Tag Archives: Jayne Gackenbach

Aaron Alexis, PTSD, mass shootings, mental illness and video games: the real call of duty


As more details emerge about Aaron Alexis, the gunman in yesterday’s Washington D.C. navy yard shooting that left 13 people — including Alexis — dead, many news outlets have been focusing on claims that he played violent video games “obsessively,” up to 16 hours a day. This is according to friends, who said he had a habit of playing Call of Duty for long hours. Some have connected this detail to claims that Adam Lanza and Anders Breivik also played Call of Duty at length.

But here’s the thing about the Call of Duty franchise: just eight of its games have sold 124 million units. While some of those sales were probably to the same people, it drives home the point that this is a best-selling game title. And when more than half of Americans play video games, that’s a whole lot of people playing Call of Duty. If it were going to lead players to commit mass shootings, we’d be seeing many more of them than we are.

(I was interviewed this morning on KGO Radio by Ronn Owens on this topic; follow this link to hear his program on Alexis’ interest in video games. I come in around the 19:50 mark.)

And here’s the thing about Alexis: it appears that he had been suffering from mental illness for more than a decade. His symptoms started shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in which he was a first responder. He was hearing voices as recently as six weeks ago. He “carried a .45 handgun tucked in his trousers with no holster ‘everywhere he went’ because he believed people would try to steal his belongings,” the Telegraph reported. I’m not a psychologist, but it’s clear there was much more going on with Alexis than his love of a good first-person shooter, and even when police were confronted with signs of his paranoia and delusions, they said “No further action was required.”

It’s heartbreaking to think that a man like Alexis, who was clearly trying to make a peaceful life in service of others, and who was also clearly suffering from some form of mental illness, couldn’t and didn’t get help. It’s heartbreaking to think that because he — like Lanza, Breivik, Holmes, Loughner, Harris, Klebold and so many others — slipped through the cracks somehow, 13 more are dead.

Jayne Gackenbach’s research suggests that soldiers and servicemen like Alexis who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder actually fare better when they play games like Call of Duty; such games reduce the number of nightmares they experience. Maybe the problem, at the end of the day, is that Alexis didn’t play enough video games; maybe he just couldn’t get the nightmares to stop, no matter what he tried.

I want to stress that while many suffer from mild to severe forms of mental illness, most of the time it doesn’t make people violent, either. But we need to know more about the nexus between psychological and neurological issues and the compulsion to commit mass violence. Culturally, it’s beyond time for us to destigmatize mental illness and amp up our mental-health resources so people like Alexis can get help before things get out of hand. Otherwise, these elaborate forms of suicide will continue unabated.

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.

More parents are embracing video games — but not the idea that violent games are harmful

Psychology instructor Jayne Gackenbach and her son, Teace Snyder, play video games together — and wrote a book about the benefits of gaming.

If the name Jayne Gackenbach is familiar to you, there’s good reason — she released research in January that playing violent video games can help soldiers overcome nightmares induced by the traumas of war.

Like many such researchers, she’s also a mom. Her interest in video games started, naturally, with her kids. She told the Edmonton Journal she found her son digging into a shopping bag, and kissing the box of his first game console.

“I was like, ‘what is this?’” she remembers. “I knew (gaming) was a passion with both of them (her children), so I started doing the research.”

That led to Gackenbach playing games with her kids — on the computer, and on gaming systems, until Snyder finally told her: ‘You’re too bad, Mom.’ He’d give me 10 lives and he’d still beat me,” Gackenbach says laughing.

Gackenbach and Snyder’s co-written book, Play Reality: How Video Games are Changing Everything, is out now.

Research has shown that kids should play video games with their parents, girls especially. Not only is it good for the kids, but it also helps parents better understand the games their kids are playing, and what their kids experience while playing.

It’s certainly a lot better than the mainstream approach. A recent study by Player2.com found that most parents don’t check the age rating on video games. Given the recent legislative efforts to keep M-rated games out of minors’ hands, this is saying something.

Many anti-violent-game legislators seem to feel that kids are buying these games illicitly somehow, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s likely that many parents are buying these games for their kids — without looking at the labels — but also are not buying into the hype that violent games are harmful:

Interestingly, 61 per cent of parents do not believe that violent video games affect their children’s behaviour in a negative way; with 76 per cent of these parents stating that violent games do not mirror real life and so did not believe that they could affect behaviour.

The survey also discovered that just over half of parents would not be concerned if their child was playing an 18+ game, but 54 per cent would be concerned if they found them watching an 18+ film.

There’s a new book out on the game that sparked much of the video-game controversy over the past decade: Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, by David Kushner. Kushner examines the creation of this series, its popularity, and how it earned its reputation as the most controversial game of all time. One of the things Kushner addresses in his interview with CNET is how Grand Theft Auto IV (and its hidden sex scene) taught game buyers and parents a very important lesson:

It finally got out the message that games are played by adults, that this can be an adult medium, just like we have “The Sopranos,” “Goodfellas,” etc. And I do believe that the GTA decade brought the end of that debate.

Until then, many had assumed that video games were just for kids — and that all video games, at all rating levels, were somehow suitable for kids. Now, it seems, more parents are aware; and they’re still okay with their kids (teens, most likely) playing these games.

Can video games erase our nightmares?

It’s official: healthy soldiers who play video games have fewer combat-related nightmares than those who don’t, according to a new study. Photo by 501st Sustainment Brigade.

We all know that suffering a traumatic event can trigger lasting nightmares. A soldier’s life, particularly someone who’s served in the Middle East in the past 10 years, could be considered a series of traumatic events. Apparently, video games can chase the bad dreams away.

Last March, I wrote about a talk from Grant MacEwan University researcher Jayne Gackenbach, who told an audience at the Game Developers Conference that her research showed soldiers who played video games suffered fewer combat-related nightmares. She published her findings last month in the journal of the American Psychological Association. Here’s the breakdown:

She studied 86 American and Canadian soldiers, 64 who were “hard-core gamers,” according to the Wall Street Journal, and 22 who played less often. Both groups had similar levels of combat experience, and neither reported post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental imbalance.

Both groups reported on two dreams: the most recent they could recall, and a dream about military life that stuck with them. For the latter, they filled out an extensive questionnaire, which Gackenbach’s team coded.

What they found was interesting: the military dreams of frequent gamers were much less scary than the dreams experienced by casual gamers or nongamers.

Of course, there’s the question of whether this is a bad thing or a good thing. Many medical professionals believe that nightmares are beneficial to psychological healing.

“In evolution, such dreams probably served a very important purpose, to keep us anxious about something that could happen again,” says Deidre Barrett, PhD, author of Trauma and Dreams. “If a tiger killed in the nearby village, a nightmare would keep you anxious about that happening that to you. It would be a valuable emotional message.”

However, in today’s world, recurring nightmares “just retraumatize you.”

At the same time, people who suffer nightmares regularly wind up sleeping less, which creates a host of health problems — and puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to relieving the anxiety or psychological states causing the nightmares in the first place.

So, are video games taking the place of subconscious work, allowing soldiers to heal psychological wounds through play rather than nightmares? Or are they “numbing” these gamers to violence and trauma, leaving them unresolved?

Do all video games work equally well? Or are combat-based games, as Gackenbach’s earlier talk mentions, the trick to erasing bad dreams?

Also, do these findings — performed on such a small group — apply to others who suffer violence, trauma, and anxiety? Does it work on the conflicts experienced by adolescents? Could gaming help abuse victims, or disaster survivors?

Gackenbach’s team says more research is needed.

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.