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Meg-John Barker

Computer games: Causing violence or a new scapegoat?

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 24 July 2011, 10:12

The third Psychology in the Pub event took place last Wednesday. To conclude our 'sex and violence' series, Simon Goodson, from the university of Huddersfield, presented his work on the impact of violent video games.

The previous month Clare Bale had raised important questions about the current idea that the 'sexualisation' of media is harming children. She argued that there is strong evidence that young people have never been more responsible or thoughtful in the decisions that they are making around sex, that their voices are often missing from debates and reports about this issue, and that we need to understand the complex and sophisticated ways in which people respond to media representations.

Simon Goodson highlighted many similar issues in relation to the popular belief that video games cause people to be violent. He started by presenting newspaper reports which have drawn links between playing computer games and acts of extreme violence. The following example is taken from his website:

On the evening of Sunday 21st October 2007 17 year old Daniel Petric walked into a room in his parents house and asked his mother and father to close their eyes because he had a ‘surprise’ for them. Daniel then shot his mother and father in the head, killing his mother and wounding his father. Daniel Petric planned and carried out the attack because his parents had taken away his ‘violent’ video game, Halo 3. The media referred to Petric as the ‘Halo 3 Shooter’ and ‘Halo 3 Killer’ amongst other titles and gave in depth accounts proposing that he was unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy and even suggested that Petric believed that his parents would not be dead forever but would ‘regenerate’ as in the game.

Some research, particularly in the US, has claimed to support this popular idea of a simple cause and effect relationship between violent video games and real life violence. However, Simon went on to point out that there are many problems with this research. For example:

* The measures used are questionable. Does a higher score on an aggression questionnaire mean that somebody would be violent in real life? Are these questionnaires validated with people who are extremely violent?

* The video games used are often many years out of date, and not the ones people are playing currently.

* There is a clear bias in publication. Research is much more likely to be published if it finds a link between violent games and agression than if it does not.

Simon's own research raises big questions about the assumed link between violent games and aggressive behaviour. Measuring people on questionnaires, and on levels of brain arousal, he has compared violent games (such as Gears of War), against football games, driving games and table tennis games. He found that people scored far higher on aggression and arousal when they were playing a game where the content was related to things that they would do in real life (such as driving or watching/playing football) than when the game was unrelated (such as games involving warfare or shooting monsters). Indeed, in the latter type of game people were often no more aggressive or aroused than if they were simply relaxing.

Clearly this research questions the idea that violence in society is related to this particular form of popular media. People in the discussion also pointed out that rates of violent crime have gone down during the years that the computer games of concern have become more popular.

I was left with the question of why, given such findings, news reporters - and some researchers - seem so keen to find a link between violent games and criminal behaviour. Clearly this is not a new thing. As Martin Barker has pointed out, links have been made between violent media and real life violence from the Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, through the 1950s horror comics, to the Video Nasties of the late 1970s and 80s (which look rather tame when compared to the Hostel or Saw series of movies).

Perhaps violent media is an easy scapegoat which prevents us from having to address more complex social problems which underpin violent crimes? Certainly this seemed to be the case when I studied the reporting of the Jamie Bulger murder some years ago. The horro video Childs Play 3 was blamed for this crime, despite no evidence that either of the boys who killed Jamie Bulger had seen the movie. What was rarely reported were the tough backgrounds which the boys came from, or the fact that one of them had already been violent towards himself, but that there were not enough resources to provide him with support.

What also went unremarked were the high levels of bullying from other children which are a taken for granted part of childhood for most kids and which lead to untold levels of misery throughout life. Perhaps we like to focus on these occasional extreme acts of violence, and to blame the handy scapegoat of violent media, because it stops us from having to look at the everday violence which is so much a part of life, and our part in allowing it to continue.

It seems that a strong linking theme in the panics around sexualistion and around video games is that it is children and adolescents that people are worried about being influenced. Clearly this is related to the current idea that children are innocent (by which we seem to mean non-sexual and non-violent). If children are sexual or aggressive at all it is put down to corrupting external forces. As one person at Psychology in The Pub pointed out. Perhaps we need the media to be this external force now that there is much less belief in demonic or supernatural forces.

