boys to the general population of teenage boys. In fact, the experiment hardly seems worth conducting with such a small sample and is certainly not worth reporting on-except as an illustration of how research should not be conducted.

The researchers had the boys play a violent video game and a non-violent video game in the evening and compared the results. According to the researchers, those who played the violent video game had faster heart rates and lower sleep quality. They also reported “increased feelings of sadness.”  After playing the violent game, the boys  had greater stress and anxiety.

According to one researcher, “The violent game seems to have elicited more stress at bedtime in both groups, and it also seems as if the violent game in general caused some kind of exhaustion. However, the exhaustion didn’t seem to be of the kind that normally promotes good sleep, but rather as a stressful factor that can impair sleep quality.”

Being a veteran of violent video games, these results are consistent with my own experiences. I have found that if I play a combat game, be it a first person shooter, an MMO or a real time strategy game, too close to bedtime, I have trouble sleeping. Crudely put, I find that I am “keyed” up and if I am unable to “calm down” before trying to sleep, my sleep is generally not very restful. I really noticed this when I was raiding in WOW. A raid is a high stress situation (game stress, anyway) that requires hyper-vigilance and it takes time to “come down” from that. I have experienced the same thing with actual fighting (martial arts training, not random violence).  I’ve even experienced something comparable when I’ve been awoken by a big spider crawling on my face-I did not sleep quite so well after that. Graduate school, as might be imagined, put me into this state of poor sleep for about five years.

In general, then, it makes sense that violent video games would have this effect-which is why it is not a good idea to game up until bed time if you want to get a good night’s sleep. Of course, it is a generally a good idea to relax about an hour before bedtime-don’t check email, don’t get on Facebook, don’t do work and so on.

While not playing games before bedtime is a good idea, the question remains as to how these findings connect to violence and video games. According to the researchers, the differences between the two groups “suggest that frequent exposure to violent video games may have a desensitizing effect.”

Laying aside the problem that the sample is far too small to provide significant results that can be reliably extended to the general population of teenage boys, there is also the problem that there seems to be a rather large chasm between the observed behavior (anxiety and lower sleep quality) and being desensitized to violence. The researchers do note that the cause and effect relationship was not established and they did consider the possibility of reversed causation (that the video games are not causing these traits, but that boys with those traits are drawn to violent video games).  As such, the main impact of the study seems to be that it got media attention for the researchers. This would suggest another avenue of research: the corrupting influence of media attention on researching video games and violence.

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11 Comments.

  1. It seems to me that desensitization is a buzzword for apathy towards violence.

    Now, what’s the worry here? Surely it’s that if one is apathetic towards violence, then one is more likely to be violent. The reasoning seems to be that apathy has lowered a violence-impeding barrier–namely, some variation on the theme of revulsion towards violence.

    This line of reasoning seems flawed to me. What it essentially argues is that apathy towards X makes one more likely to do X.

    Surely that’s false.

    Would being apathetic towards justice make one more likely to be just?

    How about being apathetic towards vegetables? More likely to select them in preference to other foods?

    Bollocks.

    Perhaps there is something to worry about in virtual violence. Whatever that something is, it’s not desensitization.

  2. I have found that if I play a combat game, be it a first person shooter, an MMO or a real time strategy game, too close to bedtime, I have trouble sleeping.

    ‘Combat game’, thus described, looks like a pretty meaningless category; in particular, ‘MMO’ just refers to the number of players able to interact with one another within a single online game instance (where ‘MMORPG’ would more specifically describe WOW).

    That, I think, is part of the problem with the way in which questions about ‘violent games’ are typically framed: people who would never refer to ‘battle scenes in oils or acrylics or big enough to be exhibited to large crowds’ start using aesthetically bizarre categories when they talk about in-game violence. You can’t (quoting the source article) look at people ‘playing a violent game (“Manhunt”) and a nonviolent cartoon game (“Animaniacs”)’ and expect to learn anything about a category of ‘violent games’.

  3. Robert,

    I’m not sure what you’re saying.

    How is a combat game a meaningless category? Surely it picks out something meaningful, namely games that center on combat.

    Mike’s listing of FPSs, MMOs, and RTSs was to make the point that the focus on combat was what gave the game its keying effect on him, not its presentation (whether as an FPS, RTS, and so on).

