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Why do we blame games for real-world violence?

commentary There's little evidence that fantasy violence leads to real-world violence. Yet we continue to make that connection, as a new Harris Poll survey indicates.

Is there a connection between fantasy violence in games like Bulletstorm and real-world violence?
Screenshot by James Martin/CNET

The headline on stories regarding a new Harris Poll survey would seem to say it all: "58 percent of adults blame games for violent behavior."

But that doesn't address what those adults are doing about it. Dig into the Harris survey and you'll see the answer is not very clear. About one third of the 2,278 U.S. adults interviewed said they allow their children to play any sort of video game, violent or not. About two in five say they know little or nothing about game ratings, though 66 percent say they do, in fact, use ratings to identify games they consider appropriate for their children.

"There's a big kind of awareness gap," said Mike Devere, president of the Harris poll. He added, "What does it say about parents that they're not willing to spend a few minutes to bridge the gap?"

Fair point. Now here's the more interesting part: While a majority of adults may blame games for violent behavior, little psychological research backs up this notion. In 2010, the Review of General Psychology -- the journal of the American Psychological Association -- published a special issue on video game violence. The bottom line: There's no hard evidence linking fantasy violence to real-world violence, though this is a question that's certainly come up before.

Yes, one psychologist wrote, that connection can be drawn in some personalities prone to violence or antisocial behavior. But those same people can be inspired by other media or events, from movies to real-world happenings to books. (Notably, more than half of those surveyed in the Harris poll thought there was no difference between playing a violent game and watching a violent movie.)

Dangerous people draw dangerous conclusions, researchers have found, where the rest of us see only entertainment. I wrote more about psychological studies on game violence in this piece when the Obama administration called for more research on the issue.

A question of taste
The question, as I mentioned before, is one of taste: To what does a parent want their children exposed? Is a game with sexual themes more or less vulgar than a game with graphic violence? And at what age are children ready to understand, process, and make their own judgments on that game? That's for parents to decide and, notably, the Harris survey concludes, they're not doing a very good job of understanding and policing what their kids are playing. Particularly fathers.

"My message to my fellow dads is we need to step up and get in the game," Devere told me in an interview this week.

The gaming industry has a ratings system that guides parents on what they deem appropriate, with six different categories ranging from "early childhood" to "adults only." As arbitrary as they may seem, they're certainly no worse than the movie ratings system of the Motion Picture Association of America. But it's an imperfect, broad-brush system.

If parents are indeed concerned about the impact of video games, the best thing they can do is learn about the games their kids are playing, just as they learn about the classes they're taking and the friends with whom they're spending time.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there's no substitute for paying attention.