Rated-X Box

See Kevin interviewed by Teen TV News:  Videogame Addiction interview

I still struggle with the insistence by some that violent video games produce violent people. While violent shooters do often have a history of video game addiction, we must be careful when we attempt to apply that association to the general population. However, video gaming addiction remains a serious problem. In my last blog, I focused on the lack of scientific evidence for a link between violence and violent video games. Today, I seek to balance my perspective by going to school on the Xbox.

From 1993-2003, I logged over fourteen thousand hours playing video games like Gettsyburg, Antietam, and Command and Conquer. I enjoyed amassing an army and then using it to destroy my enemy’s entire empire. I was so addicted that video games almost destroyed my life, before I got help. I run groups for cyber addicts like me, helping them get their lives back under control. In the last year, I have been getting lots of calls related to the Xbox. I have heard stories about boys as young as 10 going into fits of rage when their games were taken away, and teenagers falling asleep in school after they had gamed into the wee hours. I have almost totally avoided video games these last several years, so I lacked knowledge about the Xbox. I decided to go undercover.

I sat in front of the video game console with my informant, my 12-year-old nephew, who took delight in helping me understand the allure of the Xbox. He ceremoniously crowned me with the headset, the auditory conduit that allowed me to fully enter a parallel universe. With the game system hooked up to the Internet, we decided I would play Call of Duty: Black Ops, one of the most popular shoot-em-up games among teen and tween males. With the Xbox Live feature, I was instantly connected to other human players across the globe.

I was armed with a sniper rifle as twenty or so clad-in-camouflage teammates and I made our way through bombed-out ruins, trying to kill the “bad” guys before they had a chance to kill us. As I clumsily attempted to acclimate myself to the controls, I was killed before I had even fired a shot. My nephew shouted, “You got raped!” I had never heard anything like that from my sweet, innocent nephew. Awkward. Realizing I was taken aback, he quickly added, “That’s just what they say, Uncle Kevin, when you get killed before you get to shoot.”

The player who had adeptly shot me, with only a pistol, made his way over to my character before it disappeared from the screen; he knelt on top of me, a common move designed to show dominance as well as to humiliate. Yes, it is called tea-bagging. After a few seconds, I re-spawned, meaning my character came back to life in another part of the battle zone. For the next hour, little boys bombarded me and each other with ceaseless barrages of racially and sexually-charged epithets. Name calling, trash talking, and provocative, profanity-laden insults comprised integral components of the experience.

While parent groups have long decried violence in video games, few understand that the most troubling problem nowadays is not what children see on the screen, but rather what they hear through the headset. While parents may see these games as a digital version of playing “army men,” it is important to understand that by using the online, or “Live” feature, young people are being exposed to wildly inappropriate subject matter. Many parents take comfort from knowing their children are at home, “staying out of trouble,” but the filth and contagion that used to be “out there” are now just a click away.

These children participate in a subculture that encourages insults, bullying, and degradation. The goal seems to be to inflame other players, hoping to throw their game off balance, thus making them easier to kill. I had naively assumed that the headset would permit greater cooperation among teammates, but nothing of the kind took place. Far from encouraging team spirit and fair play, these headset-enabled online games often embitter those who play them. Many otherwise reasonable young men lose control. The kill-or-be-killed mindset and the endless verbal assaults create an overwhelming intensity that can spill over into real life.

Mild-mannered Max played on the freshman football team, and did well in school. Yet, when he played Gears of War or Call of Duty for more than an hour a day, his behavior turned decidedly antisocial. The first incident occurred after Max had been playing for three hours. His mother had tried, unsuccessfully, to gently get him off the game. When she threatened to shut off the power, the fourteen-year old snapped: “You better ******* not!” He quickly and profusely apologized, but this was only the first episode. The last straw came when, after a four-hour gaming binge, he punched through the wall and broke his finger. At that point Max’s parents removed the Xbox from their home, and sought me out for counseling. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes. Banning video games from one’s home does not usually solve the problem: video games are everywhere.

