The Exchange is part of an ongoing series on The Hive tackling the questions facing Boston’s entrepreneurs, investors, and innovators. This week, we ask participants if the video game industry should be regulated.
Below Christopher J. Ferguson, associate professor and chair of Psychology & Communication at Texas A&M International University, argues that the frequently flaunted connection between violence and violent video games is less compelling than it might seem.
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To a large degree, the issue of whether video game violence should be regulated is a moot one. It can’t be: that was decided by the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) in 2011. SCOTUS concluded that research evidence could not link video game violence to aggression, that video games enjoy full free speech protections, as do minors. So bombastic efforts by politicians and some scholars to regulate violent games is a waste of taxpayer money and national attention. Nonetheless, let’s examine the arguments for such regulation.
Most of the debate over video games currently is the result of the tragic Sandy Hook shooting by 20-year old Adam Lanza. Keep in mind that playing violent video games is common among 80-90% of males in this age category. So it would be weirder if Lanza did not play such games than if he did. Since Sandy Hook we have had a rash of high profile gun crimes committed by elderly men with no connection to video games. Just this Tuesday a man in his 60s killed 13 in Serbia. Given the rash of gun violence by the elderly perhaps we should consider regulating access to Dancing with the Stars or other media the elderly consume? Clearly video games and media culture are not common threads in gun violence.
Some scholars do believe that violent video games cause aggression, but those same scholars also believe that reading the Bible (which has considerable violence in it) causes aggression in much the same manner. If we are going to regulate video games are we also going to regulate the Bible? Should it have a big warning sticker on it, informing people that reading this sacred text can be dangerous? Obviously, the very idea is absurd. But it also helps us understand the absurdity of the arguments against video games as well, arguments which are both selective, and often the product of ignorance. As a recent Harris poll observed, fear of video games is most pronounced among older adults who do not play them. These fears follow predictable patterns of media-based moral panics such as well-known panics over comic books, Elvis Presley, Cindy Lauper (who’s song She Bop congress seriously though would promote teenage masturbation in the 1980s, as if teens needed Lauper to prod them). In several decades our fears over video games will look just as foolish.
Unfortunately, most of the arguments supporting regulation focus on policy statements by professional advocacy groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychological Association. Most people in the general public are unaware that these policy statements were written by scholars whose personal reputations were heavily invested (sometimes financially) in anti-media rhetoric and did not constitute independent reviews. These policy statements have since been fact-checked as containing numerous errors on even basic details, a tendency to report discredited urban legends (such as that media effects are similar in magnitude to important medical effects like smoking and lung cancer), and failure to cite research conflicting with hard-line advocacy views. These policy statements have no credibility, and it is regrettable to see they still have some impact. Part of the problem is the assumption that these groups are neutral, objective observers, but of course they themselves have a vested interest in identifying pressing social problems to which their members (and full disclosure I am an APA member) may ride to the rescue. Grant funding, political influence and professional prestige are all aided, short term, by making highly conclusive and alarming statements even in the absence of data. Thus, these groups have evolved into society’s neurotic nannies on media issues.
In reality though, the data linking video game violence to societal violence is just not there. My own research, and that of other groups, has not found evidence for such a link. Youth violence declined cross-nationally to 40-year lows during the video game epoch, and countries that consume the most video games, per capital, such as The Netherlands and South Korea are amongst the world’s least violent. As such, regulation efforts are both irrational and unconstitutional.