Tag Archives: Craig Anderson

Leaders: don’t waste money on violent-game studies

Dear President Obama,

This month, you said two things: First, that you asked Congress to allocate $10 million to the Centers for Disease Control to study the “the relationship between video games, media images and violence.” Second, that “We won’t be able to stop every violent act, but if there is even one thing that we can do to prevent any of these events, we have a deep obligation, all of us, to try.”

That’s why I’m writing to you today. I’m not an avid player of video games. I don’t work in the game industry. I’m a journalist, writer and mom who has spent the past several years reading and writing about the relationship between kids, violent video games, and real-life violence. So far, what I’ve learned is that there isn’t one.

Yes, there are hundreds of studies, particularly from researchers Craig Anderson, Brad Bushman, and Doug Gentile, suggesting there may be a link between playing violent video games and short-term aggressive behavior immediately after switching off the game. But they haven’t been able to show that video games _cause_ that behavior, or that post-game aggression translates into violent acts later on. Some people are amped up after playing a particularly intense game of football, too, but we haven’t spent millions of dollars researching whether it makes kids bring guns to school.

If you dig deep into each of these researchers’ studies, they say as much.

There are other studies that reveal the positive influences of these games. For example, two studies from Ohio State University researchers David Ewoldsen and John Velez showed that when kids play violent games cooperatively – as many do – they come out of the games feeling pretty good. Canadian researcher Jayne Gackenbach has shown that playing violent video games can help soldiers overcome nightmares induced by the traumas of war, an outcome that seems like it could apply to other gamers trying to make sense of our violent world overall.

In Somalia, video-game-play is on the rise, and many parents are glad, because it’s keeping their kids off the dangerous streets. That’s also true at home: University of Texas at Arlington researcher Michael Ward found that in towns with more video-game retailers, juveniles commit fewer violent crimes – because they’re too busy playing to get into trouble.

By far the best text on the benefits of violent games and aggressive play for kids is Gerard Jones’ book “Killing Monsters.” I interviewed Jones in 2011 for a Wired.com article on why violent video games are good for teens, written at the time the Supreme Court voted against a ban on the sale of these games to minors. He said:

“For the world of adolescents, [reality has] mostly gotten more stressful and bleaker,” he said, citing the dire economy, stressed-out parents, the increasing demands of public education and two lengthy wars in the Middle East. “This is not a cheerful time to be coming of age in America. The need for escape, the need for fantasies of potency, and the need for a community of peers is greater than it’s been in a long time.” He has said, in other moments, that we cannot expect teens to accept forms of entertainment that have been sanitized of the violence they know exists around them every day.

However, one of the most important sources of information on the relationship between violent video games and young players is the players themselves. As a nation we have spent far too much time studying the supposed affects of games on gamers, and almost no time asking gamers questions about why they enjoy them. If you ask, they will tell you that they love the escape, the chance to explore violent ideas safely and without hurting anybody, the opportunity to play the hero, and much more. I interviewed and surveyed dozens of young gamers for a book I wrote for parents – a book that, given our current cultural climate, I believe parents need more than ever, but unfortunately has found almost no support in the publishing world.

So far, Congress has been smart, vetoing just about every bill that proposes a study of violent video games and young players. To start spending money now on such studies would be a tremendous waste of money that could be put to more productive use, such as providing more mental-health support for violent teens and their struggling families. If Congress does wind up putting money into video-game studies, however, please make sure those studies look at the potential benefits of violent games, not just our preconceived notions of harm, which hundreds of studies have already failed to support.

Thank you.

It’s time to listen to the moms of violent young men


Suspected Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza.

Thirteen and a half years ago, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold brought guns to school, killing 13 classmates and faculty before turning their guns on themselves. When President Bill Clinton solemnly addressed the nation after the shootings at Columbine High School, he said, “Amidst all the turmoil and grief … perhaps now America would wake up to the dimensions of this challenge, if it could happen in a place like Littleton, and we could prevent anything like this from happening again.”

Did we wake up?

Since then, frankly, as a nation we’ve done fuck-all to stop another one from happening. And they’ve kept happening.

