Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Phinal Phantasy?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, adolescence, video games

When I was a teen, we had a fireplace that we used a lot. It became my job to chop and split the wood. I soon found that going out and whacking big chunks of logs was a great way to blow off steam. So much so, that when I went away to college, I soon tracked down a Christian youth center with a big woodpile, and got permission to "help" split the wood. There is something very satisfying about setting up a slice of a 24-inch diameter log and splitting it with one blow.

Is there a moral difference between splitting wood to defuse my frustrations, and running a computer game in which the object is to messily destroy insectile enemies from Betelgeuse? How about if the "enemies" are human...?

There is a story I've read, an obvious setup, in which the "hero" visits two stalls at an amusement arcade. One, which he encounters first but passes by with disgust, is a shooting gallery in which the targets are beautiful young women. Who knows why they are willing to die, but they egg on all passers-by to try their luck (and aim). No, he goes instead to the nearby "True Love" attraction, where he experiences a 3-day "honeymoon" with a lovely woman. At its end, he is still smitten, but of course, the "ride" is finished and he cannot buy more time. It is explained to him that, yes, the young woman's love for him was real, as real as can be, but it was chemically induced, and just now she is experiencing true love with another. Our heartbroken hero must leave; as he does so, he passes back by the shooting gallery. When he sees it, he goes in and says, "Line 'em up!".

Sorry to anyone who finds the story ruined for them should they encounter it in a 40-year-old anthology. But...doesn't the story resonate just a bit? Doesn't it tap genuine reactions? As strait-laced as I am, I found myself nodding in guilty agreement at the end of the story.

Yet in recent days, I've forbidden my son from bringing into our Halo or any other video game "in which you gain points by hurting or killing people." Am I wrong?

When I began to read Grand Theft Childhood I expected a slam against video gaming that suited my prejudices. I soon realized the title is ironic. Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Video Games (and What Parents Can Do) by Lawrence Kutner, PhD and Cheryl K. Olson, ScD, looks deep under the surface of the current controversy about video gaming, and presents the results of a study they have recently concluded with their conclusions.

It is clear that the field needs careful study. As they write, "In the course of our research, we ran across a lot of muddle-headed thinking, misuse of scientific data and political posturing on the part of people from all points of view." (p. 2) They took the refreshing step of actually asking kids and parents about what they do and what they think. No simulated electrical shocks, no air horns, and no lie-detector wiring here. Dialog, interviews, and questionnaires are their favored tools. And of course, lots and lots of reading.

Here I find fault: though they quote from a number of sources, the book lacks a bibliography. They do have more than a hundred references scattered among their end-notes, but I find this practice makes it more frustrating for anyone who wants to pursue further research on one's own. Even at the cost of more published pages, a scholarly, if popularly-written, book needs a well-ordered bibliography.

Their conclusions may surprise you. The primary one that sticks with me is that, while there seem to be a very few public scandals such as school shootings, in which you could point some blame at video gaming, the much greater risk many children face is violence in their own home. Poverty and abuse still rank as the most accurate "leading indicators" of violence by teens.

Yet I found myself wondering if the authors weren't bending over backward a bit too far to avoid the "correlation means causation" fallacy. There is a table on page 101 that shows the following: Of children (mainly middle school age) who played less than 2 hours of video games weekly, 4% or less were "classified as bullies", but of those who played more than 6 hours weekly, 10% or more were bullies. The table actually has seven categories, and a very clear trend. The table, and a companion table showing similar ranking by days per week, is also introduced by statements that refer to earlier material showing that M-rated gaming is strongly correlated with bullying. Now, after a bit of discussion, the next section heading, on page 103, is "Are Aggressive Kids More Likely to Play Violent Games?"

Much later in the book the question is asked in a similar way, and referenced by this quote by U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly: "...researchers in this field have not eliminated the most obvious alternative explanation: aggressive individuals may themselves be attracted to violent video games." (p. 203) These are two of a number of instances, and the point raised is valid. However, the question is not resolved by the authors' research, and in their conclusion they state, "We don't know if playing M-rated games inspires some kids to act that way, if acting that way inspires kids to play M-rated games or if something else is going on." (p. 223)

Thus, the most crucial question about video gaming—does gaming lead to violence or are violent people more drawn to gaming?—is left unanswered. I have to conclude, based only on my own experience, is, probably both, in some measure. Particularly because counter-examples abound. Some of the most heinous young criminals don't play video games at all...which fact alone makes them very abnormal! What I can glean from the book includes:
  • Virtually destroying interplanetary slugs and spiders does help some kids work off aggressive and frustrated feelings safely.
  • Video gaming is a much more social pastime than most parents realize.
  • Loneliness and angst are part of adolescence, whether video games are involved or not.
  • This generation is less violent, overall, than most prior generations.
  • Parents ought to learn to play the games, and to play them with their kids.
And maybe that last item would go a long way toward alleviating parents' worries.

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