January 17, 2013
The Real Questions about Violent Video Games
Amid all the nonsense and extreme poses on gun control, gun violence and guns for self-defense that continue in the wake of the Connecticut school shootings, a secondary nexus for blame has been video games.
The best comment on this issue that I've seen was posted on the Rangutang Blog just before Christmas. I got the author's permission to offer it here as a Civilization Watch guest column, not only because of its treatment of this issue, but also because it is a fine and all-too-rare example of what rational discourse looks like.
Amid all the shouting, blaming and personal attacks that seem to be all that's left of public conversation in America, it's refreshing to hear someone set forth a point of view while admitting the possibility that opponents may have a valid point or two.
Here is the essay:
Whenever there is a major public tragedy, one of the first places people go for an explanation is violent video games.
It makes sense realistic modern games are still a fairly recent addition to our culture, only a decade or two old. For most of the people who set the tone of our national discussion, modern video games are an alien, incomprehensible thing with which they have zero personal experience, except to watch in flabbergasted horror as their grandchildren score headshots.
That kind of noncomprehension always passes with time. Our current generation of leaders grew up with rock and roll, and none of them are agitating to blame it for the world's problems, even though their parents found it scandalous. It's innocuous because it's been an everyday part of their lives, and they know it didn't transform them into monsters. In another 30 years, games will be the same.
However, there is one group of people that I hold to a higher standard than politicians and pundits scientists.
Fingers on the Scale
Most of the time, when someone cites a video game study, they don't give you any details about the methodology, which always sets off my skepticism alarms. Typically, these studies "discover" that playing violent video games may be tied to short-term aggressive feelings.
which should seem like a no-brainer to anyone who's had the experience of losing a game of Tetris because the dang computer wouldn't give me a red piece!
However, this one time, I remember running across an article about a study that found no correlation between video games and short-term aggressive feelings, and it actually linked the official documentation of the study. Excited to finally have "proof" that my industry wasn't the cause of the world's ills, I clicked through and read the study.
Do you know what violent game they were testing? World of Warcraft.
Now, I'd like to give these scientists the benefit of the doubt. I'm sure they weren't using the most low-impact, relaxing, cartoony, inoffensive "violent" game in the industry in an attempt to put their finger on the scale and tip the results in the direction that they wanted them to go. That would be disrespectful.
(Yes, angry WoW players, I know that World of Warcraft gets very challenging and intense, especially in the endgame
but this was a study in which people came in and started fresh games, playing for only an hour or two. They were stuck in the parts of the game that you blast through in your sleep just to try out a new alt.)
But this got me thinking
are all the studies this poorly-constructed? Are the researchers so ignorant about video games and how they work that they are repeatedly choosing specific games that tilt their results in random directions, without controlling for the peculiarities of those games?
If so, then I think we should call for a new set of studies that consciously separate different aspects of violent and competitive video games, and zero in on what it is, exactly, that generates the "aggressive feelings" that participants so often display.
Study: Winning versus Losing
Collect a sample group of Call of Duty players and separate them by skill into three groups: Noobs, Enthusiasts and Pros/Exploiters.
Create unbalanced matches whose results are a foregone conclusion: Noobs versus Enthusiasts, Enthusiasts versus Pros/Exploiters, and Noobs versus Pros/Exploiters.
Measure the effects of play on the winners and on the losers of these matches. Is there a different effect on the players who sail through effortlessly and win than there is on the players who are repeatedly and helplessly frustrated?
Results: If the losers exhibit more aggressive feelings than the winners, we may propose that frustration with loss may be a major contributing factor to the aggressive feelings recorded in other studies.
Study: Intense versus Relaxing
Have a pair of sample groups play two different games some should play a highly-
intense game that requires split-second decisions, and which puts the player in constant danger, like Call of Duty. Others should play a more relaxing game in which the player makes decisions at a calmer pace, and is in little danger of death (like the first few levels of a shooting-themed MMO).
One rule, though. The type and level of violence depicted must be the same, or the study is worthless.
Results: If the players of the intense game exhibit more aggressive feelings than the players of the relaxed game, then we may propose that intensity is a contributing factor.
Study: Fight versus Flight
Have a pair of sample groups play two different games an intense, violent combat game like Call of Duty and an intense, violent racing game like Split/Second.
I chose these two games because they put the player in similar levels of danger, and require similarly fast reaction times but Call of Duty has the player shoot people to get out of danger, while Split/Second has the player flee danger in a driverless car, while blowing up inanimate objects.
Results: If the players of the two games exhibit similar levels of aggressive feelings, then we may propose that these feelings arise from the player's reaction to danger, and the stress of trying to survive when split seconds count, and do not arise from the experience of shooting a fictional person.
Study: Cooperation versus Competition
Have a pair of sample groups play two different, but similar experiences one cooperative, and one competitive.
Ideally, these should be from the same game, to control for other factors. For instance, Slayer and Spartan Ops in Halo 4, or Free-for-All and Combat Training in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. We should also attempt to control for difficulty, recording how frequently a given player wins at each game type. Do not include unwinnable or nigh-unwinnable cooperative modes like Firefight and Zombies, because that introduces inevitable frustration as a factor.
Results: If the cooperative players exhibit less aggressive feelings than the competitive players, we may propose that these aggressive feelings are at least in part tied to the psychology of competition, rather than simply the content of the games....continued on page 2