Your children will play video games if they are like 99 percent of boys or 94% of girls. If they are like 50% of boys and 14% of girls, they will prefer video games that have “mature” themes. For example, Grand Theft Auto is a violent urban dystopia with gun fights and car chases. A new paper by Cheryl Olson, a public health specialist at Harvard, suggests the answer may be: au contraire.
Olson conducted a survey of children to find out their top motivations for playing video games. She found that they were most motivated by having fun, competing with others, and being challenged. The psychologist benefits of video games might be explained by Olson, who describes how they can help with self-expression, role-play, creative problem solving, cognitive mastery, and positive social interactions. This sounds more utopian than it does dystopian.
It would be so simple! It is admirable to dispel negative stereotypes about violent gameplay. However, it is not laudable to ignore the negative effects of violent games. Olson’s positive spin on violent games places her on the one side in a heated academic debate that has huge implications for policy and industry. Recent salvos can be found here, here, and here.
One group warns that violent games can reduce empathy and anger management skills and encourage aggression. Another group argues that such research is a form of “moral panic,” exaggerates its negative effects, and overlooks the positive consequences of violent gaming. The psychological impact of violent video games is a pressing issue in society and for millions of parents whose children spend hours immersed in virtual worlds every day. Let’s examine the research.
Olson’s research shows that 28 percent of boys agree with Olson’s findings and 5 percent of girls agree that their favorite “guns or other weapons” is what motivates them to play. According to Olson’s findings, 25 percent of boys, and 11 percent of the girls, strongly agree that video games help them “get their anger out.” Grand Theft Auto is the most popular such game. It apparently doesn’t involve violence against children or animals. Olson writes that the game does offer “tremendous freedom” to cause mayhem.
Olson then moves on to the purportedly educational role of violent gameplay. It is particularly striking that she mentions an anecdote about how Grand Theft Auto helps problem-solving skills. A young boy learned that the fastest way to find passengers was by running over pedestrians. They would then get up and climb into Olson’s car.
It is also troubling to think that play-fighting may be one of the ways boys communicate with girls. This suggests that boys are more open to sexual harassment if they have been exposed to these images for a short time. Even brief exposure to these images increases tolerance for sexual harassment among men, according to a 2008 study led by psychologist Karen Dill of Fielding Graduate University.
Fair enough, Olson briefly mentions research that suggests game features like “opportunities to competence and mastery”, outperform violence when it comes to predicting enjoyment. She also warns that these games can exploit stereotypes about minorities and women. In stark contrast to her thesis, Olson suggests that parents monitor their children’s gaming habits for “negative effects” such as anger, irritability, or aggression. Why should we be concerned if the games promote healthy development and allow pre-teens “purge any negative feelings” while bonding with peers.
Here’s a look at the research Olson doesn’t talk much about.
Although the belief that aggressive behavior will make you “out”, may still be believed by some, it has been long discredited by experimental research. A 2001 review by social psychologists Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman revealed that playing violent video games increases aggressive behaviors, feelings, and physiological arousal and decreases prosocial behavior. Further, identifying with a game character can inspire learning, but when that character is violent, “wishful identification” may increase post-game aggression, according to a 2007 study led by psychologist Elly Konijn at VU University Amsterdam. Also, a 1995 study by Brad Bushman of Iowa State University suggests that aggressive outcomes of violent gameplay are magnified in people who already have aggressive tendencies. It is possible that video games are used as an inappropriate anger management tool and people who use them regularly are the most susceptible to their negative effects.
Olson points out that while young adults might benefit from playing survival or horror games over and over again until they are comfortable with the content, this may be a costly investment. People can become more sensitive to violence if they are exposed to violent video games. In 2006, Bruce Bartholow, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, and colleagues reported that chronic violent game players show less activation of a particular brain wave in response to violent images than non-violent players do, indicating that they feel less aversion. This lower reactivity was predicted to lead to more aggressive behavior in the next competitive task.
Brain waves and lab games can feel distant from real life, so let’s follow Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson to the movies. The researchers wanted to see if people who leave violent films are more likely to help a young lady who has dropped her crutches (download gcPhone). Guess who took longer to help the young woman “injured”. The violent film crowd.
Is it possible that patrons of violent movies are less sensitive than those who watch non-violent films? Anderson and Bushman accounted for this explanation by performing the crutch routine while people entered and exited the film. There were no differences in the results depending on which movie people were going to see. Seeing violence reduces our ability to respond to the pain of others.
Media psychologists are not qualified to say that violent video games can turn your children into gun-toting sociopaths. Violent media can affect us in subtle ways, increasing our hostility and apathy towards others. Instead of trying to correct an antisocial media genre, why don’t you look for non-violent, equally challenging, and enjoyable games instead? Let the multibillion-dollar gaming industry respond to social pressure by creating non-sexist, anti-racist, and non-violent games that offer as many developmental benefits, if not more, than violent games.