While we’ve been listening to the “researchers” like Craig Anderson, Doug Gentile and Brad Bushman, whose hundreds of studies have permanently embedded in our brains a correlation between video-game violence and real-life aggression, young men have kept shooting. While we’ve been listening to the nightly news blame the occult, heavy metal, and goths, young men have kept shooting.

Within hours of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, one of Fox News’ talking heads was already laying it on about video games — without knowing whether suspected shooter Adam Lanza played them. CNN and Sen. Joe Lieberman — also on Fox News — were not far behind.

In the past two days, the Daily Mail has run at least two articles linking Lanza with goth kids, as though that simple fact would have made him a killer. If anything, goth kids — who are about as non-aggressive as kids get — would have taken him in because he was different, he didn’t know how to get along, and they were able to make space in their social group for someone like him.

We don’t know, precisely, what Adam was like. The two people who probably knew him best — himself and his mother — are dead. His mother, who apparently quit her job at Sandy Hook Elementary a few years ago so she could take care of him, even though he was almost an adult. What was going on with Adam? In the coming days and weeks, we may know more. For now, all we know now is that, for whatever reason, his mother felt he needed full-time care at an age when most young men are getting ready to leave the nest.

The thing is, I think a lot of moms know — parents know — when their kids are teetering on the brink of violence. Or when they’ve gone way over the brink. One of the pieces circulating today is by mom/blogger Liza Long, who wrote a post Friday that’s now being called, “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” She isn’t — but she is the mom of a violent 13-year-old whom she fears:

On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”

And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am Jason Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map). Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

After James Holmes shot a dozen people in a Colorado movie theater this summer, didn’t his mother say she knew he’d done it? How many other moms have had that conversation with police — they felt helpless to protect their sons from those violent feelings, and they knew it was only a matter of time before their sons hurt someone else?

I know it’s tough to talk about mental health here without stigmatizing huge swaths of people who battle mental illness but aren’t dangerous to themselves or others. But we need to try. Note that most of the perpetrators in mass shootings wind up killing themselves at the end of the event. I’ve heard such massacres called elaborate forms of suicide. Something, temporarily or permanently, has gone very wrong in their minds. And in most cases, there seems to have been adequate evidence that they were capable of such violence. There were signs and plans leading up to the event. There were caring people who tried to intervene, but for whatever reason, these boys and men slipped through the cracks.

Their moms: are they asking for an end to violent video games? To goth culture? To paganism? To heavy-metal music? No, they aren’t. They’re asking for something American society is loath to provide: adequate mental-health care. Treatment. Protection, for their boys and for themselves. And for society. Caring for others, especially potentially dangerous others, is contrary to our “everyone has the freedom to make his own choices”/”everyone can pull himself up by his own bootstraps” philosophies. But at what cost?

So while the debate rages on about gun control, video games, and goths, what are we doing for moms like Liza? What are we doing to actually prevent this from happening again?

So far, nothing.

Can’t we make up our minds about video games?


Video games are bad for kids. No, wait, they’re not. Who’s right? Photo by Flickr user sean dreilinger.

It’s 2012, and video games have been with us for almost 40 years. Kids of all ages have been playing them for that entire time. If video games were going to cause massive changes in the behavior or psychology of young gamers, we’d know about it by now.

And yet there are large chunks of society that cling tightly to the idea that video games — violent video games in particular — are bad for kids. Take, for example, a recent article on Wired.com that asks, “Do Violent Video Games Make Kids More Violent?” In it, GeekMom writer Andrea Schwalm writes about appearing on Al Jazeera’s The Stream on the topic of kids and gaming. The show focused, specifically, on Call of Duty: Black Ops II, of which she writes:

While my teenaged sons do play some M-rated games (currently, Halo 4 and Dishonored are in heavy weekend rotation), I wasn’t familiar with the Call of Duty franchise. After watching some YouTube clips of the game online, I wondered, “Is this how foreign countries think American children spend all of their free time?”

And yet, as the host of The Stream pointed out, the truth is, the game sold $500 million in its’ first 24 hours, was a trending topic on Twitter, and is played by children. If you look at the incarceration rates in America, it seems a legitimate question: does the ubiquity of video game violence beget real-life violence?

