Violent video games and a statistics lesson


Common sense? Maybe not.

Last week we looked at a NJ.com poll where the bulk of the respondents said they didn’t think video games had much to do with real-life violence. This week, we saw just about the opposite results, this time in a poll from Common Sense Media. For those who don’t already know about this organization, CSM presents itself as basically the polar opposite of Backward Messages: a resource for parents, but one which tells them why all these forms of media are wrong, harmful, and so on — and enables parents to remove these “dangerous” influences from their lives. CSM is headed by Jim Steyer, whom I’ve interviewed here before.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, CSM polled parents to find out how they feel about the video game/violence connection. The result?

The majority of parents (75%) feel that shielding children from violence is difficult. That same percentage of parents blame “media violence, such as content in TV, movies and video games” for adding to “America’s culture of violence.”

I’m not entirely sure what “America’s culture of violence” means; I take it to mean the fact that human beings are, in real life, sometimes violent. Unfortunately, you can’t take away everyday violence by taking away games. It isn’t that simple. Humans were violent long before video games. What causes our violence is still not well understood, and there’s new science all the time; most recently, it looks like recent spikes in violence mirrored environmental lead levels. It’s probably not any one thing. It’s also probably not video games, which describe a society (and a subconscious interpretation of it, with survival-horror games) we already live in.

When you take away video games, you take away a valid and safe way for gamers to explore their own feelings about living in a violent society.

Without seeing the questions CSM asked in its poll, it’s tough to say for sure, but I’d wager a fair amount of money that these responses were highly influenced by the questions asked (to be fair, the same could be said of the NJ.com poll). This is one of the things you learn in statistics and social-sciences classes: when you’re running a survey or a poll, the questions you ask will make all the difference in the responses you get. It’s the classic “Have you stopped beating your wife?” scenario.

There’s also the matter that, although CSM apparently polled random parents, I wonder if they were parents who have been in contact with the organization’s website at one time or another. That would tend to skew the results as well. Or they may be legitimately random respondents; there are still many who blame games for society’s problems. But the fact that a poll from group opposing violent media yielded results that also oppose violent media seems like more than a coincidence to me.

At any rate, legislative and policy efforts to link video games with real-life violence — now or ever — are pretty much moot, particularly when they’re bracketed by the efforts of politicians or “community leaders” who want to make it look like they’re taking action against something society can’t abide. To explain more fully, I turn to Atlantic writer Ian Bogost, and his recent article “How the Video-Game Industry Already Lost Out in the Gun-Control Debate.”

He writes:

Once more, public opinion has been infected with the idea that video games have some predominant and necessary relationship to gun violence, rather than being a diverse and robust mass medium that is used for many different purposes, from leisure to exercise to business to education.

If the White House is really interested in games, they could start using them as sophisticated communication tools to help break out of politics as usual, instead of using games as convenient rhetorical levers when the need arises.

In other words, the debate about ending violence isn’t about video games at all. That’s just a convenient distraction. Don’t buy it.

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