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Computer games: Causing violence or a new scapegoat?

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 24 Jul 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* The video games used are often many years out of date, and not the ones people are playing currently.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.

Permalink 5 comments (latest comment by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 10 Aug 2011, 13:01)
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