Video Games: Boon or Bane? Part 2

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Editor’s Note: Yesterday, Bob Hoose discussed some of the evidence suggesting that video games can be beneficial—serving to improve hand-eye coordination, reduce stress and even thicken the cortex of the brain. But all games are not created equal. Today, Adam Holz will offer a more cautionary note in the world of video gaming.

The Case Against (Violent) Video Games

If science shows some positive outcomes in this area, there’s a raft of other scientific evidence that video games—especially those drenched in violence—perhaps have done something to deserve the “mad dog” label.

I’m not an anti-video game crusader. I spent countless hours playing both console games and their arcade cousins in my formative years. Still, I’ve been persuaded to pay attention to the weighty stack of studies that draw strong correlations between video games and problematic behavior.

Few people have spent as much time exploring games and their effects than Iowa State University assistant professor of developmental psychology Dr. Douglas Gentile, who heads up the school’s Media Research Lab.

gaming con.JPGIn 2007, Gentile teamed up with his father, J. Ronald Gentile  (a teaching professor emeritus of educational psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo) to examine how games may teach aggression. Said the younger Gentile:

“We know a lot about how to be an effective teacher, and we know a lot about how to use technology to teach. Video games use many of these techniques and are highly effective teachers. So we shouldn’t be surprised that violent video games can teach aggression.”

The Gentiles’ study focused on three groups of youth: 3rd-5th graders, 8th-9th graders and older adolescents with an average age of 19. After factoring for things like race, sex and prior aggressive behaviors, the father-son team found that violent gameplay was an accurate predictor for increasing aggression. For instance, elementary students who played multiple violent games were 73% more likely to act aggressively (as rated by peers and teachers) than those who played a mix of violent and nonviolent games. Compared to those who only played nonviolent games, these students were a whopping 263% more likely to exhibit aggression.

And Gentile isn’t the only researcher to find a link between games and aggression. Dr. Craig Anderson, director of Iowa State University’s Center for the Study of Violence, analyzed 130 separate video game studies in 2010 encompassing more than 130,000 gamers in the United States, Europe and Japan. Overall, he said, the collective research “strongly suggests” that the medium can increase players’ aggressive thoughts and behavior, as well as decrease their empathy, “regardless of … gender, age or culture.”

Anderson doesn’t believe the majority of kids who play violent games are going to go on shooting rampages. But, he says, the violence found in games is “the only causal risk factor that is relatively easy for parents to do something about. … Any game that involves killing or harming another character in order to advance is likely to be teaching inappropriate lessons to whoever is playing it.”

Video games have been linked to other problematic behaviors as well. Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker of Brigham Young University published research in 2009 that links game play among college students to a higher incidence of drinking, using drugs and having poor relationships with family and friends.

And then, of course, there are those tragic cases where video games have been implicated as an influence in the actions of someone who takes others’ lives.

In his 2006 shooting rampage at Dawson College in Montreal, Quebec, Kimveer Gill killed one person and wounded 19 others before police fatally gunned down the 25-year-old. Website postings from Gill revealed his fascination with 1999’s Columbine killings and his enjoyment of the game Super Columbine Massacre. Likewise, police found violent video games (among other problematic media) on the computer of German teen Tim Kretschmer, who killed 15 people in 2009. That same year, 17-year-old Daniel Petric killed his mother and shot his father when they banned him from playing Halo 3. The Grand Theft Auto franchise has been repeatedly linked to copycat crimes involving shootings, violence and other crimes.

And let’s not overlook how a video game’s innate ability to “teach” its users can be consciously abused. Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people, said he used Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as “part of my training simulation.”

Again as Anderson noted, most kids who play violent video games aren’t going to turn into mass murderers. But the body of research regarding the potential influence of these games does, I think, mean that families should approach gaming with extreme caution. My wife and I have decided that we will not have a video game console in our house. It’s a conviction that I’m sure we’ll have to defend as our kids, especially our son, gets older. But he gets enough screen time already, even as we work diligently to guard that boundary, too.