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The young men who opened fire at Columbine High School, at the movie theatre in Colorado, and in other massacres had this in common: they were video gamers who seemed to be acting out some dark digital fantasy. It was as if all that exposure to computerised violence gave them the idea to go on a rampage — or at least fuelled their urges. But did it really?
Social scientists have been studying and debating the effects of media violence on behaviour since the 1950s, and video games in particular since the 1980s. The issue is especially relevant today, because the games are more realistic and bloodier than ever, and because most boys play them at some point. Girls play at lower rates and are significantly less likely to play violent games. A burst of new research has begun to clarify what can and cannot be said about the effects of violent gaming. Playing the games can and does stir hostile urges and mildly aggressive behaviour in the short term.
Yet it is not at all clear whether, over longer periods, such a habit increases the likelihood that a person will commit a violent crime, like murder, rape, or assault. “I don’t know that a psychological study can ever answer that question definitively,” says Michael R Ward, an economist at the University of Texas, Arlington.
The research falls into three categories: short-term laboratory experiments; longer-term studies, often based in schools; and correlation studies — between playing time and aggression, for instance, or between video game sales and trends in violent crime. In one recent study, Christopher Barlett, a psychologist at Iowa State University, led a research team that had 47 undergraduates play Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance for 15 minutes. Afterward, the team took various measures of arousal, both physical and psychological. It also tested whether the students would behave more aggressively, by having them dole out hot sauce to a fellow student who, they were told, did not like spicy food but had to swallow the sauce. Sure enough, compared with a group who had played a non-violent video game, those who had been engaged in Mortal Kombat were more aggressive across the board.
It is far harder to determine whether cumulative exposure leads to real-world hostility over the long term. Some studies in schools have found that over time digital warriors get into increasing numbers of scrapes with peers — fights in the schoolyard, for example.
“None of these extreme acts, like a school shooting, occurs because of only one risk factor; there are many factors, including feeling socially isolated, being bullied, and so on,” says Craig A Anderson, a psychologist at Iowa State University. Some studies have found that it is aggressive children who are the most likely to be drawn to violent video games. And some studies are not able to control for outside factors, like family situation or mood problems.
Many psychologists argue that violent video games “socialise” children over time, prompting them to imitate the behaviour of the game’s characters, the cartoonish machismo, the hair-trigger rage, the dismissive brutality. Children also imitate flesh and blood people in their lives, of course — parents, friends, teachers, siblings — and one question that researchers have not yet answered is when, exactly, a habit is so consuming that its influence trumps the socialising effects of other major figures in a child’s life.
In a working paper now available online, Ward and two colleagues examined week-by-week sales data for violent video games, across a wide range of communities in the US. Violence rates are seasonal, generally higher in summer than in winter; so are video game sales, which peak during the holidays. The researchers controlled for those trends and analysed crime rates in the month or so after surges in sales, in communities with a high concentrations of young people, like college towns. “We found that higher rates of violent video game sales related to a decrease in crimes, and especially violent crimes,” says Ward. No one knows for sure what these findings mean. It may be that playing video games for hours every day keeps people off the streets who would otherwise be getting into trouble. It could be that the games provide “an outlet” that satisfies violent urges in some players — a theory that many psychologists dismiss but that many players believe.
Or the two trends may be entirely unrelated.
“At the very least, parents should be aware of what’s in the games their kids are playing,” says Anderson, “and think of it from a socialisation point of view: what kind of values, behavioural skills, and social scripts is the child learning?”
©2013 The New York Times