A Meaner, More Calloused Digital World? Not According to Researchers

Anyone who’s ever spent any amount of time gaming has had to field criticism from outspoken people that gaming leads to real-world violence.  Like clockwork, any time someone commits a heinous act of violence, the media & politicians will inevitably find a game console in their house & start making leaps that Evel Knievel would be envious of.  In their misguided politicking & fear-mongering, they overlook several basic laws of statistics.  For example, roughly half the population of the United States (155 million according to 2015 statistic) play videogames in some capacity.  Four out of five households contain a gaming device of some description.  Yet these incidents, despite becoming disturbingly frequent, are rare in the broad scheme of things.  Certainly a lot rarer than would be statistically expected if there was a direct link between gaming and violence.  Think about it.  At that level, every other person you met would be a raving psychopath.

While I think most people would agree that young children shouldn’t be playing extremely violent games, the literature linking violent games with aggression has always been suspect.  In fact, in 2013 the Consortium of Scholars, a group of 230 researchers, wrote an open letter to the American Psychological Association asking them take a more rigorous, less bias look at the topic.

“Numerous scholars expressed concerns that the composition of the task force comprised individuals who had taken conflict-of-interest public positions on video games prior to being included on the task force, and that the resultant meta-analysis was methodologically unsound… Concerned that the APA’s task force nomination process was nontransparent and appeared to be ‘stacked’ with scholars who had taken anti-game positions publicly in the past, over 230 scholars wrote to the APA when the task force was originally convened requesting that they retire all of their policy statements on media violence.” – Ferguson & Colwell, 2016

Aside from methodological issues with the conclusions drawn in such research, which would be horribly boring to read about, one of the biggest issues in this line of research is the main assumption behind it.

“Media scholars have often postulated digital game effects consistent with ‘hypodermic needle’ approaches in that no consumers are ‘immune’ to the effects of violent digital games or that the effects should be similar to exposure to violence in one’s family or real life.  Advocates of this position suggest that aggression is due to cognitive scripts learned from watching others and that media violence does not differ from real-life violence in this respect. However, this assumption of equivalence between real-life and fictional violence is a significant assumption.” – Ferguson & Colwell, 2016

In plain language, past media scholars have designed their research under the assumption that we are passive consumers.  Just as a hypodermic needle injects its contents directly into our system without any control on our part, any media we consume bypasses conscious processing, morals & personality predispositions, & will have a direct impact on our behavior.  It’s essentially brainwashing, or perhaps subliminal messages (which, by the way, has been disproved as a real thing).

Most of us would not be surprised to find that modern research views humans as active consumers.  Yes, what we’re exposed to can influence us in a number of ways, but how much it affects us depends on a variety of factors, including our own personalities, how close the incident is to us, & how we process it.  Seeing my father beating my mother on a regular basis will have a greater impact on my behavior than seeing a random bar fight on my way home.

Furthermore, modern research has shown that, contrary to conventional opinion, children do actually have a strong sense of distinction between reality & fantasy, as well as reality & play.  It’s a common technique in research designed to study aggression in children to observe how a child plays with toys or other children after viewing violence.  You can look up the videos yourself by Googling any combination of Bandura & Bobo, but essentially what Bandura’s imitative learning experiments showed was that children who viewed adults playing with an inflatable Bobo the Clown doll violently would themselves play with the doll violently.  However, it’s a far stretch to suggest that the same child who punched an inflatable doll would turn around & punch another child, & an even greater stretch to say that repeated viewing would result in a child more prone to acting aggressively toward others.

Even among animals, there exists a strong concept of play.  If you watch puppies or kittens play fight, you’ll notice that despite how rough they might become, there’s always a limit & a keen sense of when that boundary is crossed.  All is takes is their playmate yelping, & the playing instantly stops.  So if animal children understand this, why would we not think that human children, an arguably more intelligent species, would have an even more developed sense of this?

In their article “A Meaner, More Callous Digital World for Youth?  The Relationship Between Violent Digital Games, Motivation, Bullying, and Civic Behavior Among Children,” Ferguson & Colwell achieved results that not only found no correlation between exposure to violent games & antisocial attitudes, they found no correlation between exposure to violent games & bullying, & no correlation between exposure to violent games & prosocial behavior.  In fact, they found no significant difference between the attitudes & behaviors of children who did play games versus those who didn’t.

Even more amazingly, their results actually showed a correlation between exposure to violent games & higher civic behavior.  Civic behavior is essentially being involved in their community in a positive way, like volunteering.  In other words, not only were children who played violent games not more aggressive (the only measure in their test that affected antisocial & bullying behavior was being older & being male), but they were more actively engaged.  The researchers suggest one reason for this results is that “gaming in general is a social activity & that may be particularly true for action-oriented games.”  Given that most “violent” games tend to be shooters, which have a strong multiplayer component, this reasoning makes sense.  While online gaming can certainly have a toxic element, it can also foster friendships, teamwork & camaraderie.

Another intriguing finding was that they found no relationship between the amount of parental involvement & the amount of exposure to violent games.  In other words, even parents who supervised or even played games with their children didn’t prevent their children from accessing violent games.  This might sound counter-intuitive for gamers like myself that grew up with our parents having no idea what videogames were about, but just consider that statement.  Gamers who grew up.  Many people who grew up gaming are now raising children of their own, & encouraging them to take up the hobby themselves.  I find this to be a heartening thought.  I never had anyone to play games with growing up.  I lived out in the country, none of my friends gamed, & my parents weren’t that into it either.  They never made me feel bad about my games, but they never shared in the experience either.  But now there are parents who want to engage with their children in this pastime.

They don’t go into in this research, but I have a strong suspicion that parents are a big mediating factor in how the content in games affects children.  When a parent takes a vested interest in their child’s hobbies or activities, it opens up a lot of room for discussion.  So even if they are playing games with questionable content, it offers parents the opportunity to talk with them about it.  Contrary to what most people seem to think, we aren’t born knowing how to problem solve, or think through things.  It’s a skill that has to be learned & trained over time.  Games can pose a lot of questions, even without meaning to.  And even if you’re not pondering the universe, it creates a channel between you.  Being engaged makes kids realize that you’re interested in them & what they have to say.  And that means they’re more likely to discuss things with you in the future.

Overall, I found this article very encouraging.  Gaming is here, & it’s growing bigger every year.  It’s good to know that, if we let it, it can be a positive influence as both a hobby & a way to bring people together.

Article cited: Ferguson, C.J., & Colwell, J. (2016, July 18). A Meaner, More Callous Digital World for Youth? The Relationships Between Violent Digital Games, Motivation, Bullying, and Civic Behavior Among Children. Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

–  GamerDame

 

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