This is the kind of ridiculous logic that sends so many people down the wrong rabbit hole. The main problem here is, she doesn’t explain who is being incarcerated — if she took a look, she would realize it isn’t kids. America’s hefty incarceration rate, in large part, is due to the massive “War on Drugs” as well as the disproportionate number of minorities being jailed; it isn’t gamer teens winding up behind bars.

Fortunately, she turns to Doug Gentile. Now, I haven’t agreed with Gentile much on this site, but there are moments where I think he’s on the right track, moments where he puts his findings in broader context, and I’m glad to see at least one mom listening:

The only way that anyone does something seriously violent is if they have multiple risk factors and limited protective factors for violent behavior, and thankfully most of our children have a great many protective factors, can consume a lot of violent video games, and still never do anything violent.

Slightly more logical is a recent Kotaku piece from Phil Owen, which asks, “Do Video Games Make Depression Worse?” Owen also turns to Gentile who, after conducting a study on just that topic — and finding evidence that video games were indeed somehow making his test subjects’ depression worse — actually argued that it’s more complex than his results would suggest:

“I don’t really think [the depression] is following. I think it’s truly comorbid. … As you get more depressed you retreat more into games, which doesn’t help, because it doesn’t actually solve the problem. It doesn’t help your depression, so your depression gets worse, so you play more games, so your depression gets worse, etc. It becomes a negative spiral.”

Still, we can’t listen to the All-Doug-Gentile-All-The-Time Channel, can we? Thankfully, we also have the International Society for Research on Aggression releasing studies that show exposure to violent media increases the risk of aggressive behavior. (Oh, wait, Gentile is on the commission.)

This is one of those times when researchers look at the existing research and cobble it together to come up with some kind of meta-finding. The problem is, most of the research to date has been slanted in the negative direction — that is, it finds some relationship between violent video games and youth aggression, but that’s because it’s what society and researchers wanted to find, and because the research showing no such links — or showing violent games’ upsides — is just beginning to catch up.

IRSA chair Craig Anderson said, “Having such a clear statement by an unbiased, international scientific group should be very helpful to a number of child advocacy groups.” But any group that includes Anderson and Gentile — whose work overwhelmingly supports the violent-game/aggression theory — can’t be called “unbiased.” Sorry, guys.

So why is all this attention focused on video games? Has the sexuality and violence vanished from blockbuster movies, television shows, or young-adult fiction? Hardly. But for some reason, there’s little to no research — or public furor — focused on those old-hat forms of entertainment. Dan Houser, cofounder of Rockstar Games (home of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, among others), recently took note of video games’ pariah status in a recent Guardian interview highlighted on Kotaku:

“We never felt that we were being attacked for the content, we were being attacked for the medium, which felt a little unfair. If all of this stuff had been put into a book or a movie, people wouldn’t have blinked an eye.”

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Plenty of people see the good in violent video games, or at least the harmlessness.

If violent video games — first-person shooters, say — are such lousy influences, then how are they capable of engendering sympathy? Jens Stober, a game designer and PhD student in Germany, is developing a video game in which players can assume the roles of Australian border guards or foreign refugees. Stober has written other border-centered games, such as “1378,” in which players can assume the roles of border guards or refugees fleeing East German communists. In that game, the guards can shoot fugitives, which earned Stober death threats.

But, as with many games, it’s all in the eye of the beholder:

[Stober] claims [the games] actually penalise players for shooting, and that the main aim is to educate people about political issues using game mechanics.

“You can have a gun, you can use it, but if you use it you will lose points and lose the game,” he says.

The players who are refugees must cooperate to evade the border guards while the guards try to arrest them. Along the way, the game dishes out educational factoids designed to provoke deeper thought about the issues.

Another recent article, by Brian Hampel for Kansas State University’s The Collegian, makes quite a different case for violent video games and society as a whole: he argues that our media is so violent because, well, we just like violence: “Popular culture isn’t a thermostat that dictates our tastes and trends; it’s a thermometer that shows us tastes and trends that already exist in the cultural zeitgeist,” he writes.

But his conclusions come quite close to things I’ve said at Backward Messages before, so I’d like to close with them:

It turns out that the real [culprits] behind youth violence are depression, delinquent peer association and negative relationships with adults. Who would have guessed?

