The Social Science Debate over Violent Video Games Will Never End

by on July 7, 2011 · 3 comments

NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam had a great spot on NPR’s Morning Edition today about the disputes among social scientists over the impact of violent video games on kids. [“It’s A Duel: How Do Violent Video Games Affect Kids?”] You won’t be surprised to hear I wholeheartedly agree with Texas A&M psychologist Chris Ferguson, who noted in the spot:

Ferguson says it’s easy to think senseless video game violence can lead to senseless violence in the real world. But he says that’s mixing up two separate things.  “Many of the games do have morally objectionable material and I think that is where a lot of the debate on this issue went off the rails,” he said. “We kind of mistook our moral concerns about some of these video games, which are very valid — I find many of the games to be morally objectionable — and then assumed that what is morally objectionable is harmful.”

I’ve written about Ferguson’s work and these issues more generally many times over through the years here at the TLF. Here are some of the most relevant essays:

In these essays, I’ve tried to make a couple of key points about the social science literature on “media effects” theory:

(1) Lab studies by psychology professors and students are not representative of real-world behavior/results. Indeed, lab experiments are little more than artificial constructions of reality and of only limited value in gauging the impact of violently-themed media on actual human behavior.

(2) Real-world data trends likely offer us a better indication of the impact of media on human behavior over the long-haul. And all those trends show encouraging signs of improvement even as video game consumption among youth and adults increases.

(3) Correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Of course, whether we are talking about those artificial lab experiments or the real-world data sets, we must always keep this first principle of statistical analysis in mind.

(4) Finally, it’s worth reconsidering whether more weight should be given to the “cathartic effect hypothesis” in these debates. 

A bit more on this final point since I feel quite passionately about it…

The battle over media effect theory goes all the way back to the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. While Plato thought the media of his day (poetry, plays & music) had a deleterious impact on culture and humanity, Aristotle took a very different view. Indeed, most historians believe it was Aristotle who first used the term katharsis when discussing the importance of Greek tragedies, which often contained violent overtones and action. He suggested that these tragedies helped the audience, “through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” In Part IV of his Poetics, Aristotle spoke highly of tragedies that used provocative or titillating storytelling to its fullest effect:

Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance. Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are necessarily the best.

And for me, that remains the best explanation for how humans process dramatic depictions of violence and tragedy. We humans are unique among all mammals in our ability to adapt to changes in our environment and to process new and different forms of content and culture. We process. We learn. We assimilate. We adapt. Thus, we can enjoy the “tragic wonder” of watching a violent Greek drama or playing a violent video game without running for the kitchen to find a knife to plunge into somebody’s back. We can separate fantasy from reality and we do so every day of our lives.

Yet, many social scientists today, echoing Plato, continue to search for proof that the alternative is true and that depictions of violence on the stage or screen will have a direct and quite deleterious impact on human behavior. They subscribe to the “monkey see-monkey do” theory of media effects. Again, I think that’s utterly bogus and flatly contradicted by real-world facts. After all, if there was anything to their theories, shouldn’t it have shown up sometime, somewhere in real-world data trends by now?

Still, don’t expect this debate to ever end.  Just wait till virtual reality technologies go mainstream!  Oh boy, now that will have the “monkey see-monkey do” crowd whipped into a lather.  I look forward to the debate (and to playing those VR games with my kids!)


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