An obscure trailer for some game called “Grand Theft Auto V” came out yesterday, you may have heard of it. And with the trailer, and with the release, will come the usual handwringing about how games like these are perverting our children into violent horrible little monsters, because kids were never horrible little monsters before video games. And, inevitably, they will refer to “studies”. Never who issues these studies, never what the studies actually say, just “studies.”
One thing comes through, though, when you look at these studies: there’s a method here, but it isn’t any sort of scientific method. Here are the major problems with every single study you’ll find about violence and media, especially video games.
#5) They All Work On the Assumption That Viewing Violence Will Desensitize or Make People Violent
This is generally where a lot of these studies, even academic one with reasonable amounts of rigor, fail right out of the gate: they don’t question the conventional wisdom that seeing violence makes people violent, or that a mentally competent person, viewing strings of code punching and shooting each other, lacks the capacity to realize that this doesn’t extend to the real world.
What’s really bizarre about this is that it’s not like violence and what causes it is unresearched. For example, the latest World Development Report reaffirmed the obvious: violence perpetuates poverty, and vice versa. Then there’s the fact that in the U.S., the crime rate peaked in 1991 and has been dropping ever since. Factor in crimes per capita and it drops like a rock. So, it’s pretty clear we, as a country, have developed a huge taste for violent media…but are becoming less violent as a country.
I’m not saying this starting assumption is or is not correct: I have opinions about it, but no hard proof. But that’s the thing: neither does anybody else. To not address this problem is distinctly unscientific and if the study doesn’t do it, we can’t take it seriously.
#4) They Fail to Address More Likely Problems First
One thing psychologists definitely agree on across the board: if you beat up your kid, or scream at them constantly, or just ignore them, they’re going to have serious emotional problems. That’s kind of a given. So it’s a little odd that the majority of studies about violence and video games fail to ask the subjects any detailed questions about their home life. You’d think that’d be a pretty important topic to look at, because it would answer the question of whether or not violent media combines with a bad psychological situation to make things worse.
Yet it rarely, if ever, comes up. Gee, maybe that’s because it might alter the character of the study considerably?
#3) There’s a Refusal To Discuss Studies About Certain Types of Media
Every football season, we hear about how football causes domestic violence, with plenty of warnings that just because your team loses, you shouldn’t hit your wife.
Oh, wait. No we don’t. It gets barely any media coverage. Instead we might hear about how the study is flawed because it mistakes correlation with causation, if it comes up at all.
Similarly, there’s little, if any, research about what watching football, or boxing, or UFC, or hockey fights, does to kids, which seems kind of important to study because that’s actual human beings actually hurting each other. Zdeno Chara, of the Boston Bruins, literally broke a man’s jaw with one punch. That aired on national TV.
We literally do not have this data, and it would seem that any research into kids and violence should include something we consider it AOK to show to kids that involves grown men breaking bones. You’d want that in your study, I’m pretty sure.
#2) Actual Content Is Rarely Considered
Any gamer can tell you the difference between “Saints Row 2” and “Shadow of the Colossus”. They can also tell you that no child should be anywhere near the former and the latter might be OK, but they probably wouldn’t get it. But to a researcher, it’s a game about hunting down a creature and stabbing it repeatedly. Many of these studies take the attitude of “It’s got violence in it? OK, great, let’s test that.”
Heck, let’s compare “Saint’s Row 2” and “GTA IV”. Again, we can agree kids shouldn’t be near either, but of the two…which one is a kid more likely to get isn’t real, the one involving you sprinting naked down the highway before blowing up a few cars with a rocket launcher and then base jumping off an overpass, or Niko Bellic’s idea of conflict resolution?
This isn’t a recent problem, either; back when people were worried it was television making our kids into perverts and freaks, people counted acts of violence and concluded the most violent TV show of the early ’90s was…”Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
You know, I wouldn’t expose my kid to Creepy Riker, but I’m kind of wondering how freakin’ “Star Trek” got to the top of that list without anybody noticing violence was the option of last resort.
#1) The Real, Serious Studies That Will Answer This Question Haven’t Been Done Yet, And Probably Never Will
The real answer to this question will come when somebody does a double-blind study over a period of a decade or longer following an enormous number of participants and looking closely at other factors as well. That would give us a definitive answer.
That study is, to my knowledge, not being done right now. Odds are pretty good it’s never going to happen, either.
Why? Short answer: money.
Studies have to be paid for, and that generally means grant money. And the people willing to pay for these studies generally want quick results and sound bites they can take onto CNN, not a complex look at why we are the way we are and what video games do to contribute to that. For example, we think video games might be making kids smarter, and that is the last thing a far-right group like the Parents Television Council wants to hear. They want a definite result that reinforces their beliefs, even if those beliefs go against the data. And that will skew the study, especially if it’s done outside of a rigorous academic setting.
I think we can all agree: kids shouldn’t be playing M-rated games. But the next time somebody mentions those “studies”, ask them where they got their information from, and see if they bothered to deal with the above.