MIT Professor Debunks Gaming Myths

It’s no secret that the general public has a poor view of the gaming culture.  Videogames seem to be the hot new scapegoat these days, sort of like Rock & Roll back in our grandparents’ time.  Any time something new gains popularity, there will always be those who fear it just because they have no experience with it.  But I’d like to think that doesn’t mean the public is beyond educating.  All they need is a little exposure to dispel their fears.  Clearly I’m not the only person who believes this, because I stumbled across a series of articles on the PBS website about “The Video Game Revolution.”  In addition to interviewing professionals in the industry on the technicalities of game design & history, they also have a series of essays written about various topics.

One in particular, written by MIT Professor Henry Jenkins, seeks to debunk some of the biggest, most common misconceptions.  Personally, I think he did a good job, both in picking his subjects & giving evidence that goes against them.

The availability of videogames has led to an epidemic of youth violence.

This correlated to real life?

This has to be one of the most damning arguments anyone can level against gaming… or anything, really.  I think the first time I remember hearing this statement was after the Columbine Massacre.  Almost like clockwork, someone will “discover” that a person involved in a shooting had at one point picked up a videogame & suddenly they have an external source to place all of the blame on.  That’s right; it was because Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold played Doom that they went on this rampage.  Not the years of bullying, poor parental supervision or previously existing psychopathology.

Jenkins lists several reason why this is not the case.  For one, censuses have shown that violent crimes among juveniles is the lowest it’s been in years.  In fact, I believe violent crime across all spectrum have decreased in recent years.  If gaming really was linked to violence, then given the rise in gaming access, you’d expect the numbers to be higher.  Jenkins also argues with statistics: the percentage of juveniles who play videogames & don’t commit crimes vastly outweigh those who do.  Given that about 90% of juvenile boys & 40% of girls play videogames, if there really was a link we’d all be in a lot of trouble.

I often wonder why people are so quick to blame videogames for violent behavior.  I think it’s because it’s easier than accepting the blame for our actions… or lack thereof.  Rather than examining how we failed to notice the problem or even contributed to it, we can shove the blame off on a third-party.  Unfortunately, this action means nothing ever gets corrected & the problem just continues.

Scientific evidence links violent game play with youth aggression.

It seems like every time you turn around there’s another study coming about heralding that it has found “proof” that playing violent videogames causes aggressive behavior.  Aside from thinking there are better ways to spend research money (how about curing cancer or something important?), as someone who has had to take several classes on research methods, I can point out a long list of problems with these studies.  Violent scenes are taken out of context to the rest of the game… poorly chosen test groups… no longitudinal studies… the list could go on for pages.  My main problem with these studies is that their participants are kids who already play games.  My question is this: does playing violent games make kids more aggressive or are kids who are naturally more aggressive more likely to play violent games?

Jenkins also rightfully points out what has been drilled into my head from the very beginning: correlation does not equal causation.  If you haven’t had the pleasure of taking a research class, this basically means that just because you find a link between two factors doesn’t mean you can say one causes the other.  There could be other factors affecting both that you don’t even know about.

Children are the primary market for videogames.

I think that this is the biggest myth gaming has been saddled with, & that it contributes to all these other problems.  Many non-gamers still think that videogames are for kids.  While this may have been true in the past, when gaming was new, it certainly isn’t now.  The gaming industry has evolved greatly since the Atari & NES times.  Companies now have the ability & resources to experiment with new ideas.  Plus, the kids who originally played the NES have grown up into adults who play videogames.  In fact, over half of all gamers are over 18 (62% for consoles & 66% for PC according to the article).

Maybe if we make the whole back cover the rating it’ll be big enough…

M-rated games aren’t intended for children, so why even discuss them?  When people think games are for kids, of course they’ll get upset when there’s blood or nudity.  But according to Jenkins, the problem is even greater than that.  Because parents think that gaming is still a medium for kids, they ignore the ESRB ratings, don’t research the games their kids want, & just assume every game is kid-friendly.  Then they freak out when they walk in to see little Timmy cutting someone in half with a chainsaw in Saints Row: The Third.  Parents need to take more responsibility.  Jenkins points out that one-fourth of children 11-16 list an M-rated game among their favorites.  Last time I checked, 11-year-olds didn’t have jobs & certainly couldn’t drive, so an adult had to buy them.  Jenkins also gives a statistic from the Federal Trade Commission that 83% of gaming purchases for underage gamers was done by a parent (either alone or with the child present).

Seriously people, take five seconds to look at the cover.  It’ll tell you what’s in the game.

Almost no girls play videogames.

While it may certainly feel like I’m alone in a vast wasteland of testosterone, the number of female gamers has increased significantly over the past few years.  I’ve read several studies that women outnumber men when it comes to casual, web or flash-based games, such as those on Facebook.  And while we gamers may turn our noses up to these time-killers, it’s no stretch to say that these may lead to broader gaming interests.

Unfortunately, there are times when I think most developers assume only men play games, given the number of anatomically incorrect heroines.  However, I blame this on more than just that.  Mainly I blame the media in general for the whole “sex sells” mentality.  It’s gotten a bit out of hand.  (Have any of you seen this Hardee’s commercial for the jalapeno burger?  What the hell!?)

