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Can Science Absolve Us of Our Stigma?

An article detailing the limitations of scientific inquiry into the issue of violent video games and violent behavior. Make this the last piece you read on violence and video games!

Walter Lippmann, Blogger

September 24, 2009

5 Min Read

[Taken from my website, http://pcgamingcomp.blogspot.com/]

Can the scientific method help illuminate the contentious issue of violence and video games in our favor? We as gamers intuitively understand the limitations of games to influence behavior, but formal scientific evidence would absolve games in the eyes of the mainstream.

"There is a direct relationship between realism and degree of violence enabling," declared Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger and paratrooper. While the military training he incurred decades ago included proper restrictions on violent behavior, thus enabling its release in a controlled, directional manner, video games offer no such "sanctions to constrain violence."

"The worse is yet to come," Grossman gloomily predicted.

The year was 1995.

Over a decade after the publication of "On Killing," it has become clear that Grossman's hypothesis was woefully oversimplistic and, worse of all for a PhD holder, extremely unscientific in its approach. The data is uniquivocal; as video games have expanded their capacity to portray the tortuous dismemberment and outright atomization of fellow homo sapiens, aggravated assault rates have continued to decline. Of course, these variables very probably have nothing to do with one another, yet Grossman could not admit as much when the trend of assault happened to be going the other way.

One shouldn't be too harsh on those of a more conservative stripe, however. Their arguments  make intuitive sense. All sorts of media, along with a host of other socializing factors, influence the development of individuals at the level of the brain. Why would video games be any different? And presumably, the effect initiated by video games wouldn't be a positive one, considering the rather brutish content they contain.

The truth, as is often the case, is somewhere in-between two extremes.

Will too many play sessions of Serious Sam turn you into Son of Sam? Unlikely. But that doesn't mean violent video games are a carefree investment, or that we should lightheartedly dole them out in bushels to our children.

A literature review of the available research reveals a 40/60 split between articles that establish a link between violent games and "aggressive tendencies," and those that do not.

There's no accepted definition of this term (or its variants), but if the research is any good it invariably involves MRI scans performed on people playing violent games. It seems probable that continually playing such games do indeed increase "aggressive tendencies." But that's not the smoking gun those desperate for one were looking for.

The problem is, there are hundreds of variables that constantly provide input to our moment-to-moment experience of the world, many of which also increase aggressive tendencies. The immensely complex confluence of these variables, including their interaction with the random genetic background of an individual, makes it folly to try and pin violent behavior on just one factor.

Nor is there any convincing evidence that an increase in aggressive tendencies necessarily equates to an increase in violent behavior. One may well get frustrated more easily and throw a controller at the wall (who hasn't?), but that's still a long, long way away from butchering another human being. Thus the researchers still have all their work ahead of them.

Finally, if we were forced to play the guessing game, we might conjecture variables that inculcate actual violence towards others in the real world, such as elite military training, would have a far more profound affect on one's psyche than video games (see what I did there, Dr. Grossman?).

Thus, from a scientific standpoint, a tentative conclusion would be that the research is simply too complex to decide one way or the other. Until a major breakthrough in neuroscience presents itself, and/or invasive procedures become acceptable, we will remain nowhere near close to answering this question conclusively. Still, such a non-answer is useful, if for no other reason than outing those would claim a matter-of-fact causal relationship as frauds.

And yet, in the future...

Conservative politicians will continue to use private sexual acts as an excuse to limit our rights and restrict our behavior. Their Liberal brethren will do likewise for the sake of our "health." Much coveted bipartisanship will prevail, and these supposedly vociferous opponents will join hands to exploit the non-existent link between video games and violence to further curtail citizens' rights and enhance control.

As such, the ultimate answer to the question originally presented, even if evidence in our favor existed, is an emphatic no.


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