Today I want to talk specifically about violent computer games.
First, a little aside. People have been complaining about the "youth of today" since ancient times. Here's a quote from Plato's Socrates:
"The children now love luxury; they have bad manners,
> contempt for authority; they allow disrespect for elders and
> love chatter in place of exercise. Children now are tyrants,
> not the servants of their households. They no longer rise
> when eleders enter the room. They contradict their parents,
> chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross
> their legs, and tyrannize their teachers."
As you can see, there are some familiar themes.
Second, despite claims from media shock jocks and their ilk, violence in Western society is actually declining. See Steven Pinks book "The Better Angels of Our Nature" for an in-depth analysis of this phenomena.
So, now that we have established that the older generation will always complain about the younger generation, and that violence is actually declining, let's talk about video games.
The opponent of violence in computer games could make the following claim: "Sure, violence is declining due to socio-economic factors. However, it would be declining at a greater pace if violent games were outlawed. So while the youth of today are actually LESS violent than previous generations, they would be even less violent if they didn't play games.
At this point I think I should note that I have heard quite strident, ideological claims from both sides of this debate. On the one hand, you have the usual "won't somebody think of the children" type who doesn't see the double standard between ratings on computer games and other media (until earlier this year Australia did not have an R18 computer game rating). This type fails to actually look at any of the psychological research into computer game violence. However, I have heard equally misguided views coming from the "gamer" community. From personal experience, many "gamers" I know dismiss the idea that computer games could cause violence with the same religious zest as the censorship nuts. "I play games all the time and I'm not killing anyone".
Unfortunately, it seems that the ignorant cries from the media have led to an equally misguided backlash from the gaming community.
However, no one is claiming that there is a necessary causal influence of computer games on violent behavior. The claim is that there is a probabilistic link with computer games increasing the likelihood that certain at risk individuals will engage in violent behaviours. Of course playing computer games won't make the average person go on a killing spree. What we are discussing is whether at-risk, disturbed individuals could be pushed over the final edge by computer games to shoot up their school, or whether an abusive husband could be pushed over the edge to beating his wife after playing a violent game.
The truth is that the current state of research into violence and video games is mixed. Studies have demonstrated an increase in aggression, a decrease in empathy and an increased level of physiological arousal (which can mean a lot of things). Several meta-analyses have confirmed these findings. There is also a distinction in the psychological research between movies and games that a lot of gamers don't seem to realise. That is, there is a distinction between being an active participant and being a passive observer. It is contended that acting out violent behaviours could have a greater effect on violent behaviours than merely being a passive observer in a movie.
On the other hand, there have been critics of the methodologies of these studies. Other meta-analyses have not found the effects. Furthermore, there is yet to be any clear evidence that these effects generalize into the real world. Sure, a person might become more aggressive for a short period of time, but are these effects large enough, and persistent enough, to cause violent behaviour? Maybe, maybe not.
A lot of the studies that note a correlation between violent games and violence note just that : a correlation. Anyone with the slightest bit of common sense (or an education in social science) can tell you that correlation does not equal causation. It is plausible that certain individuals having violent tendencies causes them to play violent games rather than the games causing the violent tendencies.
What we can conclude is that even if computer games are having an effect on violence in society, their effects are minimal compared to other risk-factors such as low socio-economic status, being a victim of violence and all the rest. Violent crime rates have actually declined drastically since the early 90s which was when computer games started becoming popular.
Nevertheless, the research does not rule out that computer games could be having a minor effect on violent tendencies.
In conclusion, I think instead of getting up in arms about computer games, we should be focusing on why we live in a world where people are so messed up that we are worried that computer games could turn them into killers! Even if computer games play a causal role in societal violence, their effect is so minor that we should not be curtailing the civil liberties of adults to do what they want in the privacy of their own home. We should instead be focusing on improving mental health services, education and raising standards of living to reduce violence.
Furthermore, I have thus far been framing the debate in a way that assumes computer games are either having no effect, or a negative effect. I haven't even gone into the (potential?) benefits of computer games for society. Until next time.