Tag Archives: David Ewoldsen

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.

Studies find violent games boost pain tolerance, and in-game cooperation nixes aggression

Do first-person shooters boost gamers’ pain tolerance? One study says yes.

In universities nationwide, researchers are still prodding the effects of video games on human players. Do games make us violent or agressive? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Do they have positive effects? How do they influence us? How long do those influences last after we set down the controller and walk away?

At Keele University, researchers Richard Stephens and Claire Allsop had 40 volunteers play first-person shooter video games, and then studied their pain thresholds afterward. The volunteers also played a non-violent game for comparison. After both games, the players stuck their hands in ice-cold water (ow). The volunteers were able to keep their hands in the cold water 65% longer after playing the FPS than after playing the nonviolent game.

Their explanation?

The increased pain tolerance and heart rate can be attributed to the body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, which can activate descending pain inhibitory pathways in the brain reducing sensitivity to pain.

Hmm. Stephens and Allsop have also studied how swearing affects subject’s pain tolerance — and apparently tossing out a few cuss words also makes a plunge in icewater more tolerable.

Although some news reports are saying the FPS findings show video games have positive benefits, I’d like to add a few caveats: one, this is a very small study, and may or may not be a study of people who play FPS games regularly. Two, there’s nothing that says higher pain tolerance is better than lower pain tolerance. There are times you might want it (while in labor, for example — can you imagine birthing women playing Call of Duty during contractions?) and there are times you might want extra sensitivity.

That said, there’s nothing saying that triggering the fight-or-flight response in the safe confines of video-game make-believe is good or bad, either. It causes a certain physiological response, but that response is not lasting. What we could perhaps use is larger studies on how much of the time gamers spend in that fight-or-flight mode, and the long-term affects on their health.

Two studies at Ohio State University recently examined how cooperative modes in violent video games affected gamers. In one study, researchers David Ewoldsen and John Velez had 119 college students play Halo II with a partner. In some of the groups, the students competed with their partner, while in others, the pair cooperated. Afterwards, the players engaged in a real-life “tit for tat” scenario to see how they would react to competitive or cooperative behavior from their partner — and found that those who cooperated in the game were more likely to cooperate in reality, too.

In their second trial, Ewoldsen and Velez had 80 Ohio State students play video games with people wearing t-shirts from University of Michigan, Ohio’s rival university. The pairs played Unreal Tournament — some as rivals, and some as cooperative teams. Afterwards, real-life tests revealed that the cooperative players were more likely to be cooperative away from the games, while rival players were less cooperative.

Velez said:

“You’re still being very aggressive, you’re still killing people in the game – but when you cooperate, that overrides any of the negative effects of the extreme aggression.”

Again, these are small and limited studies of young people, and we don’t know whether they are regular gamers or folks who have never seen Halo II or Unreal Tournament before in their lives. Gender and ethnicity may also be factors.

Of course, seeing these studies side by side, I wonder if the cooperative players in the Ohio State research showed the same fight-or-flight response and increased pain tolerance seen in the Keele study.

Despite the limitations, it’s clear that video games’ affect on players is complex — as complex as any other activity humans enjoy. If we’re going to keep studying this, we need bigger, more longitudinal, more comprehensive studies that reject the biases of the past and seek neutral explanations and analyses of this popular pastime.