Media Violence Researcher’s op-ed on Grand Theft Childhood and reactions

Dr. Brad Bushman of the University of Michigan wrote an opinion on the Detroit Free Press. Here I quote its entirety.

Children around the nation are looking forward to the end of the school year, with summer vacation giving them the freedom to play their favorite video games hour after hour. Instead of rightfully worrying that these games have the potential to hijack their children’s futures, parents may be relying on a recently published book that claims to tell “the surprising truth about video games.”

“Perhaps the biggest lesson we learned from our research,” write Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson in Grand Theft Childhood,,“is that most parents should not worry about violent…games having a profound effect on their children’s behavior or values.” They advise parents to focus instead on more important risk factors for violence – deteriorating family relationships, friendships and school achievement. “Violent video games,” they write, “are pretty low on that list.”

Not according to a 2001 report by the U.S. Surgeon General, ranking exposure to television violence relatively high on the list of early risk factors for youth violence, ahead of broken homes, abusive parents, antisocial peers, and school achievement.

The Surgeon General’s report focused on TV rather than video game violence. But there are at least three reasons to believe that violent video games might be worse. First, video game play is active whereas watching TV is passive. People learn better when they are actively involved. Suppose you wanted to teach a person how to fly an airplane. What would be the best method to use: read a book, watch a TV program, or use a video game flight simulator?

Second, players of violent video games are more likely to identify with a violent character. If the game is a first person shooter, players have the same visual perspective as the killer. If the game is third person, the player controls the actions of the violent character from a more distant visual perspective. In either case, the player is linked to a violent character. In a violent TV program, viewers might or might not identify with this character.

Third, violent games directly reward violent behavior, by awarding points or allowing players to advance to the next game level. In some games, players are rewarded through verbal praise, such as hearing the words “Nice shot!” after killing an enemy. It is well known that rewarding behavior increases its frequency. (Would you go to work tomorrow if your boss said you would no longer be paid?) In TV programs, reward is not directly tied to the viewer’s behavior.

Kutner and Olson’s advice to parents is particulary puzzling since their own data suggest that such games are linked to aggressive behavior. In their study, 1,254 middle school students listed their five favorite video games. The results showed that boys and girls who had played at least one M-rated game – Mature, recommended for players age 17 or older — were much more likely to get into physical fights and hit or beat someone up.

The authors correctly note that survey responses cannot be use to establish a cause-effect relationship between playing violent video games and aggression. Although laboratory experiments can be used to establish cause-effect relationships, they quickly dismiss most lab studies as artificial and invalid.

I strongly disagree. Consider a laboratory experiment I recently conducted with some Dutch colleagues. Boys about 14 years old were randomly assigned to play a violent or nonviolent video game for 20 minutes and rated how much they identified with the video game character. Next, they completed a noise blast task, with the winner blasting the loser with a noise ranging from about 60 decibels to about 105 – about the same level as a fire alarm.

The boys were told that inflicting higher noise levels could cause “permanent hearing damage” to their partners. Of course, nobody actually got hearing damage. But our results clearly show that violent game players acted more aggressively than nonviolent game players, especially if they identified with the game character. These boys were even willing to give another boy noise levels loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage.

One boy said, “I blasted him with level 10 noise because he deserved it. I know he can get hearing damage, but I don’t care!” Another boy said he liked the violent game “because in this game you can kill people and shoot people, and I want to do that too.” A third boy said, “I like Grand Theft Auto a lot because you can shoot at people and drive fast in cars. When I am older I can do such things too. I would love to do all these things right now!”

Violent video games are not the only risk factor for aggression, or even the most important factor, but they are definitely not a trivial factor. Parents should carefully monitor what video games their children play this summer, instead of being lulled into a false sense of security about the effects these games can have now and well into the future.

I sent an e-mail to Dr. Cheryl K. Olson and here’s her response:

I don’t mind other researchers criticizing my work as long as they don’t engage in personal attacks. Brad Bushman is absolutely entitled to air his views.

