A connection between video games and real-world violence?

commentary The Obama administration is asking for another look at the effect of fantasy violence. Let's hope we can tell the difference between what's distasteful and what's dangerous.

President Obama announces his administration's new gun-law proposals today in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. Getty Images

During a press conference earlier today unveiling his proposals for new gun-control regulations, President Obama said he will ask Congress for $10 million to fund a study by the Centers for Disease Control on the impact of video games and "media images."

It's a reasonable enough request. Gaming industry groups have said they'd welcome serious scientific research into the issue, though it's entirely unclear what the results of that research will lead to. And after what happened in Newtown, Conn., everyone -- from video game makers to movie producers to local news outlets to gun manufacturers -- should be engaged in serious soul-searching.

But don't expect new revelations when it comes to video games. Psychologists have for years been looking at whether there are links between the fantasy violence of video games and real-world violence -- and with rare exceptions, they haven't found a connection. In 2010, the Review of General Psychology, which is the American Psychological Association's journal, published a special issue on the topic. While one psychologist did connect fantasy and real-world violence in certain personalities, the most compelling research found that any link for the rest of society was, at best, specious.

Christopher Ferguson, of Texas A&M International University, argued in one paper that "the negative effects of violent games have been exaggerated by some elements of the scientific community, fitting with past cycles of media-focused moral panics." To put it in historical perspective, Ferguson wrote, the Greek philosopher Plato worried about the deleterious effect of poetry on youths. Hand-wringers have been worrying about the effect of movies since there have been movies. And to put it in my generation's terms, parent groups worried that the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons would turn teens into ax-wielding occultists. I can say with some certainty that none of the socially challenged junior high kids with whom I played D&D turned into ax-wielding occultists.

But what about those "certain" personalities? Researchers generally believe that people with psychopathic tendencies (not, notably, people with autism) can at least be affected by video game violence. That's the same personality type, mind you, that most think shouldn't have access to dangerous weapons.

Basically, the research done so far validates common sense. If your kid has violent tendencies or indicates he or she has a low level of empathy (psychologists say a good indication of this is often cruelty to animals), then it would be wise to keep them away from violent games, violent images, and -- most of all -- weapons. Like I said... common sense.

Kate Edwards, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, said in a statement this afternoon that her group welcomes the research called for by the president, assuming it will not be limited to gaming:

We especially encourage the new research to explore all aspects of violence in media, including their potential benefits. For example, recent research shows a steam valve effect in which violent video gameplay helps release stress and aggression before it can lead to violence. Other studies have indicated that recent declines in real-world violence can be attributed in part to potentially violent people spending more time looking for thrills in video games instead of on the streets.

Gaming reduces violence? Believe it or not, the psychology journal I mentioned did cite some research indicating that this could be the case.

So that's the scientific and industry side of all this. The personal side is different. It's different for anyone who doesn't want his or her kids to see movies that glorify violence. It's different for anyone who isn't the most enthusiastic apologist for shoot-'em-up games. Like many other parents, I find first-person shooter games repellent. I grew up in a Pennsylvania household where learning how to use a hunting rifle was as natural as learning how to ride a bike. Still, the blood-splattering violence in some video games makes me cringe (particularly when you, the gamer, are the one responsible for that blood).

Are those games allowed in my house? Nope. But as with discussions of violence in movies and the ridicule heaped on local news teams that travel to another state to get a bloody story with which to lead off the nightly report, we're talking about personal taste, not science. And there's a difference between dangerous and distasteful.

Let's hope folks in Washington who set policy and create laws also know the difference.

 

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