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Will more research on violent video games unearth answers, or just more questions?


The fallout from the tragic shooting rampage in Newtown, Connecticut will be with us for years. It has sparked several debates about the state of our society, uniting a large percentage of the of the nation against loose gun laws, while others seek to place the blame elsewhere. That includes a new surge of attention focusing on violent entertainment, with video games drawing a big bulls eye thanks in part to the National Rifle Association blaming games (along with movies, music, natural disasters, celebrities, foreign aide, and President Obama) for tragic events like the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. And yet despite politicians like Rep. Diane Franklin (D-CA) stating that violent games cause diagnosable mental health conditions and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) claiming that video games are a bigger threat than guns, there’s no evidence linking violent games in any such capacity.

“Some studies have claimed they are measuring violence but I’m not sure I necessarily agree with their interpretation,” said Dr. Kevin D. Williams, Associate Professor of Communication at Mississippi State University. “They may have a participant buzz another unfamiliar person with a loud blast of noise. They may have a participant fill out a questionnaire stating how that participant would punish someone in a hypothetical situation. Let’s be honest. At the heart of the situation is fear that a game player after playing a violent game would physically assault or perhaps kill another person. Noise blasts to a complete stranger or writing down a punishment to a fake situation doesn’t seem like a realistic measure of true violence.”

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Williams is a leading expert in the field of the effects of video games. In 2006 he was honored with the Broadcast Education Association’s Best Doctoral Dissertation Award, in which he claimed that “The research suggests that frustration with game play may be a more important factor in inspiring violence than merely viewing graphic violence in the games,” Williams said.”

While there have been a lot of individual research studies done throughout the U.S. and around the globe involving video games and violence, there has thus far been no conclusive evidence linking the two. That’s one of the reasons Vice President Joseph Biden recently met with video game publishers and developers in Washington, D.C. in his effort to explore this topic. One issue with many politicians, including Biden, is that they’re very old, and certainly not gamers.

“I think a lot of the older legislators thought we had thoroughly explored the impact violent media had on viewers,” said Williams. “In the past few decades there had been congressionally lead studies on the impact of violent movies and television on viewers. I believe those politicians had the misperception that games were just an extension of that. Games are much different in that they fully involve the player. The player in part generates the narrative and is responsible for what happens on the screen. It’s a different medium than movies or television and deserves to be studied and treated as such. I hope that younger politicians realize this. I also hope they put their money where their mouth is. Watching the Sunday morning talk shows, I hear a lot of politicians who want to blame the games more than the guns. I understand their argument, but are they willing to really fund and do the work now that they’ve pointed out the gorilla in the room?”

But even more research isn’t likely to quell the debate. There have been plenty of studies over the years, but there are also those who are pushing their own agendas even within this research.

“As scientists we like to put these statistical limits on things as if one hundredth of a decimal point makes a concern valid or not,” said Williams. “We’re too caught up in our own egos to see that perspective matters. Readers of violence research should be cautious and come to know not only the research being presented but the researcher as well. There are a lot of big personalities in this field. Some have staked their professional career on proving there is an effect. Some have staked their career on countering others’ claims. Up and coming researchers like myself can get caught in the crossfire, having their work validated or invalidated because of who they quoted as opposed to the design of their research.”

One good thing that can come from the current media exposure around violent games is funding for more research. With the upcoming release of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V, there’s sure to be plenty of media attention around violent games throughout this spring, at least. Researchers believe more has to be done to explore violence in games, and that sentiment is shared by President Obama.

“Most of the video game studies are single exposure experiments,” said Williams. “Participants play a game once and are then measured. Any effect they experience wears off quickly. We need more experiments that systematically investigate long term repeated exposure. Unfortunately, there is a lack of funds to do such experiments at most universities.”

Williams’ research has focused on the moderators of violent video games. While he’s interested in the effects of violent video games on players, he’s more interested on the aspects of video games that could influence a violence effect. He most recently explored the impact Wii motion control games have on hostility. He found that the additional connection the gamer has with the avatar through motion controls does increase the hostility effect, but that’s different than enticing someone to go out and commit violent acts.

“I look at hostility because I feel we can accurately measure that and we also know that hostility is related to acts of violence,” said Williams. “But it does not mean that hostility always leads to real violence. Overall, we see that hostility effects are small and short lived.”

One thing that has come up in the current debate is the role parents play in all of this. Gamers who are of age have a First Amendment right to play games and watch entertainment that they want. Gamers who don’t have children don’t want to be penalized for parents who don’t want to take an active role in their kids’ lives.

“Parents play the most important role,” said Williams. “We know from past research that the most likely predictor of whether someone is going to become violent later in life is their parents’ view of violence. Was it a violent home? Was there domestic violence? Did the parents exemplify that violence solves problems? We all have that wall built up inside us, that wall that tells us to not take a swing at somebody when they treat you badly. That wall is built by religion and social rules, but most importantly, by parents. Can you know what media your child is engaging with at all times? No, media saturates our lives too completely, but parents must be vigilant as to knowing what media their children are consuming. Certainly there is no reason why a parent should not be investigating what games their child is asking them to buy. Popular games are not only filled with violence but also with sexuality and adult language. Retailers must also do a better job of restricting sales to minors when the games are not age appropriate. I know some businesses which do a wonderful job, but it needs to be more consistent across the nation.”

The good news for gamers who are worried about the political maelstrom is that not even The Terminator could ban the sale of “offensively violent” video games to minors in California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took his case against the Entertainment Software Association all the way to the Supreme Court and lost. Rep. Jim Matheson recently introduced a bill that would make it unlawful to sell or rent violent or Mature-rated video games to minors, making it punishable by a fine of up to $5,000. However, this bill is likely to face an uphill battle. And every effort to date in states across the country that has tried to fight the free speech games enjoy has failed. It’s likely there will be new research, and depending on those findings, the future of this debate could change.

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