They even leave their mark in the brain. Scientific research continues to mount that intense video games—not just violent ones—can lead to enhanced release of dopamine in the brain’s striatal region, a feature of addiction. Abnormalities in this part of the brain are also involved in impulse control and self-regulation. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that excessive play leads to neurotic and disagreeable conduct, as well as emotional outbursts. When these kids indulge in highly intense games over several hours, they are taxing the brain’s ability to manage. The “electrical” circuits, many of them heavily dependent on dopamine to work properly, become overburdened and these kids lash out.

Max showed no signs of aggression in other areas of his life. A few hours on Xbox Live, though, and he became stubbornly irate. The delicate balance of his brain was altered. Max’s mother told me, “He’s a totally different person, even if he’s just on there a half hour.” Mothers do not need medical science to tell them that intense video games have the power to alter perception and personality. They see the disturbing transformation in their very own homes.

One would think that these young men would realize the games were creating a problem, and thus motivate them to curtail their play time. However, young men crave intensity and adventure. They’re not getting it, for the most part, in real life, so they pursue it online. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but excessive reliance on the cyber world for adventure leads to a sedentary lifestyle, stagnation of face-to-face social skills, and puts young men at risk for addiction.

The picture is not all negative. Video game-adept children develop visual-spatial acuity, coordination, and an all-important familiarity with technology. Laparoscopic surgery, battlefield monitoring, and predator-drone control are all performed through video game-like interfaces. Aerobic modules now allow video game consoles to actually encourage physical fitness, and many educational applications make learning fun.
Still, a sizeable subculture of young men spends hours every day relating to the world through a headset and game controller. Younger boys hear horribly inappropriate language and lurid references that have the potential to rob them of innocence. Older boys, longing for greater intensity, become hooked, finding a powerful substitute for the adventure that eludes them in real life.

As parents, you have two crucial tasks before you. First, you must become fully aware of the cyber world in which your children spend a great deal of their time. This more than anything will motivate you to put in place appropriate limits. Second, you must take pain to help them find intensity and adventure in the real world. The more time they spend in front of a screen, the more many of their natural abilities will stagnate. To name a few alternatives, I recommend paint ball, martial arts, adventure bike rides, geocaching, and urban exploring. If you have a computer adept for a child, find a computer class or camp. Link game time to achievement in school, performance of chores, and leading a balanced life. These games present us with dangers, but also great opportunities. Be aware of both!

This is a tricky debate. I submit that no easy answers jump out. Be mindful that balance is the key!

Violent Video Games: Not The Problem

See Kevin interviewed by Teen TV News:  Videogame Addiction interview

We live in a world where information, especially of a highly negative and disturbing variety, inundates and overwhelms us every day.  Most of us struggle to integrate the information, let alone have time to understand and fully process it.  I remember during the Sandy Hook tragedy listening to satellite radio for four or five days straight, every time I was in the car.  I even lingered in the car when I would reach a destination, drawn to passively participate in the aftermath of the unfathomable loss of life.  I am now under another media barrage with the present naval-yard horror, and find myself  now driven to keep up.

What strikes me in this case is a partial focus once again on violent video games.  So, I shall again respond, providing my professional opinion as an expert in the field, and also updating readers on what science has to say.  Obviously, Aaron Alexis seems to suffer from some severe mental health issues.  Stories of erratic behavior, psychological disturbances, and details of his discharge from the navy have started to emerge.  And yes, he did play violent video games, like the emblematic, Call of Duty.  So now, the news media have started contacting me again, asking me to comment on this issue.

  • Do violent video games create a violence-prone individual?
  • Do they encourage violence?
  • Do they push a person down the path toward violent behavior?