    This all seems sensible to me.

  4. Dregs,

    Quite right. Also, your comment got me thinking about whether or not sports games which involve non-lethal “combat” might have a similar effect. But perhaps those games would also be pegged as violent video games.

    I haven’t played any sports games, at least not since the days of the Atari, so I don’t have any experiences to draw on. But it would be interesting if basketball or football games had the same effect as the usual suspects in regard to violent video games.

  5. Mike LaBossiere,

    “Quite right. Also, your comment got me thinking about whether or not sports games which involve non-lethal “combat” might have a similar effect. But perhaps those games would also be pegged as violent video games.”

    Car racing games are (mostly) non violent. It’s the concentration and fast action that gets you so hopped up and gives the pleasure – but there is a cost. The physiological processes involve more than your imagination. Your adrenal gland and thyroid have to pump harder to give your brain the juice for concentrating – you know it’s late at night and you’re getting your ass kicked by a boos, or there’s some tricky game play puzzle you can’t get around, that pain in the neck you get is your thyroid gland. And why you sleep restlessly is your blood is full of hormones really meant for the daytime – and situations where something is trying to kill you.

    Could you be damaging your thyroid by putting it under this kind of stress over a long period….The jury is still out on that one.

    Are video games bad for you and children? That’s a nonsense the “if it’s fun, it must be bad” brigade started. A special educator I know, with long decades of experience, used to believe the games were bad. But then found they improve children’s concentration and motor skills, so she recommends that children having problems learning should play more games. Playing games can make a huge difference for children with Downs syndrome.

    But there is another question – in terms of shaping young minds. Is prancing around the World of Warcraft, as a wizard or flute player, all that Christian…to me it seems a little pagan, maybe even downright satanic. Why aren’t Christian children playing wholesome games; like where they make an assault on a family planning clinic, blow up a victory mosque…and kill the boss, that looks a lot like Satan from the History Channel’s depiction of bible stories.

    Violence in games does not make people violent. A close friend of mine hates golf on every level imaginable; social, politically, and especially; sartorially. But he’s addicted to golf games on the Xbox. And unless he can do it without getting out of a chair, and Dominos deliver on the green, there is no danger he will ever play a real game of golf in his life.

    Will Mike turn into a New Age pagan wizard from playing too much WOW, I do not know.

  6. @Dregs

    Mike’s listing of FPSs, MMOs, and RTSs was to make the point that the focus on combat was what gave the game its keying effect on him, not its presentation (whether as an FPS, RTS, and so on).

    Presentation? Those are core gameplay mechanics. Play is an act, not a presentation of something else.

    Of course, games stand in various thematic relations with the real world (and with each other, and with other media). There are all sorts of conceivable ways of categorising games thematically, some of which make reference to themes of ‘combat’ as something familiar from the real world. But there’s something that counts as being ‘in combat’ in e.g. Quake, as opposed to being out of it when no enemies are nearby. (It’s even more explicit in e.g. the case of a JRPG shifting from field mode to battle mode.) Quake has a focus on combat precisely in that being in combat is the meat of the gameplay. And what counts as combat in Quake isn’t commensurable with what counts as combat in C&C, because the game mechanics are so barely related.

  7. Steve Merrick

    Is prancing around the World of Warcraft, as a wizard or flute player, all that Christian…to me it seems a little pagan, maybe even downright satanic.

    We used to have this problem years ago, when swords and sorcery RPGs were popular. “It’s satanic!”, shouted the Christian fundies. But why? Lifting a few demon’s names from christian archives was as bad as it ever got, in my experience. Satanists are actually rather nice people, whose beliefs are more similar to Christianity than any other religion I can think of. Even if you’re not happy with that view, why would being a WOW wizard incline you to Satan or Satanism? And as for flute players…. :smile:

  8. JMRC,

    I spent much of my misguided youth playing AD&D and similar games and well recall the very loud (but small in number) folks who warned about the dangers of the game. Tom Hanks even acted in an anti-gaming TV movie, Mazes & Monsters.

    You should copyright your game idea-it would make a fortunes…

  9. Well, playing a bard (flute player) is worse than Satanism. Damn bards.

  10. Rational Hoplite

    The research regarding desensitization is weak, and behavioural scientists are barking up the wrong tree.

