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On violent school-shooter games and the real thing

The most recent issue of Education Week carries a story about an online video game called “School Shooter: North American Tour 2012,” in which players move through a virtual school collecting points for killing students and teachers.

The explanation from the producer’s website, as quoted in the piece: “You play as a disgruntled student fed up with something or other (we’re not exactly sure), who after researching multiple school-shooting martyrs decides to become the best school shooter ever.”

Players can choose among weapons used by the shooters at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. As each level of “play” is mastered, the shooter has the option of killing his or herself or of being taken down by a digital SWAT team: “You’ll be treated to a fine first-person animation of you using your selected weapon to take your own life after spouting a hilarious one-liner.”

The EdWeek story is password protected, but a couple of minutes on Google will deliver more dreadful detail on “School Shooter” than you can stomach.

Created because others are lame
For instance, one of the game’s creators explained to the gaming magazine Escapist that he created the game because other school-shooting games are lame.

“Some of my ideas stemmed from the fact that nobody has ever tried to create a proper game about a school shooting,” “Pawnstick” was quoted as saying. “Which is to say, something intended to be ‘entertainment,’ rather than going for pure shock value or thought provocation. When you get over how supposedly shocking something like ‘Super Columbine Massacre RPG’ is, the game itself is [*&%*] boring.”

Super Columbine Massacre RPG”? There’s an entire genre of school-shooting games?

Perhaps that’s why it only occurred to the managers of the site that up until recently hosted the game to take it down because they were “getting quite a bit of mainstream press due to the controversial nature of the content.”

Analyzed more than 13 studies
Scholars at Iowa State University in Ames last year conducted a meta-analysis of more than 13 studies on the link between virtual violence and aggressive behavior and concluded that the games can cause an increase in violent behavior.

So can or should we shut Pawnstick and his digital pals down? Last November, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case challenging a 2005 California law that would restrict the sale of violent games to minors. The law has never been enforced and the Supes have yet to rule.

One of the Iowa State scholars argues that parental oversight is more effective than government regulation.

As a journalist, I clearly have very strong feelings about the First Amendment. But I’m a parent, too, and I know the limits of my own capacity for oversight — and have limited faith that all parents are effectively engaged. 

Kids and tech
In all matters technological, my kids long ago lapped me. One of them has been busted twice hacking his programs’ child-safety filters. And I’m pretty sure he’s been the target of some cyberbullying he refuses to report for fear the grownups will “protect” him by taking his technology away.

In kindergarten, that same kid was treated to a gun safety talk that covered what to do if you found a gun at a friend’s house, and so forth. Three times in his seven years in school I have gotten an e-mail or robo-call informing me that one of his schools has been locked down because a student brought a gun.

You didn’t ask me, but I think that while we’re waiting for the high court to apply its balancing tests it would be a good idea if we got serious about school bullying and gun control. I’m just sayin’.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Brock Dubbels on 05/13/2011 - 06:21 pm.

    Although this game is quite vulgar in content, the Iowa aggression studies are more provocative than they are substantial. Here is an excerpt from John Sherry:

    There is no doubt among anyone who has seriously looked at the literature that there is a link. However, I would classify that link as very small and not very meaningful. In statistics parlance, we would say that playing violent video games explains about 4% of the variance in aggression. The meaning of “4% of the variance” has been bastardized beyond its mathematical meaning. Many like to use the number as a projection; e.g., “maybe 4% is a small number, but 4% of the 100+million games in America is a lot of violent people”. One group likes to compare the figure to the cancer rate in which some % of people who smoke get cancer. However, this is not at all what % of variance explained means. You cannot use it as a projection. Rather, it has to do with the distribution of data points along a regression line. If you were to look at the distribution of data points around a regression line that explains 4% of the variance, you would not be able to distinguish the patter from random with your naked eye.

    More importantly for me is what the 4% figure explains. For the relationship to be meaningful to me, the dependent variable (aggression) must be socially significant. Is there an increase in the amount and severity with which kids physically aggress against each other? Are more kids getting punched, stabbed, kicked, etc? Unfortunately for Anderson, et al (and fortunately for the rest of us), the best crime statistics show that there has been an unprecedented drastic drop in actual assault since the introduction of violent video games. If they had the effects that Anderson, et al claim they do, that would not happen.

    Importantly, social psychologists are limited by human subjects ethics as to the types of aggression they can measure in their labs. In other words, studies do not measure punching, stabbing, kicking etc. Instead, they must use proxies for physical aggression, which is typically some type of benign outcome measure such as the ‘noise blast paradigm’ where subjects are allowed to send an irritating noise at another person. I would be willing to buy this type of outcome measure as indicative of actual meaningful aggression if the effect size was much larger. Instead, the research shows a very small effect on a benign type of aggression.

    The research clearly shows that there is an almost random relationship between playing violent video games and crabbiness.

    It is also important to note that Anderson and colleagues are excellent experimentalists. It is difficult to fault the designs of their research. Additionally, I think they believe that their measures really are meaningful. Certainly Bushman is a true believer (based on my conversations with him). He feels he is waging a holy war for the souls of America’s children.

    That’s where the biggest disconnect comes for me. I was trained to be a dispassionate scientist, seeking answers rather than proof. The Anderson crew clearly subscribes to a different philosophy of science– one where the job of science is to provide evidence of potential harms to society. I think they sincerely believe they are making the world a better place through science.

    If you are interested in a greater explication of the issues raised here, check out this chapter:

    Sherry, J. L. (2006). Would the great and mighty Oz play Doom? A look behind the curtain of violent video game research. In P. Messaris & L. Humphreys (Eds.). Digital Media: Transformations in Human Communication. New York, Peter Lang.

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