Thursday, November 16, 2006

Videogames and violence - a matter of faith

Cleaning my desk today, I found an article I kept because of the reference to what looks like fairly rigid and serious research on video game effects. I went to check the resources, and yes, there are researchers out there who feel that they have found a significant correlation between video games and violence:

Dr. Anderson and colleagues have shown that playing a lot of violent video games is related to having more aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Anderson & Bushman, 2001). Furthermore, playing violent games is also related to children being less willing to be caring and helpful towards their peers. Importantly, research has shown that these effects happen just as much for non-aggressive children as they do for children who already have aggressive tendencies (Anderson et al., under review; Gentile et al., 2004).

I am presently harassing the librarians here to get me a copy of Craig Anderson's special volume of Journal of Adolescence from 2004, because I have some questions about this research. What games did they test? Under what conditions? How did they measure violent behaviour? How do they define violent behaviour?

In other contexts when I have seen research making such claims, even celebrated and lauded research, when looking closer at these parameters I have been rather disappointed with the lack of understanding of games in general, and some really strange ways to measure "violence" and "aggression". I don't say that this is true here, I just really want to look at their methodology. Particularly as the findings do not fit with other observations around games:
1. The availability of video games has led to an epidemic of youth violence.

According to federal crime statistics, the rate of juvenile violent crime in the United States is at a 30-year low. Researchers find that people serving time for violent crimes typically consume less media before committing their crimes than the average person in the general population. It's true that young offenders who have committed school shootings in America have also been game players. But young people in general are more likely to be gamers — 90 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls play. The overwhelming majority of kids who play do NOT commit antisocial acts. According to a 2001 U.S. Surgeon General's report, the strongest risk factors for school shootings centered on mental stability and the quality of home life, not media exposure. The moral panic over violent video games is doubly harmful. It has led adult authorities to be more suspicious and hostile to many kids who already feel cut off from the system. It also misdirects energy away from eliminating the actual causes of youth violence and allows problems to continue to fester.
2. Scientific evidence links violent game play with youth aggression.

Claims like this are based on the work of researchers who represent one relatively narrow school of research, "media effects." This research includes some 300 studies of media violence. But most of those studies are inconclusive and many have been criticized on methodological grounds. In these studies, media images are removed from any narrative context. Subjects are asked to engage with content that they would not normally consume and may not understand. Finally, the laboratory context is radically different from the environments where games would normally be played. Most studies found a correlation, not a causal relationship, which means the research could simply show that aggressive people like aggressive entertainment. That's why the vague term "links" is used here. If there is a consensus emerging around this research, it is that violent video games may be one risk factor - when coupled with other more immediate, real-world influences — which can contribute to anti-social behavior. But no research has found that video games are a primary factor or that violent video game play could turn an otherwise normal person into a killer.

The Anderson study appears to be methodologically sound, from the write-up, but the things I want to have a look at are exactly the issues which Henry Jenkins bring up here: How has the research actually been conducted? Once I get hold of the relevant issue of Journal of Adolescence, I will be back.

No comments: