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.