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Violent Video Games: A Broad Perspective

I am not a scientist.  The trouble with giving information to people like me, who comprise the overwhelming majority, is that we often confuse causation with correlation.  The latter term means that some relationship between two factors exists, but does not mean one causes the other.  Here is a classic example:  As ice cream sales increase, the rate of drowning deaths increases sharply.  Therefore, ice cream causes drowning.  This assumption fails to take into account that ice cream sales and swimming both increase during the summer months.  Increased deaths by drowning are simply caused by greater exposure to water-oriented activities in the hotter months.

Increasing youth violence is often attributed, in part, to increasing exposure  to violent video games. Proponents of this linkage point to extreme cases like the violent-video-game orientation of Columbine perpetrators Dillon Klebold and Eric Harris.  Faced with a seeming increase in such horrific events, people want to be able to do something about it.  They want to believe that they have some control.  No one wants to spend years researching the massive social, economic and cultural shifts that probably underlie recent trends.  It is much easier to put that energy into an easy and glaring target: violent video games.  Yet, scientific studies provide, at best, a very weak relationship for predicting violent behavior from exposure to violent video games.

Several studies in the last few years, on the other hand, should still give us reason for pause.  While the vast majority of children will not end up hurting others because of exposure to violent video games, there are some children for whom these games represent a very severe danger, one that can exacerbate a personality profile already trending toward antisocial and hurtful behavior.  Returning to Klebold and Harris, these two showed serious maladaptive characteristics: extreme anger, depression, spitefulness, aggression, and even some psychotic traits.  These were clearly apparent long before they went on the school shooting spree.

Teachers, therapists and parents need to be on the lookout for maladaptive traits and keep those children away from violence of any kind as much as possible.  A recent research article specifies personality characteristics that, combined, should sound the alarm:

  • Low  conscientiousness– NOT well-organized and responsible; NOT performing tasks, projects and assignments in an efficient, diligent, and self-controlled way.
  • Low agreeableness- LACKING in altruism, trust, compliance and concern for others.
  • High neuroticism– Negative emotionality, including vulnerability to stress, anxiety, depression and other negative emotional states.

Children who exhibit these three trait sets should be steered away from violent video games.  For the overwhelming majority, however, violent video games may well be a healthy outlet for built-up emotions, stress, and unexpressed aggression.

I know I have written frequently on this topic.  I have done so out of a deep passion that we focus our energies in the right direction.

  • What’s your opinion on this issue?  Is your opinion rooted in scientific evidence?  Gut instinct?  Things you’ve heard from others?
  • Please weigh in on this very important debate.

12 Responses to “Violent Video Games: A Broad Perspective”

  1. Jim says:

    IIRC, one reason people got so panicky over the Columbine shooting was that Harris and Klebold both imprinted images of their classmates and teachers into one of the games they played; Doom, I believe it was.

  2. Jim says:

    Good to finally see someone shedding some light on this topic, and keeping away from the Jack Thompson “tunnel vision” point of view. Hopefully this gets a lot more well-deserved attention; great blog Kevin =)

  3. Ted Freedman says:

    Kevin,

    I wanted to leave a comment on an earlier post, but couldn’t. However, not to be blowing too much smoke here, I just straight up love this work you are doing.
    On this particular topic, my feeling is that it is easy and lazy to look at something like violence in video games or on tv and say there you go, that’s the problem.
    I like that you open up the idea that perhaps it is even a healthy outlet for some kids. An acknowledgement and release of their shadows.
    I also appreciate the gift of your understanding that it will exacerbate violence in a child already trending in that direction and it is important that we as a society, parent or whatever, recognize that child.
    It is easy, and dare I say lazy, to pick the quick solution by picking out a simple answer. “It’s video games that are at fault, ban them and let’s move on.”
    It is a lot harder to do the work of taking responsibility for the children on the fringe who are tending towards violent behavior.
    I can’t wait for the book. Can I pre-order?

  4. Nancy says:

    Our grandson has been diagnosed with ADHD and his parents, with the advice of his doctor and educators, have put him on medication. He seems to be able to focus much better now, and his grades have improved significantly as well as his interpersonal relationships. He otherwise seems to be his same energetic, engaged self, but the mere idea of medication and its possible side effects still bothers me. Should I be concerned?

  5. joel wilson says:

    I try to use a little science, logic and gut instinct. You have been concentrating on youth watching and playing violent computer videos and games. This exposure is compounded by moderate and extreme violence on TV and the movies. So there is an almost constant barrage of violence and maybe a loss of realization of what is entertainment and what is reality. When I was a teen we had no computers or video games. The most violent TV was Clarabelle squirting Howdy Doody with seltzer and White Fang hitting Soupy Sales with a pie. The movies had Ming The Merciless tying up Flash Gordon with a perceived threat to his life. Kids would very rarely lose their perspective of what violence would do in real life. It is the barrage from different sources that bakes your cake.

    • kevin says:

      Thank you for the cake metaphor, Joel. I agree that society has shifted, but I caution you against the “good ole days” mentality. In the 50s, lynchings were still happening and African-Americans, women, latinos, native Americans and many other groups were still fighting for equality, and were recipients of intolerance and violence on a regular basis. What radio and TV programs do you think the fire-hose-armed police in Birmingham Alabama were watching as they doused Civil Rights protesters? Child abuse was also much more common place, and children were treated to corporal punishment in school. I think we have to be very careful about romanticizing the “good ole days.” Do you want us to go back pre-Civil War? How about the Inquisition when violence was institutionalized in the Church?

      Personally, I believe that humanity is, overall, a lot less violent. We have, however, become much more sensitive and aware.

      • joel wilson says:

        I have considered you points and have concluded phooey. Of course violence has always been a part of human history, but instances such as this weeks mass murder at a workplace have become a common event. Child abuse although still common is probably not as bad due to education and social services. More people per capita are killed today due to violent acts than in the 50’s.

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