Two weeks ago, I sat in on a Commonwealth Club panel in which several experts weighed in on the question, “Should sales of violent video games be restricted?” One of the panelists was Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, who sat in for California Sen. Leland Yee. Steyer, like Yee, favors a law that would make it illegal for minors to buy “M” rated games on their own. Some of Steyer’s statements left me with lingering questions, particularly about the correlation between violent games and kids’ behavior. Fortunately, he was willing to answer those questions for Backward Messages. Here they are:
Q: At one point during the Commonwealth Club panel you said there were multiple studies showing “demonstrable evidence” that violent video games are harmful to kids. At another point, you agreed with Michael McConnell that those studies only show correlation, not causation. If studies only show a correlation, then how can they provide evidence that these games are harmful?
A: That’s pretty straightforward. As you may recall, Professor McConnell also clarified his statement by explaining that it’s more or less impossible to conduct a study that would show causation, because it would mean subjecting human subjects –- in this case, kids –- to potentially harmful material, which gets into tricky ethical territory. The fact is that study after study finds a strong connection between violence on screen or in games and real-life aggression –- a connection that the American Academy of Pediatrics says is nearly as strong as the medical association between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.
At the end of the day, even the industry would agree that games like Call of Duty or Deadspace 2 were never designed or intended for kids. At Common Sense, we support the rights of game developers to create violent games, and we believe adults should be free to buy them. But we also support parents and believe they’re the ones who should be making decisions about their kids’ media use -– not the video game industry, which stands to profit from a larger consumer base. Therefore, we support reasonable restrictions that put parents in charge of those decisions.
Q: What do you make of studies showing that violent video games are beneficial to kids, particularly by helping them build skills for functioning better in high-stress situations? And what about other research that argues that kids and teens need playful, fictional outlets for exploring aggression safely?
A: The subjects in the studies you shared with me were all 18 and up. The researchers in the Ryerson study even cautioned that their findings can’t be generalized to include all age groups, and that kids may still be impacted by violent video games in a way that university students aren’t. That said, our focus here is really on the sale issue. We’re not suggesting these games should be banned. We’re supporting a law that empowers parents to decide whether they want their kids playing these games or not. If parents believe that playing an M or AO rated game will help their kids in some way, including helping them to explore aggression, they can still buy it for them under this law. But most kids are not able to judge the impact of ultra-violence on their own.
Q: You brought up the issue of corner stores in Hunter’s Point selling violent video games to minors. Why did you mention Hunter’s Point, specifically? Were you drawing any relationship between the availability of these games in Hunter’s Point and the prevalence of youth violence in the neighborhood?
A; I brought up corner stores to highlight the fact that the industry’s self-regulation, though it’s gotten better over the years, is not enough to limit the sale of M and AO rated games to minors. I’ve also worked in Hunter’s Point and seen these examples. The law currently before the Supreme Court would apply to any retail outlet, not just those large outlets which may be monitored by the game manufacturers and ESRB.
While I respect Steyer’s point of view (and generally agree that parents should be involved in their kids’ choice to play these games), he’s operating on a couple of assumptions that I find faulty, even troubling. First, he assumes that parents might be exposed to the idea that these games can benefit their kids. That idea is certainly out there, but for the most part the media has focused on faulty studies (ones even Steyer admits are faulty) that blame games for kids’ aggression and violence. Parents have to dig to find the good in these games, and why should they do so when folks like Steyer are happy to lead them in the other direction?
Also, it’s a mistake to compare the existing research on violent video games to the studies linking lung cancer to cigarette smoke. The science on the latter is very, very different, and quite able to prove that smoking — and the carcinogens in cigarettes — leads to lung cancer in many who smoke.
His second faulty assumption is that parents are currently able to make good sense of the ESRB ratings system. MIT’s Konstantin Mitgutsch, a scientific board member of Europe’s game-ratings group, Pan European Game Information (PEGI), has uncovered several ways in which the ratings are getting lost in translation:
1. Many parents think the rating describes how difficult the game is to play, rather than its content.
2. Some of the ratings are dated; “a game that was considered ‘shocking’ in the 1990s might appear harmless today,” but may still carry the same rating.
3. Ratings focus on game content, not context — and that context may make all the difference in whether the content is problematic for players.
You can check out Mitgutsch and his team’s first video studying these issues, called “‘Die!’ Censoring Game Violence,” at this link.