Video games soothe soldiers’ post-war nightmares, but make kids take risks. What?

A new study suggests that playing “risk-glorifying” games can lead teens to engage in riskier activities, such as illegal street racing. But the study is short on proof. Photo by Flickr user osakasteve.

When soldiers come home from war, they don’t leave it behind on the battlefield. It invades their nights, sparking nightmares and insomnia. A recent talk by Jayne Gackenbach of Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada, at the Game Developers Conference shared something interesting. Soldiers who played combat-based video games such as Call of Duty reported sleeping better at night. Not only that, but when the nightmares came, those soldiers were more likely to feel like they had some control over their dreams, producing more positive outcomes and happier mornings.

Low gamers [those who didn’t play games, or engaged in casual gaming] reported more incidents of feeling helpless against an aggressive, violent enemy. Gackenbach theorises that playing violent games while awake may serve as a sort of “threat simulator,” a way of conditioning the mind to better cope with intense, dangerous situations when they arise in nightmares.

Interestingly, she added that many of these soldiers would bring their war games with them when they went overseas — a fact other video-game writers have corroborated. It’s possible that the soldiers who love their combat games are wired a little differently than the “low gamers,” and thus these games provide them more relief than they would provide others. But for whatever reason, violent games are helpful to this group of soldiers.

This suggests that there is some benefit to the playacting and exploration that takes place in video games, including the most disturbing and worrisome. Plenty of studies have tried to suggest that high-intensity video games are bad influences for kids (and we’ll get to another one of those in a moment), but those studies seem to throw catharsis theory, and the psychological benefits of role-playing, straight out the window. However, when you talk to actual gamers about their use of actual games in actual day-to-day life, as Gackenbach did, you hear time and time again how beneficial it is for gamers to be able to go to these dark places in a safe, fictionalized way.

That’s why this study (PDF), by Peter Fischer, et all, is such a head-scratcher. In it, the researchers found that teens and young adults who are exposed to media that “glorifies” risk (a term they fail to define) are more likely to copy that behavior, particularly if the media in question is interactive, as with video games.

There are a number of issues with this study, the predominant one being that this isn’t an actual study Fischer and his colleagues conducted on actual teens. Instead, they dug through research that other people did, on media influences, which happened to include the data they were looking for. A handful of the included studies were his own. The problem with this is, for the most part Fischer couldn’t really control the methods involved; he couldn’t select his subjects, he couldn’t ask his own questions or design his own experiments. Sure, he supposedly got information on 80,000 subjects, which is nothing to sneeze at, but he didn’t interact with most of them.

The second problem is, his study is based on the assertion that risky behavior is on the rise among teens. However, his “proof” is given in a number of single-year statistics, rather than multi-year figures that demonstrate an increase. His exception is a statistic that shows binge-drinking is on the rise among German teens. However, if you look up actual reports on those figures, you find that teen drinking has actually decreased in Germany. Yes, a handful (8 percent) of German boys confessed to drinking 5 or more drinks in one sitting at least once per month, reflecting an increase in such behavior. But the reason given for this behavior wasn’t media influence, but peer pressure and social lubrication. As it turns out, most of the binge-drinkers live in rural areas, suggesting boredom is one of the biggest factors of all.

While citing statistics, Fischer also mentions a handful of anecdotes in which people reproduced stunts on the outlandish series Jackass (which is thoroughly disclaimered during each episode), as though these stories represent a more widespread problem.

I’m going to focus on Fischer’s discussion of video games, since that’s a topic I cover frequently in this blog. His group looked at racing-based video games, where players are encouraged to drive fast as well as do stunts, mimic reckless driving, etc. for points or other in-game rewards. After playing racing games, some studies found that players then showed more willingness to drive recklessly. In a computer-generated vehicle simulation. How this is substantially different from a racing game is beyond me. It in no way represents how they would behave once they got behind the wheel of a two-ton steel machine.

Fischer turns his attention to another study, which showed that teens who played racing games were also likely to get behind the wheel when they were too young to do so legally. In one of Fischer’s own studies, he found that kids who played racing games reported being in fender-benders more often (and thought more highly of real-life reckless driving, though it’s not clear whether they actually engaged in them). This is getting closer. However, it’s also possible that these kids just loved crazy driving, and that playing games allowed them to do so safely, lowering their risk of trouble behind the wheel. To bear this theory out, you’d have to take two groups of kids who play racing games and engage in reckless driving, take the video games away from one group, and show that their driving became more conservative.

In fact, one of Fischer’s other studies suggests that the problem isn’t gaming exactly, it’s the fact that certain kids think of themselves as reckless drivers. These kids happened to be the same ones who played racing games. They also took more risks when out on the roads. Fischer argues that this self-image comes from playing so many games, but doesn’t provide any evidence to back that up. Remember, correlation is not causation. Maybe these kids’ parents always told them what reckless boys (and girls) they were. We don’t know. There’s no reason to assume it’s the games.

In closing, Fischer talks about the “over 2,000 annual, illegal episodes of street-racing [that] have been observed by police departments in California alone, and nationwide U.S. studies [that] report significant increases in fatal street racing crashes over the last few years.” He blames this on “media and car advertising,” even the Speed Racer cartoon. Granted, illegal street racing has been a problem almost since the invention of the accelerator pedal, but it’s hard to see how recent instances can be blamed on the media (especially since the activity predates most of those media). Street racing tends to be a community activity. That is, kids become involved with a group that race illegally for fun, and they participate in the racing to connect with the group. It’s a social activity, like any other, though with admittedly bigger risks than many other social activities.

To go back to a point I made earlier, the bigger bugaboo here seems to be plain old teenage boredom. Teens who grow up with a lot of free time and not enough supervision are likely to explore the things which excite them, both in simulations (video games) and real life. If you look at kids who engage in real-life recklessness, there’s little to suggest that they got the idea from a game or a TV show, aside from isolated incidents. You can’t prove that video games cause reckless behavior by asking kids to say how they feel. You have to look at their actual day-to-day behavior, compare that to their media consumption, then take that media away and see how their day-to-day behavior changes. I haven’t seen a study yet that does that.

After all that, I want to ask: did you ever do something risky because you tried it in a video game, or saw it on TV or in a movie? If so, what was it, and what happened? Share your stories in comments.


4 responses to “Video games soothe soldiers’ post-war nightmares, but make kids take risks. What?

  1. This is indirectly related to the question you posted on facebook with this article – “Did you ever do something risky because you tried it in a video game, or saw it on TV or in a movie? ” I did not. But I just realized that when I was young, my mom wouldn’t let me watch Scooby-Doo because two kids were trying to replicate something they saw on the show and accidentally killed themselves. I wonder if this even happened or it was just a rumor my mom heard or if it was just an excuse to keep Scooby-Doo off our TV.

  2. Pingback: Do video games change kids’ behavior? | Backward Messages

  3. Pingback: Can video games erase our nightmares? | Backward Messages

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