Unfortunately, Dr. Bushman has some of his facts mixed up. In the 2001 Surgeon General¹s report on youth violence, exposure to TV violence was actually near the bottom of the list of influences on real-world violence ­so low that it was relegated to an appendix!

A fact sheet with key messages from the report states the following:

The strongest risk factors [for violence] during childhood are involvement inserious but not necessarily violent criminal behavior, substance use, being male, physical aggression, low family socioeconomic status or poverty and antisocial parents – all individual or family attributes or conditions. During adolescence, the strongest risk factors are weak ties to conventional peers, ties to antisocial or delinquent peers, belonging to a gang, and involvement in other criminal acts.

He theorizes that teens are more likely to identify with video game characters than TV or movie characters. That¹s plausible, but I could just as easily argue the opposite; boys told us repeatedly in focus groups that
they enjoying taking the bad guy role in a video game specifically because they don¹t want to behave that way in real life. Also, because video games require active control and participation, players are constantly reminded that the game is merely a game.

Dr. Bushman¹s statement that video games directly reward violence is only partly accurate; anyone who actually plays video games knows that players are not always rewarded for acting violently, and in fact are often penalized immediately or later on (even in parts of Grand Theft Auto IV). The content and consequences in video games are extremely varied, which is one reason that studying their influence is so difficult.

Finally, regarding his experimental study of Dutch teenagers playing a game for 20 minutes in a lab: Those teens are fully aware that no researcher will allow them to act in a way that causes permanent physical harm to someone. Dr. Bushman may be a bit too credulous ­ a view that is supported by a quote from that Surgeon General¹s report:

Because experiments are narrowly focused on testing specific causal hypotheses, they do not examine the effects of all factors that might be present in more realistic situations. This means that some real-world influences might actually lessen or even eliminate the aggressive reactions observed in experiments. For example, while television, film, and other media contain a variety of antisocial and other messages, most laboratory studies to date have exposed study participants primarily to violent materials. In addition, participants may react differently in the laboratory when they realize that their expressions of aggression will not be punished. Any summary of these experimental results should also acknowledge the argument raised by some critics that many study participants provide the responses they believe the researcher wants.

Furthermore, Gamepolitics.com noticed it too and also got the same response from Dr. Olson, in addition there’s the co-author’s response, Dr. Lawrence Kutner:

I respect Dr. Bushman and his work. We even complimented him on p.84 of our book for his research on the effects of Biblical violence… In this case, however, I believe that his logic is faulty.

Our research is on video games and real-world violent behaviors. His reply is about television violence and various measures of aggression. We call some of that research into question in our book, as well. But even so, we’re talking about apples and he’s talking about oranges.

Finally, I’m disturbed by his unwarranted and cynical first-sentence description of children “with summer vacation giving them the freedom to play their favorite video games hour after hour.” This reinforces that myth that all children are helpless in the face of the temptation of video games, and plays into the games’ characterization as inherently bad, even evil.

Video games are a medium, just as books, music and films are media. Our research showed that teen gamers had an appreciation for and strong interest in plot, character development, and graphic techniques when they played video games, and that these were far more important than violent content when it came to selecting their favorite games.

If a child were to spend the summer only playing video games, I would see that as a likely sign of deeper problems (e.g., significant emotional issues, a poverty of options in the community, etc.) I would have the same concerns about a child who spends the summer only reading novels or only playing basketball.) But the vast majority of kids will play video games along with a range of other activities.

Are there things we should be concerned about with respect to video games? Absolutely. We need to do more research on those teenagers and young adults who are behaving violently in the real world, and who are engaging in criminal activities, to see if and how video games might play a role in either contributing to or predicting these behaviors. We need to be concerned about subtle shifts in values and in perceptions of the world that a range of media, including video games, may cause.

Mostly, we need to start thinking about and exploring these issues in a more sophisticated and nuanced way.

Aside from Dr. Joanne Cantor and Dr. Brad Bushman’s opinions, I wonder about other notable researchers’ opinions, such as Dr. Craig Anderson, Dr. David Walsh, or Dr. Douglas Gentile.

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