You wouldn’t know it from watching news networks’ coverage of school shootings, but it’s true. Not only is violence not caused by the media, but it’s also in decline. I guess it’s easy to get the impression that we’re violent by watching the news, which could very well be the most violent medium of all.

Want to cut juvenile violent crime? Don’t take video games away from teens


New research suggests that the more time kids spend playing video games, even first-person shooters like Halo Reach, the less likely they are to commit violent crimes.

Violent video games make players, especially impressionable youths, more aggressive and more likely to be violent. Right? That’s what predominant video-game researchers would have you believe.

Michael Ward, in the department of economics at the University of Texas at Arlington, is conducting new research that finds just the opposite. He says the more likely kids are to play video games — violent or otherwise — the less likely they are to commit crimes. This is, he theorizes, for a fairly obvious reason:

“Video games not only cost money, but they also cost time. It takes a lot of time to beat the game, and so all those hours you’re playing the game are hours that you’re not getting into trouble,” he says.

Let’s look at the juvenile rate of violent crime for a moment. According to this data, culled from FBI sources, the juvenile crime rate has fell 36% between 1995 and 2008. The juvenile murder rate fell 62% in that time. At the same time, in 2010 67% of households played video games, and gamers played an average of 8 hours a week, according to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. Game sales went from $2.6 billion in 1996 to $9.5 billion in 2007, according to the Entertainment Software Association. It’s safe to say some of those purchased games were played by teens.

So, we have an increase in the use of video games and a decrease in juvenile crime. Are these things correlated? Absolutely. Did the increase in video game usage cause the decrease in crime? You can’t say for sure. Ward is working on that, but unfortunately his studies aren’t available online. Still, his work seems promising, at least in the short term.

Ward says for now, … cracking down on video games may not be an effective way for communities to immediately crack down on crime.

Teens aren’t buying violent games, but people keep buying bad science


Teens have an easier time buying M-rated games at Walmart than at other stores, but it still isn’t that easy. Photo by Flickr user afcool83.

The Federal Trade Commission once again sent its minions undercover shoppers to buy video games, and here’s what they found: only 13% of minors who attempted to buy M-rated games, which are intended for adult audiences, were able to do so. The rest were turned away. By comparison, 33% of teens who tried to buy an R-rated DVD could do so, 38% of teens who tried were able to get into an R-rated movie, and 64% were able to buy albums with “parental advisory stickers.” In other words, voluntary controls on the sale of M-rated games are working well — better, in fact, than controls on R-rated films, which are illegal for teens under 17 to see without adult supervision.

Which really just leaves one question: Why do we need Leland Yee’s game-sales ban, again?

Actually, among other things the numbers suggest that many teens aren’t playing these games, but when they are, a parent or other adult is purchasing it for them. It’s anyone’s guess whether those parents are paying attention to what they’re buying, but considering they’re plunking down $60 for these things, it probably crosses their minds to look at the box. In this way, not much would change if Yee’s law passes.

As Yee awaits the decision of the Supreme Court, researchers are finding new ways to say violent video games are bad for kids. This time, they analyzed the track records of the experts who signed briefs in the Supreme Court case. Unfortunately, their findings heap bad science on top of more bad science. Let’s break it down:

First, who authored the study? Brad Bushman, a researcher whose work consistently finds that violent media is linked with aggression; Craig Anderson, another researcher whose own work links media and aggression; and attorney Deana Pollard Sacks, whose primary written work seems to focus on pornography and corporal punishment of children.

Can you guess what they found?

The results showed that 60 percent of the Gruel brief signers (who believe video game violence is harmful) have published at least one scientific study on aggression or violence in general, compared to only 17 percent of the Millett brief signers.

Moreover, when the researchers looked specifically at the subject of media violence, 37 percent of Gruel brief signers have published at least one study in that area, compared to just 13 percent of the Millett brief signers.

Wow. They found that their side made more noise than the other side. What a surprise!

Okay, let’s break it down some more. This wasn’t an analysis of every study that has been published on the topic of video games and their influence. This was an analysis of who signed a court document. Given that those who oppose violent video games are in the weaker position before the Supreme Court, it makes sense that more of them would come forward.

