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Violent Video-Games Cause Aggression?

Two years ago, Patrick Kierkegaard of the University of Essex asserted that video-games reduce violent tendencies. Today, there’s a new study making the rounds that claims video-games cause aggressive behavior. Craig Anderson of Iowa State has been studying this topic for years and has performed a variety of studies on gamers of all ages.

However, Christopher Ferguson, associate prof at Texas A&M critiques Anderson’s work, saying that the effects found “are generally very low,” that the study “contains numerous flaws,” and that Anderson’s work is “overestimating the influence” of violent games on behavior.

Unfortunately, most of the articles de-emphasize Ferguson’s critique and betray bias with overenthusiastic headlines, like this one titled 'Study "proves" that violent video games make kids aggressive,' and this nearly identical title which adds the word "conclusively." I guess we can all rest easy now that the link between video-games and violence has been conclusively proven. No need for further analysis, everyone!

Pardon my sarcasm; I don’t like the idea that the media I consume "makes" me aggressive. However, I can’t pretend that playing a game doesn’t affect my mind at all.

When I was a child, I often heard that TV would rot my brain. If I had been raised in the Victorian era, my parents might have admonished me about the dangerous influence that novels or theatre can have on one’s development (ironically, those two mediums are now considered "high art"). But there’s a difference between an influence over emotions and an influence over behavior.

How do you feel when you’re fully immersed in an intense, violent work of art -- be it one of Stephen King’s thrillers, or perhaps the latest episode of Caprica? You feel an adrenaline rush, and you might feel a little twitchy putting the book down and turning in for the night. That’s the same reason some gamers like violent games: immersion in an intense but impossible fantasy.

People who aren’t capable of understanding the difference between reality and fantasy are, well, crazy. Not much argument there. But is their craziness caused by what they read, watched, or played?

More importantly, can a non-crazy person go crazy if they over-indulge in intense experiences? Let's say, a full week packed with Silent Hill and all the Saw films, topped off with a stack of Frank Miller graphic novels. Yeah, a full week of that and chances are you'd be feeling some after-effects. That doesn't seem like such an inflammatory thing to assert -- and yet, it is, isn't it?

I’m not sure Anderson’s study effectively answers these questions ... and I also don't see why video-games are any more powerful or special than other media.

Is it because video-games are as much of an activity as they are an art form? Let's compare them to some other activities. Wouldn't any competitive, aggressive game -- whether it’s volleyball, boxing, capture-the-flag, or Resident Evil 5 -- make you feel, well, competitive and aggressive? And if you competed all the time, every day, would that affect your personality? I suppose that it would.

So, how should parents react to this? Should they prohibit kids from playing volleyball in gym class? (I remember some highly competitive volleyball-inspired fights in my high school gym classroom.) And what about laser tag, paintball, LARPing, pretending to be Power Rangers, or whatever the young’uns get up to nowadays -- how do those "games" affect kids? Should parents outlaw all violent games (even the non-video-games) entirely, because they might make kids turn out aggressive? What about kids whose parents pressure them to do every competitive sport available -- how do those kids turn out?

The answer is probably that some of them turn out all right, and some of them turn out great, and some turn out awful. But why? ... well, that's complicated. And even Anderson has to admit that video-games are not the only potential bad influence on kids. Oh, and by the way, video-games have their share of advantages.

Before I bring this post to a close, I’d like to address one last quote from Anderson (yanked from here):

Both of his college-age kids grew up playing video games, Anderson said, but many games rated "E" (for "everyone") contain violence. "The rating itself does not tell you whether it is a healthy or unhealthy game," he added. "Any game that involves killing or harming another character in order to advance is likely to be teaching inappropriate lessons to whoever is playing it."

Although I'm all for telling parents to pay attention to the media their kids consume no matter what it's rated, does anyone have any idea which E-rated games contain violence? Mario jumping on a turtle, perhaps?

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