SALT LAKE CITY — American parents and America's president share a question they want answered, once and for all: Just what are the consequences when a child plays a violent video game, or plays such games repeatedly across years?
For decades, research teams have waded into the controversy about the effects of violent video games on children. But now that researchers are hip deep in data, gaming technology is rapidly evolving and the results still aren't clear enough to allow them to quantify fully the negative effects of violent video games on children.
After all, the amount spent each year on shooter and action video games is so gargantuan — approximately $6.3 billion — that it's about the same as what the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball combine to spend each year on player salaries.
The simmering contention about the consequences of children playing violent games heated back to a boil in December after police found "graphically violent video games" at mass murderer Adam Lanza's house following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn. Detectives there have explored whether Lanza was re-enacting a video game like "Call of Duty," one of his apparent favorites, the Hartford Courant reported, and one of the best-selling video games franchises of all-time. Rated "Mature" for "intense violence" and "blood and gore," the "Call of Duty" franchise has sold more than 160 million games since its inception a decade ago.
In January, President Obama asked Congress to give $10 million to the Centers for Disease Control for scientific research into the relationship between "video games, media images and violence." But last month, the effort to get Congress to pay for more research appeared to stall, a victim of the cash-drenched video game lobby, according to the New York Daily News.
In between those developments, the New York Times published two prominent stories about the consequences of violence in video games, NPR reported its own piece on the topic, and the not-for-profit watchdog group Common Sense Media released a 22-page research brief about violent media that reserved its most pointed policy recommendations for video games.
Clearly the debate about these games remains as polarizing as ever.
On the one hand, researchers rely on reams of lab studies to indict violent video games for increasing aggression among participants. However, many public-health experts simply shrug at laboratory findings they consider irrelevant to what happens in the real world. Instead, they focus on "big picture" trends that show Americans quadrupling their inflation-adjusted spending on video games over the past 20 years at precisely the same time that violent crimes are falling to historic lows.
Despite the lack of consensus, pertinent information abounds. And looking at violent video games through three distinct lenses can be a catalyst for helping parents feel informed and confident about adapting household video game policies that best serve their family’s needs.
A ‘Common Sense’ approach
Jim Steyer isn’t just a veteran of the roiling debate over how violent video games affect young minds — he's also the man the L.A. Times anointed in 2010 as “public enemy No. 1” to the software behemoths that manufacture video games. It's a designation he earned with passionate advocacy like his aggressive support for a California law to ban the sale of violent video games to minor children.
Steyer teaches at Stanford and is the CEO and founder of Common Sense Media. He wrote the 2003 book “The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media's Effect on Our Children.” As he assesses today’s media landscape, he believes current events have created a unique window of opportunity for a “renewed focus” on combating the “broader culture of violence” characterized by excessively violent video games.
“The truth is that the Newtown tragedy focused the nation’s attention on the culture of violence in America — period, whole stop,” Steyer told the Deseret News. “Whatever platforms matter, we’re going to discuss. It so happens that the video game platform is important."
In February, Common Sense Media’s expansive research brief "Media and Violence" summarized the latest scientific data connecting violent media consumption and physically violent behavior — especially as it relates to children and teenagers. The report concluded in part, “Not all children who play violent video games will become violent — but there is a greater chance that they will, especially if there are multiple risk factors operating at the same time.”
Steyer is very vocal about the urgent need for “major new research” to better understand how violent media contributes to violent culture. However, federal funding would be needed to conduct research that is both comprehensive and objective — and in an era of budget cuts and sequesters, any money for studies about video games could be hard to come by.
“We need to do more research, and we need to see leadership, leadership, leadership from the industry — bold leadership where they put the public interest over pure profit margins," Steyer said. “But they’re stonewalling — because the truth is, violence sells.”
Brad Bushman studies the causes, effects and science of human aggression and violence. In his dual capacities as a psychology professor and the chair of mass communication at Ohio State University, he is beholden to nothing except cold, hard data. And on the topic of violent video games, Bushman harbors no doubt whatsoever that they are a direct cause of aggressive behavior.