    The relevant questions – and I see little evidence that they are being asked regularly and rigorously – include questions like: What are most youth-gamers *not* doing if because they spend n-hours per-day playing a “violent” video game?

    One presumes that if a parent allows a preteen to play a “first-person-killer” game five, six, seven hours a day, then, that child is likely not spending time engaging other (real, live) children and humans, or reading, or falling off swings and jumping ramps with bicycles (&c.).

    The games and diversions of youth – apart from how they may help to develop socialization skills – tend often to result in scrapes and bruises —- *real* consequences of and reactions to childhood experiments with the extent and limits of his/her own *agency*. Throwing stones at bottles on a wall, building a crude “fort” out of scrap plywood, swinging from ropes — all these things provide opportunities for a young person to get *feedback*: action at a distance (the bottle breaks); design-realization (the “fort” gets partially constructed); some bad ideas result in a bit of pain (the branch breaks, the gets rope burn) — and, about right and wrong behaviour breaking bottles on your neighbour’s wall is not cool; using your father’s tools without permission is not cool; cutting down the family clothesline to play Tarzan is not cool).

    All this childhood experiments the the extent of one’s personal agency help suggest the boundaries of propriety, the limits of good sense, and that some actions – however innocent or benign – can result in injury and pain. When, however, a child’s chief or primary sense of feedback comes from a video game, these kinds of formative experiences miss their developmental windows of opportunity. The child’s agency-feedback expectations may then become perverted, and “feedback” regarding one’s agency might be sought through “experiments” that might result (intentionally or otherwise) in harm to others.

    I am confident that the neurological effects playing “violent” video games due to the *content and character* of the games are less relevant than the character of the experience of *virtual agency* that comes with playing “violent” video games, at the exclusion of undertaking other real (“violent” or destructive) activities which provide opportunities for more developmentally constructive “agency-feedback” — e.g., backyard football, “bombing” anthills with rocks.

    And here’s where it comes full-circle: In the case of these last two examples, it is here specifically that many youth learn that *too* rough a tackle might be inappropriate, and may lead to tears; and, that perhaps bombing anthills with rocks is cruel. The child who cannot grasp either of these points – who enjoys tackling too hard, and has advanced from bombing anthills to ant-torture – would not need Call of Duty to help advance nascent psychopathology.

    The rub: These observations often require the suggestion or input of an adult or well-adjusted older-person who is actually tuned-in to the play, and is concerned with the development and well-being of the children playing. It takes an adult to tell a child not to play too rough, *and* to notice a child’s indifference to the injunction.

    But for the lad who is indoors all day playing a first-person-killer game, such wise and attentive supervision seems to be minimal, and the opportunity of developing or extracting lessons from gaming are few and poor.

    RH

  11. Rational Hoplite

    EDITED/CORRECTED VERSION OF ABOVE — APOLOGIES FOR THE TERRIBLE PROOFREADING. RH

    The research regarding desensitization is weak, and behavioural scientists are barking up the wrong tree.

    The relevant questions – and I see little evidence that they are being asked regularly and rigorously – include questions like: What are most youth-gamers *not* doing because they are spending n-hours per-day playing a “violent” video game?

    One presumes that – if a parent allows a preteen to play a “first-person-killer” game five, six, seven hours a day – then, (1) that child is likely *not* spending time engaging other (real, live) children and humans, or reading, or falling off swings and jumping ramps with bicycles (&c.), and (2) the parent(s) (or: adult caregiver[s]) is not taking seriously his/her/their responsibility to cultivate actively their child.

    The traditional, analog, off-line games and diversions of youth – apart from how they may help to develop socialization skills – tend often to achieve at least three things. I have boys in mind, and I hope my “genderizing” will be excused.

    First, they very often result in scrapes and bruises —- that is, when play is a childhood experiment with the extent and limits of his/her own *agency*, play often result in *real* consequences.

    Second, play offers opportunities for children to experiment with *relations with other self-movers* — other children, adults, pets and animals, and anything that seems to *react* to interference. With respect to peers, play is how children learn to share (or steal), be kind and virtuous (or mean and petty), and cooperate (or frustrate cooperation), &c. With respect to non-conspecific self-movers, play or engagement with pets or other animals (and for rural kids like myself: insects!) is often how one learns about cruelty and the virtue of non-reciprocative benevolence. These, too, are lessons in agency, and how agency sometimes must or ought to be limited by normative convention.

