Opinion: Do video games make kids violent, stupid and sick?

Suddenly, video games are blamed for a long list of social ills

Video games have occasionally served as a convenient scapegoat for whatever ails youth. But just this week, the normal trickle of blame has become a torrent, with loud proclamations from many quarters that computer games are making kids violent, stupid and sick.

Researchers at the University of Michigan published a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health this week that found "exposure to virtual violence increases the risk that children and adults will behave aggressively."

New Zealand's national manager of police youth services, Superintendent Bill Harrison, said this week that youth violence has "jumped" in the past two or three years worldwide, which he says coincides with the rise of advanced console games like the Xbox. His point is that better quality video games increase the realism of violence, which does a better job of desensitizing kids to the real thing.

The German Society for Scientific Person-Centered Psychotherapy this week publicly advocated a total ban on violent computer games.

The claimed link between games and violence is a direct result of the content of some games, which enables kids to spend hours in a fantasy world where they're rewarded for attacking, maiming or killing other virtual characters. However, the addictive quality of computer games, which can take time away from other activities like reading and exercise, are also blamed for causing problems.

In the International Reading Literacy Study league table for children's reading skills, England has dropped from third place in 2001 to 19th in 2006, and video games get much of the blame.

Video games are also blamed for obesity because they keep kids indoors and inactive.

NBC reporter Peggy Pico wrote that "Bone specialists say lack of milk, sunshine and outdoor exercise are causing a rise in rickets and broken bones in American children. Some blame too much indoor time on the computer, playing video games or watching TV for the growing problem."

Games are blamed not only for keeping kids up late, but also for disturbing their sleep when they finally go to bed. A study detailed in the Pediatrics journal this month found that playing video games even several hours before bedtime increases the time it takes for teens to fall asleep, and decreases the amount of time spent in slow-wave sleep, during which time people form factual memories.

Games are even being blamed for England's poor showing in international soccer. "We would have the best team if we could go into every household and throw away every PlayStation, Xbox and video game," West Ham soccer goalkeeper Robert Green told AFP this week. Green "blamed the increasing popularity of video games among English boys for the country's failure to reach the finals of the Euro 2008 football championships."

What's wrong with the game blame

Interestingly, actual research is on balance quite neutral about the deleterious effects of gaming. For every study that shows a link between gaming and violence, for example, there's another study that shows no link.

The nonscientific blaming of games overwhelms the scientific. And I can't help but believe that blaming video games has more to do with the anxieties of people over 30 than it does with actual harm to people under 30.

For example, New Zealand's police youth services superintendent is certainly a credible commentator -- an expert in youth violence and its sources, right? But Harrison came to his conclusion not after reviewing statistics, but after watching his own 14-year-old son play Xbox.

The playing of ultrarealistic first-person-shooters by teens is foreign to baby boomers and Generation X types. Sure, we played Pac Man and Space Invaders, but that was nothing like the realistic, immersive first-person shooters kids have now. It's the one aspect of modern youth we feel most alienated from, so that must be the cause of teen troubles, right?

Why not blame the declining quality of diet, pervasive advertising, rising immigration, over-protective parents, cell phone radiation, lack of sleep, stress, globalization, pollution, information overload or the widespread overconsumption of "energy drinks"? All these factors are different from when we were young, too.

England's drop in reading literacy, for example, is relative to other countries. To blame video games is to imply that kids in England are playing more games than kids elsewhere. But games are popular worldwide, not just in England. It's meaningless to blame games unless you can fix a negative correlation between gaming and literacy. Other factors are easier to correlate. For example, England has one of the highest rates of immigration in the world, and immigrant families there tend to have more kids per family than English families. A recent report revealed that some 40% of primary school children in London speak a language other than English at home. It seems to me that a high percentage of kids who don't speak English is more likely to bring down English literacy scores than playing Xbox.

Video games were blamed as a major influence on a teenager in Finland named Pekka-Eric Auvinen, who opened fire inside his high school and killed classmates and the school principal. In various "writings," Auvinen wrote that his interests included books, specifically Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury), 1984 (Orwell), Brave New World (Huxley), The Republic (Plato), all works of Nietzsche, violent games, hard-core music, as well as "existentialism, freedom, truth, misantrophy, social/personality psychology, evolution science, political incorrectness, women, BDSM, guns (I love you, Catherine), shooting, computer games, sarcasm, irony, mass/serial killers, macabre art, black comedy, absurdism."

Aha! Video games must be the cause! In reality, Auvinen's love of video games was one of the normal things about him. More unusual was his obsession with Nietzsche. Maybe we should ban post-modern existentialist philosophy.

Zeroing in on the troubles of teen boys ignores the fact that all age groups and both genders are gaming more.

Retirement communities across America, for example, are buzzing with game fever. The Nintendo Wii system is reportedly a huge hit with the elderly. Does that mean old people will become more violent, stupid and sick, too? Nobody seems all that worried about it.

How to make teens peaceful, smart and healthy again

Interestingly, many say the solution to some of the problems associated with gaming is -- more gaming. For example, games that get players to move around are seen as one solution to a lack of exercise.

As a counterargument to the idea that games reduce literacy, researchers from the Institute of Education at London University said that "games literacy" is an important part of education and has a place in schools. Gaming environments are increasingly used for high-impact training and education.

Others suggest outright bans on violent games, ratings labels, better parenting, more youth programs, better education and other solutions.

Some in the industry are responding to demands for a solution, too. Microsoft announced earlier this month the December availability of a new Xbox feature that will enable parents to limit the time their kids spend playing the console.

One "solution" you don't hear very often is: Maybe we should do nothing. Maybe it's a problem that doesn't need to be solved.

For starters, haven't teenagers always been considered by adults to be violent, stupid and unhealthy -- not to mention lazy, depressed, immoral and disrespectful? Every generation of adults blames some cultural influence or another on ruining young people. Those darned horseless carriages cause youthful indiscretions! The radio is giving kids all kinds of perverse ideas! Talking picture shows are bringing Hollywood immorality into our communities! Rock 'n' roll is weakening the moral fabric of our culture!

Second, games may have an overall positive effect on the lives of some kids. In bad neighborhoods, they may provide an alternative to gangs and real violence, or access to cultural information not otherwise available. At least they're usually not made in China and don't contain lead paint.

And finally, games have evolved to become super realistic and emotionally engaging, and that evolution will continue. There is plenty of evidence -- ignored by critics -- that games are becoming more intellectually stimulating. Many kids who used to play Grand Theft Auto are now enjoying Assassin's Creed or, say, BioShock. These newer games still have violence, but also literary, historical and cultural value, at least in comparison with GTA.

One thing is certain: We need more and better research. So many questions remain unanswered. Do games really cause violence? If so, do some games cause more violence than others? Is the unrealistic or nongraphic violence in, say, Halo 3 less harmful than the blood-splattering violence in Call of Duty 4? Is the "honorable" violence in Call of Duty 4 less harmful than the "criminal" violence in Grand Theft Auto? Are games damaging to some personality types, but harmless to others? Are the effects of gaming long term?

There's so much we don't know, but one thing we do know: Video games are here to stay. And they're rising as a dominant cultural force. Understanding the effect of games on kids requires a dispassionate look at the facts unmodified by our own anxieties and baseless assumptions.

Let's also not forget that video games are fun, and fun is good. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm starting to hear the Call of Duty.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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