On Saturday, the town of Southington, Conn., will be collecting violent video games, CDs and DVDs from its residents in exchange for gift certificates from local businesses. The items will be tossed into a dumpster and later burned.
Southington is a 30-minute drive from Newton, the site of last month’s tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which 20 students and six teachers were killed. Unconfirmed media reports have suggested that the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, played violent video games, including the best-selling Call of Duty and StarCraft.
Soon after the shootings, many politicians and media pundits began calling for tougher regulations of video games. Outgoing Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., led the charge. Citing such games as a “causative factor” in real-world violence, Lieberman told Fox News’ Chris Wallace that Congress needed to take steps to make the producers of the games — and of violent movies as well — “tone it down.”
“Thank God, not all of them [people who play violent video games] become murderers,” he said on the Senate floor. “But some of them do, and we have to ask why.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., agrees. He introduced legislation last month that would instruct the National Association of Sciences to investigate and report back to Congress on the effects of violent video games on children.
“Recent court decisions [especially a 2011 one from the California Supreme Court] demonstrate that some people still do not get it,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “They believe that violent video games are no more dangerous to young minds than classic literature or Saturday morning cartoons. Parents, pediatricians and psychologists know better.”
What the evidence shows
Press reports suggest that Rockefeller’s bill is unlikely to find much support in the Senate — and, perhaps, for good reason. For, as psychologist Vaughan Bell points out in a recent article in the British newspaper The Observer, the effects of violent video games have already been widely studied.
Those studies have consistently found that although these games may seem repugnant to many of us, they do not harm the human brain or increase the likelihood of violent acts.
In fact, fast-moving action video games are associated with positive cognitive outcomes. “We now have numerous studies on how playing action computer games, as opposed to puzzle or strategy titles such as The Sims or Tetris, leads to an improvement in how well we pay attention, how quickly we react, how sensitive we are to images and how accurately we sort information,” Bell explains.
Nor do studies suggest that video games lead young people to act out violently in real life. Writes Bell (using British spellings):
[U]sing randomised controlled trials, research has found that violent video games cause a reliable short-term increase in aggression during lab-based tests. However, this seems not to be something specific to computer games. Television and even violence in the news have been found to have a similar impact. The longer-term effects of aggressive gaming are still not well studied, but we would expect similar results from long-term studies of other violent media — again a small increase in aggressive thoughts and behaviour in the lab.
These, however, are not the same as actual violence. Psychologist Christopher Ferguson, based at the Texas A&M International University, has examined what predicts genuine violence committed by young people. It turns out that delinquent peers, depression and an abusive family environment account for actual violent incidents, while exposure to media violence seems to have only a minor and usually insignificant effect.
A country-by-country examination
After the Sandy Hook tragedy, Washington Post reporter Max Fisher looked at the world’s 10 largest video game markets and found “no evident, statistical correlation between video game consumption and gun-related killings.”
In fact, he says, the evidence suggests that gun violence slightly decreases in countries as video consumption increases.
“[V]ideo game consumption, based on international data, does not seem to correlate at all with an increase in gun violence,” writes Fisher. “… [C]ountries where video games are popular also tend to be some of the world’s safest (probably because these countries are stable and developed, not because they have video games).”
What the data does show, he adds, is “that America’s rate of firearm-related homicides is extremely high for the developed world.”
A link to poor health
Excessive video game playing is correlated with two bad outcomes: an increased risk of obesity and general poor health, says Bell. And some individuals who spend long hours playing video games may be using that form of entertainment to avoid “uncomfortable life problems,” he adds.
But “this can easily apply to books as video games,” Bell points out.
“The verdict from the now considerable body of scientific research is not that video games are a new and ominous threat to society but that anything in excess will cause us problems,” Bell concludes. “The somewhat prosaic conclusion is that moderation is key — whether you’re killing aliens, racing cars or trying to place oddly shaped blocks that fall from the sky.”