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* The video games used are often many years out of date, and not the ones people are playing currently.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

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Meg-John Barker

Psychology in the Pub

For details of future Psychology in the Pub events, see www.pubpsych.co.uk
ROSIE Rushton-Stone

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Cause is too strong a word.  Influence, maybe.  You must already have the predisposition to behave in a certain way, to be affected by the actions of others, real or virtual.  I can watch a violent film over and over, and never do I consider acting out the part of the villain.  I do sometimes consider how I would get out of a situation if I was the victim.  The implication is that I am naturally predisposed to wanting to avoid violence, and do not feel any form of kinship with the villain.  With children, I think establishing their opinions of characters at the earliest stage is fascinating.  Some naturally warm towards kind characters, some to violent ones, some to bullies, some to heros... ask any child who watches TV which is their favourite cartoon character, and why...

There are negative things in the media that influence me, and make me more likely to act in certain negative ways, primarily towards myself.  The truth is though, I am already fighting the desire to act in those ways, and so though I can say I am at times influenced, I am certainly still responsible for my own well being and my treatment of others.  We live in a pass the blame society, and it winds me right up wink

Meg-John Barker


Thanks Rosie, I think you raise a really interesting point about the complexities of media viewing - that of who the viewer/player is relating to.

I think that's why it's useful for such things to be studied in an interdisciplinary way rather than just from one perspective (e.g. biological, psychological, media studies).


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I read an interesting article years ago about a teenage boy that was in a car accident & he performed a manoeuvre (that surprised his Dad in the passenger seat) to avoid a collision. he said that he played a lot of racing video games. both father & son believed the video games contributed to his quick reflexes.

computer games are scapegoats, just like movies & rock music. but I understand why people blame them. when you see news stories about violent children, you hear things like they fell in with the wrong crowd - it must be difficult for a parent/carer/guardian to admit that perhaps they should've been more present or should've provided more guidance.

I'm sure if I was in the same position, I'd like to blame external influences rather than admit responsibility.

if anything, I think video games helped me growing up. I played my favourite characters to avoid having to witness my parents fight. I have friends who feel the same as me. to us, it was a form of escapism. I also know people who had a similar upbringing as me, they ended up walking the streets at night to avoid going home. I could've just as easily ended up in that group but luckily I liked my GameBoy enough to stay in my bedroom.
Meg-John Barker

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Cheers ND, great comment. I think the positive aspects of computer games are rarely taken account of in this kind of reporting - you're quite right.