    Hence the third outcome of play: consequences for actions, and knowledge of what constitutes an act. Throwing stones at bottles on a wall, building a crude “fort” out of scrap plywood, swinging from ropes — all these things provide opportunities for a young person to get lots of *feedback*. Children learn they have the ability to extend the consequences of their actions across space – “action at a distance” – when the bottle breaks); they have the chance to experience the consequences of action over time, resulting from intentional effort and cooperation(design-realization) when the “fort” gets constructed; and they have the opportunity to learn that some experiments result in a bit of pain (the branch breaks, they get rope burn).

    Play is also an opportunity to learn about right and wrong behaviour: breaking bottles on your neighbour’s wall is not cool; using your father’s tools without permission is probably not cool; cutting down the family clothesline to play Tarzan is definitely not cool (&c.).

    All these childhood experiments allow children to test, measure, gauge (&c.) the extent of their personal agency, and should serve also to suggest the boundaries of propriety and the limits of good sense, as well as show that some actions – however innocent or benign – can result in injury and pain.

    When, however, a child’s chief or primary sense of feedback comes from a video game, these kinds of formative experiences miss their developmental windows of opportunity. My research into this suggests (1) loss of learning-opportunities through play results in the loss of key developmental milestones with respect to learning about what an act is, and the consequences of real action; (2) that the chief hazard of “excessive” gaming is, due to “agency-feedback deficits” (AFD, my term), a child’s agency-feedback expectations may become deviant; and (3) the child’s developmental need for “feedback” regarding his/her own agency might be met by seeking feedback through deviant experimentation, often of the sort which might result (intentionally or otherwise) in harm to others. In other words, the content of GTA is unlikely to make a “good kid” experiment in real life with GTA malefaction; but a developmentally-deprived child whose main source of feedback about his/her own agency has been from success with GTA might need more formidable feedback from real life, and may for that reason undertake acts which assure a formidable reaction.

    The galvanic skin response and EEG data are inconclusive, because experimenters are targeting the wrong aspects of gaming. I am confident that the neurological effects of playing “violent” video games are not so much due to the *content and character* of the games, as they are due to the character of the experience of *virtual agency* that comes with playing “violent” video games. Real acts which provide opportunities for more developmentally constructive “agency-feedback”, even when these are themselves “violent” – say, backyard football, or “bombing” anthills with rocks – help establish feedback-expectations and behavioural norms; virtual acts, in contrast, seem to result in both an agency-feedback deficit, and lack of appreciation of behavioural norms.

    And here’s where it comes full-circle: In the case of these last two examples – tackle-football and “ant-war” – it is here specifically that many youth learn that, say, *too* rough a tackle might be inappropriate, and may lead to injury (or at least the tears and hurt-feelings) of a friend; or, that while parents might spray anthills intentionally to kill ants, perhaps taking pleasure in bombing anthills with rocks is cruel. (Explaining to the child why this is so does of course require an adult — see infra.) The child who cannot grasp either of these points – who knows he is tackling too hard, and enjoys tackling too hard; the child who has advanced from bombing anthills to ant-torture – would not need Call of Duty to help advance nascent psychopathology.

    Here then the rub: For a child to benefit fully from the agency-experiments of play requires the suggestion or input of an adult or well-adjusted older-person, one who is actually tuned-in to the developmental importance of play, and is concerned with the development and well-being of the children playing. It takes an adult to tell a child not to play too rough, or that shooting birds with an air rifle is cruel. It also takes an adult to notice a child’s preternatural enjoyment of rough-play and animal-killing, and/or indifference to the parental-injunction and/or behavioural norm.

    But for the lad who is indoors all day playing a first-person-killer game, we can assume that such wise and attentive adult supervision is minimal, while the opportunities of extracting lessons from gaming/video game narratives are in any case few and poor.

    * Vide: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/esc_english_studies_in_canada/v037/37.2.leeson.html

    ** See also CAMERON-PERRY, J ELLIS (2000), Homo ludens: Jolley v Sutton LBC, Scots Law Times, Issue 24, 7 July 2000, pp.189-92

    RH

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