…From my Cold, Digital Hands
There is a relationship between the existence of a gun and the violence that the instrument is crafted to commit. There is a proximity between the act of firing the weapon, the machine that pressed parts for its assembly, and the culture that upholds the right for such a mechanism to be economically distributed. The morality of this relationship, and of each individual aspect of it, lay in deeper waters. That these individual points exist within a set plane, however, is not reasonably debatable.
President Obama has called for $10 million in research to study the link between violent media and aggressive acts. This appeal to the American public was made less than a month after the NRA conflated video games with the tragedy at Sandy Hook. The modern fear of video games runs along diametric political lines.
The presidential call is to research an essential question, one that merits reflection: Why do we want to hurt and kill each other? The value of this appeal is not constrained just to the American public but is a worthy self-reflection for a multitude of modern cultures. A valid answer to this question offers the potential of more thoughtful, peaceful societies. Asking if there is a connection between simulated and actual violence, as one step of a larger inquiry, is sensible.
Those skeptical of President Obama’s appeal, believing there is a bias against how video games are perceived, need only point to the language of the presidential plan to justify their concerns. Video games are the only entertainment medium mentioned in this official call to action. This is consistent with the president’s January 16 speech to the nation in which television and movies were conspicuously missing from his noted concerns. Likewise, when Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy spoke to the U.S. Conference of Mayors he suggested a culpability between distributing video games and failing to spend adequate resources on destigmatizing mental health treatment. While Malloy’s connection was strained at best, it was more reasoned than Ralph Nader’s recent description of video games as “electronic child molesters.”
Concerns about violent video games are being communicated by national leaders. And yet, I could not be less worried about the future of video games. Game violence either has a measurable negative impact on culture or it does not. If research studies conclude that there is a negligible corollary between violence and game media then we are one step closer to a more focused conversation about how social interactions are influenced by media. If, on the other hand, research studies conclude that there is a measurable corollary between violence and game media then we should make a sober appraisal of the cost of our entertainment. Either way, I am not of the opinion that ignorance is the more worthy path. It doesn’t hurt to understand things.
One line of opposition to the President’s proposal is that we already have sufficient data- no further research is needed. Unfortunately, this is a claim held by stalwarts on both sides of the debate. Grand Theft Childhood, by doctors Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson, discusses how to measure the relationship between violence and video media through a critique of earlier studies.
The authors found that many older, oft-cited studies connecting video games with violence were critically faulty in design. Dr. Kutner and Dr. Olson also conducted their own research study, with inconclusive results. Many of the students studied played games, including violent ones, without indications of violent behaviors in their daily lives. However, adolescents who did exhibit increased aggressive behaviors were found to be more likely to play M-Rated games on a frequent basis; this relationship was found across gender lines though notably more present in female subjects. Their research suggested that there may be a correlation between actual and simulated violence but did not suggest a causality between the two. Though Grand Theft Childhood is one of many publications on the subject it stands as a reasonable voice calling for better, not simply more, research.
What if there is a relationship between video games and violence? If research were to reliably demonstrate a link between simulated and physical violence then this would have a notable influence on how I continue to reflect on the medium. My children are still young and much of what they interact with is cartoonish. This won’t always be the case.
While I do not believe that research will find a narrow connection between video games and violence, reality is not concerned with my private notions. The prospect of identifying connective tissue between consumption and behavior justifies further inquiry. The only individuals that should be unduly cautious about further research are those afraid to challenge dogmatic beliefs. Even if video games sit only as a single component within a larger mechanism that supports social aggression then the nature of this relationship merits deliberation. It doesn’t hurt to understand things.