Second, the research showing the positive side of violent video games is much more recent. That group, if it is indeed smaller, may be smaller because it’s still catching up.

Oh, but it gets better:

Results showed that signers of the Gruel brief had published over 48 times more studies in top-tier journals than did those who signed the Millett brief.

“That’s a staggering difference,” Bushman said. “It provides strong support for the argument that video game violence is indeed harmful.”

Considering none of these studies shows that violent video games harm kids, no, it doesn’t mean that at all. At most, studies are able to show a correlation between gaming and brief increases in aggressive feelings. Most of the studies don’t even show that much conclusively. I’ll say it again: correlation is not causation. There’s just as much evidence to suggest that kids with more aggression to burn are turning to video games as an outlet. Many researchers say so in their own conclusions.

Like I said, bad science on top of bad science.

Oh, and by the way? Juvenile violent crime is decreasing. It dropped 2% between 2007 and 2008 (the most recent years for which the federal Office of Juvenile Justice has statistics), “continuing a recent decline.”

Parents, when you’re shopping for games with (or for) your kids, do you look at the rating on the box? How does that shape your decision whether to buy the game?

Researchers find violent video games don’t desensitize players


Manhunt won’t make your teen numb to axe murder after all.

Holly Bowen and Jessica Spaniol recently tested a long-held theory. For years, researchers and politicians have been claiming that playing violent video games desensitizes players to real-world violence. But Bowen and Spaniol’s latest research shows no difference between gamers and nongamers when it comes to violent imagery.

Here’s what the Ryserson University researchers found:

The study involved 122 male and female undergraduate students who fell into two categories: 45 participants who had some video game experience within the last six months and 77 students who reported no video game exposure. Among both male and female video game players, Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy and NHL were the most commonly listed video games. Male video game players also listed Call of Duty and Tekken among their top five game preferences, while female video game players preferred Mario Kart and Guitar Hero/Rock Band.

Participants were shown 150 images representing negative, positive and neutral scenes. One hour later, the students viewed those same images again along with a new set of 150 “distractor” images, shown in random order. With each image, participants had to respond whether or not they had seen it before. Finally, at the end of the experiment, the students completed a self-assessment test regarding their state of emotional arousal.

The researchers hypothesized that video game players would be less sensitive to the negative images and therefore show reduced memory for these materials. The results, however, showed no difference in the memory of video game players and non-players. Moreover, exposure to video games was not associated with differences in self-reported arousal to emotional stimuli.

The duo admits there are some limits to the study. For starters, they want to test other age groups to make sure the results are the same across the generations (particularly among younger kids). Also, they want to do some brain scans to make sure that the gamers’ self-reporting is accurate. After all, it’s possible that they’re saying they don’t feel desensitized, but their brain activity may tell another story. They also hope to take their research out of the lab setting, which is notorious for skewing results.

Still, their findings echo what some gamers have already learned first-hand. Real-world soldiers can tell you that video games don’t do squat to prepare them (let alone desensitize them) for actual violence. In his book This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities, Jim Rossignol quotes Evan Wright and his book, Generation Kill:

Wright, who rode with the elite First Recon unit in Iraq, describes how the soldiers discovered the true depths of their innocence as they shot real people. He describes how the men broke down when they saw the consequences of gunfire, and he speaks with frightening clarity of how there was no way that gaming, no matter how violent, could have ever prepared them for those experiences. These soldiers might have killed thousands on their PlayStation, but death up close was a completely different and unbearable experience, well beyond their coping mechanisms. Simulated death is not death.

Many gamers say that violent games make them more calm and collected in fast-paced or frustrating situations, which on some brain scans might look like “desensitization.” But in these cases, the games are training them to stay cool when things get hairy — not look the other way when real violence happens.

There are a handful of researchers who believe these games will turn any hardcore gamer into a killer. Unfortunately, they’re the ones who get the most press, despite the fact that high schools haven’t turned into armies of bloodthirsty murderers acting out their favorite video-game scenes. It’s nice to see researchers like Bowen and Spaniol getting some attention, for a change.