For almost as long as there have been video games, there have been people worrying about the damage they might be doing to the young people who play them. And the debates over video game-playing and violence appear to be coming back.
For the last few years a considerable amount of the controversy over linking video games to violence has been focused on the American Psychological Association. In 2005 the group issued a resolution declaring that it would "advocate for the reduction of all violence in videogames and interactive media marketed to children and youth," based on the evidence linking violent media to hostility, aggressive thoughts and so forth.
That policy was widely criticized, so the APA formed a Task Force on Violent Media in 2013 that would attempt to answer the essential question: Is playing violent video games linked to real world acts of violence?
This month the Task Force offered its answer, declaring that there is "a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression."
But critics argue that the research does not support this conclusion. As Newsweek reported:
many experts think the APA's findings are junk science. In 2013, a large group of researchers—more than 230, including academics from Harvard, Yale and Columbia universities—took issue with the APA, the task force and its research methodology. In an open letter, the group called the APA's policy statements on violent video games "misleading and alarmist" and said they "delineated several strong conclusions on the basis of inconsistent or weak evidence."
One of the biggest problems is how to define–and measure–aggression and violence. And critics say that the research suggesting a correlation between violent game playing and violence shows a very small one. One member of the APA's task force countered by arguing that the research on taking aspirin to prevent heart disease shows a similarly small correlation, but doctors advise people do so nonetheless.
One of the APA's chief critics, Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University, argued that the Task Force was stacked with researchers who were more inclined to see video games as harmful—making their conclusion not altogether surprising. And Ferguson noted the recent scandals surrounding the APA and U.S. government torture practices:
We're talking about an organization that was caught colluding in the real torture of real people in real life and now they're turning around and wagging their hand about people playing video games?
As NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin wrote in the spring of 2013, acts of mass violence bring the spotlight back onto video games—and such moments are precisely when we need to apply the same principles to gaming as we do to other forms of cultural expression:
What is completely lost in all the finger-pointing is the fact that games—like literature and art—comprise a variety of subjects and perspectives, can be used for education, entertainment and catharsis, and attract a large and diverse audience. Like books and art, some games—but by no means all—depict violence; as with art and literature, the depictions of violence differ widely and mean different things to different viewers.
This more complete and accurate understanding of games and gamers is supported by researchers like James Paul Gee, a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. The work of Gee and other researchers demonstrates the social, educational and neurological value of games, many of which are complex, difficult, and—yes—fun.
Video games are no longer a marginal cultural phenomenon, but something that appeals to millions around the world. According to the Entertainment Software Association, gamers include Americans of all ages and backgrounds. Of these 68% are adults, and 47% are women. Contrary to popular myths, gaming is not an isolated activity: most gamers play with others, either virtually or in person.
It’s past time to check the knee-jerk reaction to point the finger at video games, which the Supreme Court has held enjoy the same First Amendment protection as books and art, whenever something bad happens. Censoring video games is no more likely to stop real-world violence than censoring the Qur’an is likely to prevent jihadist attacks. Our zeal to do something in response to tragedy isn’t a license to do just anything.