Friday, May 9, 2008

Surprise surprise - video games dont do shit

In a new book Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do by Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, a husband-and-wife team at Harvard Medical School, they detail their views on the effects of video games on kids. The results? Hardly surprising really. No direct causal link between computer gaming and violent behaviour. "What I hope people realize is that there is no data to support the simple-minded concerns that video games cause violence," Kutner said.

The only thing that the research did show was an increase in aggressive behaviour for kids playing M-rated games. The researchers found that 51 per cent of boys who played M-rated games – the US industry's equivalent of an R-rated movie, meaning suitable for ages 17 and up – had been in a fight in the past year, compared to 28 per cent of non-M-rated gamers. The pattern was even stronger among girls, with 40 per cent of those who played M-rated games having been in a fight in the past year, compared to just 14 per cent for non-M players.

Some people may say "Aha!" at this point - "see! Play violent games, increased violent behaviour!". Not so kemosabe - it shows correlation, not causation. You cant draw a link like that when you don't take into account other factors like home life, personality type or other such influences. What if kids who are naturally predisposed to aggressive behaviour seek out aggressive natured games?

"It's still a minority of kids who play violent video games a lot and get into fights. If you want a good description of 13-year-old kids who play violent video games, it's your local soccer team," Olson said.

They also are trying to place the new wave of computer gaming (new meaning the last 12 years or so since Quake came out) in context with other such media influences such as TV, Movies and comics. Whenever a new medium is released, there is always a tendency for people to jump up and down and blame human activity on the influence of a new media. Look at Video Nasties in Britain, Heavy Metal music in the 80's and Rock'n Roll music in the 50's - every time someone has pointed at these things as a single cause of all that is bad in society today. I'm afraid life just isn't that simple - its always going to be a combination of factors.

There have been several studies recently which show differing levels of response from young people when exposed to "violent" video games. Some say they calm people down and allow them to release tension. The one thing they all say is that further study is needed because the results are unclear.

Playing games that simulate violence against fictional characters is not the same as actually mutilating someone. Comparing something that is in reality violent (assaulting someone) against something that has no real world consequence (playing GTA4) is not the same. A majority of people can differentiate between real world violence and fictitious or simulated violence. It is true that people become desensitised to certain violent symbols after long periods of gameplay (such as images of guns and war) but this does not affect they way the react to emotionally disturbing images such as sick children.

"One thing I like about their approach is that they've tried to historicize the whole concept of a media controversy and that we've seen this before," said Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech known for his studies on video games.

The book urges a common-sense approach that takes stock of the entire range of a child's behaviour. Frequent fighting, bad grades, and obsessive gaming can be signs for trouble.

"If you have, for example, a girl who plays 15 hours a week of exclusively violent video games, I'd be very concerned because it's very unusual," Kutner said.

"But for boys (the danger sign) is not playing video games at all, because it looks like for this generation, video games are a measure of social competence for boys."

I totally agree - any young kid who can't whoop an oldie's ass at Unreal Tournament deserves to be sent back to PC Gaming kindergarten until he can frag with the best of them.

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