These are the types of questions I am being asked.  I constantly scan scientific websites, the Internet, and keep in touch with academics to stay current on this issue.  To educate yourself, I recommend going to sciencedaily.com and doing a simple scan.  The website is a clearing house that offers short summaries of scientific studies. I just went there and searched for, violent video games brain, and came across the following article: Video Games Alter Brain Function in Young Men.  An author in the field of video game addictions, my curiosity was understandably piqued.  Yang Wang, a medical doctor and professor at the Indiana University Medical School, issued a powerful statement about the findings made in this study:  “For the first time, we have found that a sample of randomly assigned young adults showed less activation in certain frontal brain regions following a week of playing violent video games at home.”  I was ready to believe and start altering my recommendations accordingly.  This sort of scientific statement—that appeals to measures of neurological and neurochemical activity—always makes a powerful impression on me.  However, experience has taught me that when evaluating a scientific claim, it helps to know who exactly has funded the research.

In this case, the research was funded by The Center for Successful Parenting whose mission is “to help parents understand the consequences of our children viewing video game violence.”  Does it sound to you like they have already made up their minds?  This group has sponsored other studies whose findings have ultimately been found questionable.  Furthermore, my experience of groups like this is that they cherry pick information that suits their mission and ignore that which “does not compute.”  I certainly think that violent video games impact the brain, just as lots of other activities do. We have reputable and repeated scientific data that suggest, for example, that watching violence leads to desensitization. We also have pretty sound evidence that problem video gamers have atypical activation patterns in the brain’s craving centers, as well as areas that regulate emotions, and impulses.  But the most recent study I came across, August 2013, found a complete lack of “evidence that violent video games increase bullying or delinquent behavior among vulnerable youth with clinically elevated mental health symptoms.”  The jury is still out, folks.  So before you go removing your child’s Xbox, take a few breaths and realize that 99.99999999999999999% of people who enjoy military games on the Xbox are not going to hurt other people.

Many parent groups see red when they ponder the continuing trend toward violent video games.   Mothers Against Videogame Addiction and Violence (MAVAV), for example, sees the problem in epic proportions. The organization’s website declares: “The video game industry continues to market and promote hatred, racism, sexism, and the most disturbing trend: clans and guilds, an underground video game phenomenon which closely resembles gangs.”   First of all, most people I know who are part of gaming clans hardly leave their house and suffer from severe social anxiety, not good traits for a future member of a gang.  It is understandable for parents to worry when they see their children taking delight in mutilating and killing on-screen characters, as well as destroying cyber neighborhoods. In my personal experience working with hundreds of cyber addicts, however, I find that when kids have addictive tendencies toward video games—and the offerings of the cyber world in general—it is usually a signal that some other issues are going on. To be clear, excessive cyber behaviors are often a symptom rather than a cause.

I think the video game industry is motivated by profit, and generally cares little about corporate responsibility. However, research suggests the impact of violent video games to be somewhat small. I have had many young people in my cyber addiction support groups who had bona fide anger management issues. In some cases, violent video games provided a helpful outlet for built-up anger, while in others, seemed to exacerbate it. In all cases, however, the anger existed before the violent video games. The games did not make these children angry.

Trevor, a fourteen-year-old in one of my support groups, had been severely bullied in middle school. He had withdrawn from social contact into first-person, squad-level shooting games like Call of Duty and Modern Warfare. He did not just want to kill opponents. He wanted to humiliate them. After he killed a player in one of his online multiplayer games, he then moved his soldier over the top of the “dead” player and tea-bagged him. Obviously, this behavior related to Trevor’s unresolved emotions. His problems were a bit too serious for the group to deal with, so I referred him to a therapist. Dealing with his video game addiction was, nevertheless, the gateway toward getting to his deeper problems.

I have had many folks in my cyber addiction recovery groups go on to have a variety of issues diagnosed, from ADHD and anxiety issues to bipolar disorder. Excessive and obsessive use of video games, computers and the Internet almost always point to other problems which underlie them.  Think of these behaviors as simply the tip of the iceberg.  Let’s not look for an easy and well-packaged solution to this present tragedy.  We need to become more adept as a society in identifying people early on who need our help, compassion, and intensive mental health intervention.  Too many people fall through the cracks. We all want to do SOMETHING, so that we do not feel so helpless in the face of such an unforeseeable tragedy. But banning or burning your child’s Xbox is not going to really help.