Wednesday, August 02, 2006

This Is Your Heart on Videogame Violence


A group of scientists report that videogames desensitize people to violence, and an economist, Edward Castronova, issues a critical beatdown to their statistical methods. I was led to the discussion from an anthropology blog post that my human-ape sex lovin’ friend sent me, and I can’t resist adding my take. The new research does indeed seem sloppy and, I think, quite biased.

At this point, I don’t know tons about the research into the effects of media on violent behavior, but I do know that I love plenty of violent games and I haven’t been in a fight since 1986. Of course the anecdotes about something like the Columbine killers’ love for Doom don’t say squat about a game-violence link, and neither does my passivity.

But academic studies like this new one link things like physiological arousal to violent games pretty clearly. The question then becomes, do these links tell us anything about violent behavior? And it seems to me that they do not.

In the new report, The effect of video game violence on physiology desensitization to real life violence, subjects play either a violent game like Duke Nukem or a non-violent game like 3D Munch Man (wha?!) After playing the games, they watch videos of violent events like jailhouse stabbings.

Over the course of the activities, researchers monitored signs of physiological arousal like heart rate and galvanic skin response. They find that both violent and non-violent games aroused the subjects, as did watching the violent videos. However, the violent game players were less aroused by the videos and, therefore, the researchers surmise, desensitized.

To me, this is not surprising. Although it can be a slippery concept, in general desensitization should be a simple physiological fact. Expose an organism to a certain kind of stimulus and it’ll show a decreasing response. It’s called habituation. It shouldn’t matter much whether we are talking about rubbing the siphon of the sea slug aplysia or making people view representations of violence.

But the really poorly explored assumption in this paper is that desensitization to violence is inherently bad or dangerous. The researchers write, “desensitization of children and other civilians to violent stimuli may be detrimental for both the individual and society.” Maybe. But this has to be proven. It is fine to say desensitization might cause people to ignore victims of violence in real life. But even in their discussion the authors write, “the link between desensitization and helping behavior has not been as carefully examined [as other factors that might decrease helping].”

Devil's advocate time: what if desensitization is good? Just as an example, maybe people who are desensitized to violence are better able to help because they don’t panic. Or what if desensitization is short lived, just as habituation can be in sea slugs? But really, I suspect it is just neutral. After all, slightly slower heart beats don’t allow people to be violent or ignore those in need. Such violent and calloused people have much bigger, deeper problems, problems not caused by videogames.

4 comments:

MattG said...

I always find defenses against violence in videogames and in movies to be odd. I think that they are largely based in an unwillingness to admit what seems obvious (ok i know "obvious" is not tied to reality, but still..). Like pot smokers that deny the hazards of smoking or fast food lovers that deny the unhealthiness of fast food. All of these things are fine in moderation, and can be good for you, depending on your point of view. But some people are clearly negatively affected.

I will agree that for the most part, and to most people this kind of violence is tolerable. We can watch pulp fiction, kill bill, or american psycho and be turned on, find it humorous, amusing etc and we are not going to emulate or recreate those violent scenes. We can play Hulk and not want to actually smash up the city, or play the driving game where its ridiculously fun to destroy your car and all the people, but never use your car as a weapon in reality.. the same goes for the countless 1st-person shooter, and war games etc. nevertheless for a minority of people these games or movies can take on a more meaningful role in their lives, and they do dream of recreating the violence (I know, anecdotal). It seems to me that movies and games are a pretty powerful medium and in the hands of a mentally unstable person they can serve as more than an outlet for violent tendencies. We all like outlets, but when an outlet becomes an obsession or overtakes reality then we see columbine-like actions.

Columbine is not a video games fault, but like the guns they used in their assault, I see violent movies and games serving almost as a means by which they carried out their desires. Its not guns that kill people, but people that kill people.. the same thing is true for games and movies. I love video games, but I don't think they're completely harmless. I would not want my young child to spend a lot of time playing intense or graphic video games. I would partiuclarly not want them playing completely submersive games.

Man sorry if I sound like such a bitch. I do agree with your post, and weak science to put forward an agenda is never appreciated. But at the same time the inability to prove hazard should not be taken as proof of an absence of hazard. As old folks, our formative years were spent playing video games that revolved around eating pellets or knocking over turtles, and in the war games we did play they were all third person and very scripted. With these submerssive reality games I wonder what affect they will have on the young kids that play them. I think the jury is still out.

MattG said...

ok maybe i didn't really comment on your content.. but you got me thinking so i took it on a tangent.. and i'm clearly killing (violently) my time at work.

Com$tock said...

Believe it or not, I agree that common sense suggests that people who are exposed to a lot of violent media will be more aggressive, at least in thought if not in action.

And I'm ready to accept the science. For example, I'm not trying to say that games don't desensitize people to violence. I accept that. Show me that violent videogame playing is a strong predictor of future behavior with some careful studies, and I'll listen.

What I'm against, though, is the notion that videogames are a particularly insidious form of violent media that corrupts in a special way. Why am I concerned about this? Because although crime rates everywhere have been going down--over the same time period that game popularity has skyrocketted, I might unscientifically add--states around the country have begun to pass laws that regulate the sale of games the state deems offensive to minors.

And taking a positon that again might suprise you, I don't think young kids should be playing games like GTA or God of War. It's f-ed up if a parent allows that. Game stores should not sell "M" rated games to kids. Might suck to be that 16-year-old that can't buy Hitman, but he'll find a way to deal.

I just don't think the government should get involved, fining stores or, worse, kids who buy games! My reasons are purely selfish: I don't want to see the games I love disappear. So I think assumptions on the other side should be challenged. (Think you're the only one who can avoid work?)

Mrs. C said...

Com$tock,
I wonder what you think of the following findings:

Huesmann et al. (2003) has found that childhood exposure to TV violence stimulates an increase in adult aggression in both men and women. They found that this effect persists even after controlling for socioeconomic status, intellectual ability, and a variety of parenting factors. They also found that childhood exposure to TV violence, greater childhood identification with same-sex aggressive TV characters, and a stronger childhood belief that violent shows tell about life “just like it is” predicted more adult aggression regardless of the initial aggressiveness of the child. (See: Rowell Huesmann, L., Moise-Titus, J., Podolski, C., and Eron, L.D. (2003). Longitudinal Relations Between Children’s Exposure to TV Violence and Their Aggressive and Violent Behavior in Young Adulthood: 1977–1992. Developmental Psychology, 39(2), 201–221.)

Of course that longitudinal study deals with TV violence, but do you really think that the outcomes of exposure to videogame violence will be that difference?

Maybe you are an anomaly? Or maybe there is a lot of repressed aggression within you?

Earlier in your blogged you mention going to a therapist. Isn't depression agression turned inward?

I think your parents should have taken away those violent videogames ;-)