Still Flippin' (12.27.01) - With all the cutting-edge home game systems out there, pinball has long been dead. Or has it?
Video Violence (9.28.00) - Are games like Doom, Mortal Kombat and Total Carnage inciting adolescents to commit violent acts? One prominent critic says parents have a right to be concerned and should take steps to protect their children.
Are the video games on your kids' Christmas lists harmful to their mental health? This ScienCentral News video reports that with a new crop of violent games on store shelves, researchers are still split on the matter.
The "Grand Theft Auto" series of video games is one of the industry's most popular, and also one of the most controversial. This holiday season brings another sequal: "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." In it, players control a character who participates in gangland wars, murders police officers and assaults prostitites. The game is expected to sell well enough to rival a blockbuster movie.
"In this game, you play the part of a psychopath, basically," says Douglas Gentile, a psychologist at Iowa State University. "You run around the street, you can run down pedestrians with the car, you can do carjackings, you can do drive-by shootings, you can run down to the red-light district, pick up a prostitute, have sex with her in your car, and then kill her to get your money back. Most parents are unaware that this most popular game in the country has such very adult themes in it."
But is there a connection between violent video games and teenage violence? Gentile thinks so. He surveyed 600 eighth and ninth graders and the kinds of video games they play, along with measures of aggressive behavior. "We found that for children who are playing a lot of violent video games, they see the world as a more hostile place, they get into more arguments with teachers, they get into more physical fights, and they also get worse grades in school," he says.
But skeptics say this doesn't prove the games are causing this behavior. "What you have is a correlation," says Jonathan Freedman, a psychologist at the University of Toronto who wrote a book criticizing many of the studies linking violent media to violent behavior. "And the issue of interest to everybody is, 'Does playing violent video games cause kids to be aggressive?' And there's nothing in this study that answers that question." He also points out that if there is a link, you'd expect to see evidence of it in the police blotter. "But instead of an increase in violent crime, we've seen a very sharp decrease from 1992 to the present," Freedman says. "That doesn't prove anything, but certainly all those people who believe that all this media violence is dangerous would've expected an increase."
Like other skeptics, Freedman argues that the teens drawn to violent video games are probably already aggressive teens. "Among those kids who are low in trait hostility, some of them play violent video games, and those are the more aggressive kids in that group. They are more likely to get into fights, and they are more likely to play violent video games, and I would guess that they are more likely to watch violent television and to play violent sports, and to do all sorts of other things that are violent."
But Gentile says he controlled for that in his study by measuring each teenager's innate level of hostility. "We gave [the participants] a standard personality hostility inventory, and what we found that was so surprising, was…if you're on the very low end, you're a non-hostile kid, and you play a lot of violent video games, that increases your risk of fights about ten times. So, these violent video games seem to have an effect [not only] on the kids that are already at risk for aggressive and anti-social behavior, but also on the kids who are not already at risk."
Gentile found that among kids who scored low on the measure of hostility and did not play violent games, four percent reported getting into fights in the previous year. But for kids low in hostility who do play violent games, 38 percent were involved in fights. The study, funded by the Institute, was published in the Journal of Adolescence in February 2004.
According to Free Expression Policy Project director Marjorie Heins, Gentile's study is better than most that have been done on the topic. A former First Amendment lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and author of the book, Not In Front of the Children: "Indecency," Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth, Heins says, "I think it's interesting and suggestive, but as he says he's not claiming that this demonstrates a causal relationship," and notes that "the majority of studies have not shown statistically significant effects." In fact, she is among those who believe that getting their aggression out in the form of games might actually benefit kids. "It's a way to process violent feelings and anxieties through a fantasy medium," she says. "It may in fact have had some calming effect on their otherwise violent tendencies."
Also at issue for her is whether something like violent content can be quantified in a scientific study: "What is it? You know, it's not all violent content. Is it a sports game? Is it a historical war game? Is it Grand Theft Auto? Is it a cartoon game where there's extreme violence but it's humorous and fantasy violence? Psychologists theorizing about this have very different ideas." In Gentile's study, the figure given for the level of violence in games was based on reports by the kids who played them. Heins thinks this is too subject to variability, and that "there's a very fundamental rift between scholars who are students of media, and psychologists, some of whom believe in these quantitative measurements. They're trying to quantify what I don't think can be quantified. We are all too different."
Freedman says that a study monitoring kids over several years would provide better proof of a causal link between violent video games and teen violence, but that no one has done a study like that yet. Gentile says his next study will start to look at just that issue. He surveyed kids at two different periods during the school year, and while the study has not yet been published, he says the results indicate that the agressive behavior he thinks is linked to violent video game play actually increases over time.
Meanwhile, the Entertainment Software Rating Board does provide ratings for video games. Concerned parents might want to be cautions about letting their kids purchase or rent games rated "M" (for "mature") or "AO" (for "adults only"), and keep in mind that these rating are not enforced by anyone and stores are not required by law to follow any age limits for "M"-rated games.