“We have five decades of research that consistently show that’s the case, and we have good theoretical explanations about why those effects should occur,” Bushman said. “Just based on empirical evidence and based on theoretical arguments, I think that it’s convincing.”
For example, Bushman recently supervised a study where two groups of college students came into a lab and played video games for 20 minutes per day on three consecutive days. One group played a violent game, while the other played something non-violent. Each day following the proscribed gameplay, the participants' aggressive tendencies were tested.
“After day one there was a difference between violent and non-violent game-players: Violent game-players were more aggressive,” Bushman said. “But (after) day two the difference got larger, and (after) day three even larger. The only thing that could’ve caused that difference is the game they played.”
Bushman readily conceded, though, that the scope of his research is hindered by its inability to establish an iron-clad causal link between long-term violent gameplay and increased aggression. The relationship between smoking and lung cancer is one that Bushman likes to compare to violent gameplay and increased real-world aggression.
“We don’t know that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer in humans because you can’t randomly assign people,” he said. “You can’t flip a coin and say ‘if it’s heads you’re going to smoke, but if it’s tails you’re not going to smoke. And we’ll see if you get lung cancer.’ You just can’t do that, and the same is true for many things — including violent games.”
The big picture
Cheryl Olson co-founded the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media in 2001. Seven years later, she co-authored the book “Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do.” Based on a $1.5 million federally funded research project, the book debunked a number of prevalent assumptions about kids playing violent video games — like the notions that violent gameplay can cause kids to have poor social skills or violent outbursts.
“One of the things that my research found was that playing (Mature-rated) games is a normal-average-typical behavior for a teenager today,” Olson told the Deseret News. “It’s really hard to link a normal activity to these incredibly rare events such as mass murder, or even any kind of violent crimes — they’re rare.”
Now working as a consultant, Olson recently spoke to the Deseret News about several aspects of the “violent video game” issue. Coming from a background in public health, she quickly zeroed in on that inherent disconnect between a lot of the scientific research that is conducted about video game violence, and the real-world experiences of kids who play video games.
“Probably the most common study of video game violence involves getting some college students in a research lab and having them play a game for 20 minutes, then doing a little experiment that’s meant to be a proxy for aggression or violence,” she said. “It’s usually something very benign that’s not harmful to anyone.
“In the real world kids are playing games that they pick, for lengths of time they choose, based on motivations they have at the time, usually with friends. And it’s over a period of years. So what happens in the college-student experiment doesn’t tell us anything useful about what to do with our kids.”
For Olson, one obstacle to conducting meaningful research about something like the long-term effects of video game violence is the rapidly evolving nature of technology. Specifically, the unknown nature of future technology makes it difficult to establish a method for classifying present-day “violent media” that will be applicable 10-20 years from now.
However, in Olson’s opinion there is still important research yet to be done about video games. For example, she repeatedly mentioned the urgent need for data about how video game violence affects people with diagnosed mental illness.
“I studied kids that went to public schools, and some of them had learning disabilities or minor emotional issues,” she said. “But nobody was in jail; nobody was in the hospital. We really need to know more about the kids at high risk of either being further traumatized or harming others, and see what we can do to support them.”
In terms of practical things parents can do to insulate their families from adverse consequences stemming from video games, Olson prescribes moderation, keeping game consoles out of children’s bedrooms and ensuring that smartphone gameplay doesn’t interfere with adequate nighttime sleep.
And for parents willing to take a step outside their comfort zone, Olson has one more suggestion.
“I strongly encourage parents to get involved with their kids’ gameplay,” she declared. “(It) gives you an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, from what I know this game seems disgusting. I don’t know why you like it. I know you’re a good kid, a smart kid. If you like it, there must be something good I’m missing. So could you teach me something a little bit of how to play this game?’ That’s a great way to find out more about what your child is doing.
“But it’s also going to give you a chance to be sitting down side-by-side with your kids. That’s a great time to kind of build your relationship, maybe talk about things that are going on that might be important but are uncomfortable to talk about looking each other in the eye. It can be a great opportunity.”
Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at [email protected] or 801-236-6051.