This blaming on the media is dangerous though because it prevents us from being aware of the inevitable sexuality and aggressiveness which children have (given that they are, after all, just young, small human beings). Avoiding this fact as a society can exacerbate the very problems which we are trying to alleviate, because it stops us from communicating about sexuality with young people (leaving them confused and unable to negotiate it themselves), and it means that we fail to address the bullying between children and teenagers which is so prevalent and destructive in their lives.

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Meg-John Barker

Psychology in the Pub: Social Networking

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 29 May 2011, 11:22

Social Networking: Friend or foe?


This month saw the first Psychology in the Pub event take place in Sheffield. This spin-off from the popular London event is organised by myself and Mary Langridge. It will be happening once a month from now on at the Showroom in central Sheffield.

For the first event we were very lucky to have Sue Jamison-Powell from the University of Lincoln talking to us about her work on social networking. Sue has particularly studied the experience of 'defriending', or being 'defriended' on social networking sites such as facebook. She points out that, in real life friendships, there is the possibility of allowing friendships to drift into acquaintance-ships. On many social networking sites, however, it is only possible to have people as a 'friend' or not. This makes online friendships something more like romantic relationships, which we tend to view in an either/or way: Either we are in a relationship or we are not. For this reason Sue suggests that the experience of being 'defriended', or 'defriending' someone, may have more in common with losing a lover.

Defriending is certainly a very common experience. Sue found that only 16% of the people she studied had not experienced being on one end or the other of a defriending. When she studied those who had been defriended by somebody else, she found that the vast majority of them had not done anything about the situation when they found out about it. Research on romantic relationships suggests that an important part of the break-up process is some kind of communication between people acknowledging that there is a need for change. Clearly this doesn't happen in online defriending. Rather people are generally surprised to find themselves defriended, and don't feel that initiating a conversation about it is something that they want to, or are able to, do. Levels of distress following a defriending clearly weren't usually as high as after most romantic relationship break-ups. However, they were not non-existent either.

When she looked at the reasons people gave for defriending others, Sue found that it was sometimes done due to different expectations of the friendship (e.g. one person thinking it was pointless because they weren't close in 'real-life'). Other times people found it difficult to bring together different groups of friends on a social networking site and defriended those whose comments were likely to be disapproved of by other friends or family ('I didn't want me mam reading about my debauchery'). Some people valued their privacy and didn't want their posts read by certain friends (for example, work colleagues). Others found themselves irritated by some friends' online styles (spamming them with quizzes, for example).

Sue's talk sparked a lively discussion amongst the Psychology in the Pub attendees about the potentials and pitfalls of social networking sites. It became clear that people used them in very different ways, and that they meant different things to different people as well. For example, some were friends mostly with people who they knew well and used the sites to arrange meeting up. Others used social networking more to keep up with people at a distance, and/or to connect with new people. Some had more than one social networking persona for different aspects of their lives (e.g. work, social, family, sex) whilst others brought these together in one place.

Like Sue, it is important that people studying sites like twitter and facebook maintain an awareness of the multiplicity of experiences that people can have of them. Rather than trying to determine whether social networking is a good thing or a bad thing, perhaps it is more useful to explore the potentials that they can open up and the possibilities that they can close down. For example, the limiting either/or approach to (de)friending has changed now that it is possible on facebook just to hide friend requests. However, this may still discourage any kind of open communication between people and leave them feeling rejected with no idea why.

Social networking can be both a wonderful way for shy people to try out relationships in a safe context and for those who are geographically isolated to connect with like-minded people. It can also encourage fairly superficial connections and a sense of alienation when a post is not commented upon, for example. Seeing the varied experiences of our facebook friends can remind us that everyone suffers and give us opportunities to offer, and to receive, compassion. Alternatively, we might be confronted with purely shiny happy postings which leave us worrying there is something wrong with us, or with an overwhelming sense of hardship and impotence when many of our friends are struggling. When we socially network we can feel pressured to present one, coherent side of ourselves which will gain the most approval ('like'), or we can creatively enjoy the precarious experience of revealing the complexity and multiplicity of our daily existence.

In conclusion, as facebook would have it: it's complicated.

Find out more:

You can read Sue Jamison-Powell's presentation here

Find out more about Psychology in the Pub here

I will continue to blog here about the Psychology in the Pub events. Watch this space...

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