Video Games: Part 3

Is a Generation at Risk?

Add Violence

Take the excess screen time, mix-in the interactive, immersive nature of video games and then add the violent imagery characteristic of nine out of 10 of the best-selling games and parents have even more cause for concern.

By far the most controversial video-game debate is whether violent video games, especially the first-person shooter games, actually cause kids to be violent – or are more-violent kids drawn to such games? Recent episodes of real-life violence – including the Columbine killings and the Beltway sniper killings – have been carried out by young men who were heavily influenced by violent video games. Yet, the video game industry continues to assert that games have few, if any, harmful effects.

“Anybody who suggests that the kids in Columbine carried out their heinous crimes because they played video games is really demagoging the issue,” Doug Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), said in a Newshour with Jim Lehrer interview. “These kids … had acutely serious problems.”

In his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, Lowenstein denied the validity of research on media effects. “It’s easy to lose sight of the fact, in all the rhetoric, that video games are legal products for people of all ages, that they are constitutionally protected products, and that at best, the scientific evidence linking them to harmful effects is weak and ambiguous, and at worst does not exist,” he said.

Media experts disagree. Researchers are chipping away at the notion that simulated violence is harmless with a growing body of evidence. They say 40 years of media research shows that violent TV and movies can cause violence in children and they expect to be able to prove a far greater impact from video games because children are no longer passive receivers of violence but active participants.

One of the most important factors affecting the impact of TV and movie violence is the extent to which a child identifies with the main violent character. But, “in a violent video game, you are the character,” Anderson says. “You have to identify to play the game.”

Children playing violent video games rehearse all aspects of a standard act of violence, from identifying potential threats to choosing an aggressive course of action, deciding who to shoot and then shooting. “You link all the aspects of a violent behavioral script and you rehearse it over and over and over again, and then you get directly rewarded for it,” Anderson points out. Rewards come in the form of points, money, sound effects, game advancement and positive affirmations by the game’s narrator.

It’s no coincidence that school shooters played violent video games, according to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie and Video-Game Violence. “The FBI profile of a school killer identified the fact that all of the school killers have one thing in common – a fascination with media violence,” Grossman says. “They don’t do drama, sports or any structured activities. What do they do with themselves? They play violent video games.”

Grossman, who trains military and law-enforcement personnel, contends that the same skills children practice in violent video games are based on the techniques the military uses to train soldiers.

Grossman calls first-person shooter games “pathological, dysfunctional play” that turns healthy play on its head. “They reward the child for behavior that in any other circumstance would be punished,” he says. “Kids learn to kill and are desensitized to the suffering and death of human beings, and they like it.”

Though research cannot yet claim a direct, causal link, Grossman believes violent video games create automatic conditioned “reflexes” of violence in children: “They rehearse it and rehearse it and then, in the real world, when they are inflicted with a frustrating situation, they lash out with what they have rehearsed, mentally and physically.”

The latest brain research on violent video games may actually support Grossman’s contention. Two recent studies have demonstrated brain changes in children who play video games excessively, affecting their ability to control and respond to violence and aggression.

Sexually Violent Messages, Too
Walsh is even more concerned about the violent sexual messages certain video games deliver to children. The worst of the messages connect entertainment and fun with degrading sexual violence against women.

“At the very time we would hope our teenage sons are developing healthy attitudes toward girls and how you treat girls, they are spending hours and hours playing a game where you hire prostitutes and murder them,” he says. “I can’t imagine that is the type of input we want our sons to have during that critical time of development.”

Walsh, who is writing a book on adolescent brain development, points out that the teenage brain is not a finished product. Managing emotional impulses and developing the conscience are the last “open windows” in the teenage brain. “Linking that realization with kids spending hours and hours playing a game where violence against women is trivialized is not what we want our sons or daughters to have.”

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Anne Chappell Belden is a freelance writer, journalism instructor and mother of two children. She has a master’s degree in media studies.


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08 Oct 2017

By Anne Chappell Belden