Also, even for the worst offenders for pandering, such as Lara Croft, there’s an effort to make female character strong, capable & more than just eye candy.

As more women become involved in gaming both as recreation & as a career, I hope to see more sensible female characters.  I’d like to think we’re past the point where guys will only play as a female character if she’s half-dressed.

Because games are used to train soldiers to kill, they have the same impact on the kids who play them.

I’d honestly never heard of this before, but according to Jenkins, a former military psychiatrist named David Grossman has put this argument forward.  Dr. Grossman’s argument is that because the military uses games to train soldiers, that other people who play games will experience the same effect.  In contrast, Jenkins argues that this is not the case because the context isn’t the same.  This sort of training doesn’t work if the player can show resistance to the message.  Soldiers are constructed.  That’s what the military does: they break you down & build you back up they way they want.  They’re invested in learning from these games, I am not.

I’ve never been in the military, but I’m pretty sure the games I play are different from what the military uses.  I doubt even the most realistic shooter can compare.  The games just have two different purposes.  One is to entertain, the other is to educate.

Videogames aren’t a meaningful form of expression.

I’d like to think after the California ruling that videogames are protected under Free Speech that we’ve moved past this, but there are a lot of people who look at games as trivial bits of mindless entertainment.  Unlike proper art, they don’t express ideas or feelings.  But games are able to get across multiple, powerful emotions when handled properly.  Games can make us feel sad, elated, enraged, can make us think & examine tough issues.

Jenkins includes a comment from Will Wright, the creator of The Sims, that I think sums it up nicely.  He says, “Games are perhaps the only medium that allows us to experience guilt over the actions of fictional characters.  In a movie, one can always pull back and condemn the character or the artist when they cross certain social boundaries.  But in playing a game, we choose what happens to the characters.  In the right circumstances, we can be encouraged to examine our own values by seeing how we behave within virtual space.”

Videogame play is socially isolating.

This idea probably comes from the stereotype of the MMO nerd.  You all know what I’m talking about.  The guy hunched over his monitor in a dark room, locked away from the world.  But with advancements in technology, this isn’t the case nowadays.  Gamers can communicate with each other while playing games online.  I can talk to someone in a completely different country while playing co-op with them.

Gaming starts early

Most people have played games with others, even if it’s just watching them play through a single-player campaign.  Just yesterday I sat with my dad in the living room while he watched me play Okami on the Wii (because he likes games but sucks at them).  Nearly 60% of gamers play with friends, 33% play with a sibling & 25% play with a spouse or parent.  Not only that, but thanks to sites like Justin.tv, people from around the world can watch players livestream games & interact with them while they’re doing it.

That being said, I would like to caution that talking to someone over XBox Live or whatnot cannot replace real social interaction.  I don’t count people I only know from Live as friends.  That’s not to say that people can’t connect through gaming & become good friends, but it takes more than just fragging Russians.

Videogame play is desensitizing.

Again, back to the dangers of games on children.  Many studies have looked at how viewing violence can desensitize people to it.  Games are only the newest offender to be added to the list.  The theory is that continually viewing violence makes one numb to it in real life.  Therefore, they don’t react to it & are more likely to commit acts of violence against others.  Supporters argue that videogames in particular are dangerous because the player actually commits the act rather than just watching it.

In the article, Jenkins points out how studies have shown that animals separate play from reality.  He says that play exists in this “magic circle” that separates it from reality.  If anyone has ever had puppies or kittens, you’ve probably seen this.  There’s a real difference between two dogs play-fighting & two dogs fighting for real.  Because of this, even if kids do engage in violent play after viewing game violence — which usually does happen in studies — that doesn’t necessarily translate into real-world violence.  Not only that, but most kids do know the difference between reality & what they see or play in games.  Even when acting it out, they know it’s not real.  As Jenkins puts it, “Such research shows us only that violent play leads to more violent play.”

Jenkins also points out, rightly so I believe, that if a child doesn’t show this distinction between play & reality, there is likely a pre-existing problem.

As I write this post, I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir.  Most of the people who will read this are already gamers, so I’m not converting anyone.  But I hope that you’ll share this information with others the next time they start harping on videogames.  Maybe we’ll win some people over yet.

Article cited “Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked,” by Henry Jenkins, http://www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths.html

– GamerDame

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2 Comments

Filed under Random Thoughts

2 responses to “MIT Professor Debunks Gaming Myths

  1. It’s always good to be reminded of these things. I don’t know if you saw the CNN article from yesterday on “The Demise of Guys,” but it perpetuates a lot of these misleading findings. I was also interested that your dad liked to watch you play; my wife often watches me play, and I wonder how many people enjoy video games as a kind of spectator sport.

    • I think a lot of people enjoy watching other people play videogames. There are enough Youtube channels to prove that. People who believe these myths have never even seen game footage aside from commercials & what they show on the news. It’s definitely a case of condemning without knowing.

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