We’re told that President Trump may be able to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing his supporters, but apparently he can’t criticize video games. Trump faced intense backlash for briefly mentioning the rather self-evident fact that violent media has a desensitizing effect on young minds. He did not say that video games “cause” violence, nor did he “blame” video games for violence. He simply mentioned it as one factor among many that may, to one degree or another, contribute to the problem.
Video games are a sacred cow in our culture. You know they must be sacred if even Trump can’t get away with blaspheming them. This is an unfortunate situation because it prevents us from having a worthwhile discussion about the activity in which our kids spend over 15 hours a week engaging. We are permitted to discuss the pernicious influence of television, movies, internet, and social media — but video games, it is widely insisted, are an exception. All of those other forms of media — all of those other images that kids spend hours a day staring at, all of those other things that draw their eyes to the glowing screen — can be evaluated and criticized, but not video games.
It is claimed that the link between video games and physical aggression has been “disproven” and “debunked.” I was told on Twitter yesterday that “every study” has shown that video games have nothing at all to do with violence. This is all nonsense, of course. The American Academy of Pediatrics tallies 3,500 studies conducted on the link between violence and media. All but 18 of them find a connection. More recent studies have arrived at similar conclusions.
But two can play the game of dueling studies. An oft-cited study on the pro-gaming side — touted as “one of the most definitive to date” — purports to find no link between aggression and video games at all. Note that “find no link” is a far cry from “disproves link,” which is how headlines and social media posts frame it. It is interesting, though, to actually read the study rather than simply scan the headline of a news report about it. If you do read the fine print — or even just the regular print — you will find that it relies almost exclusively upon self-reported data from gamers and the parents of gamers. The negative influence of gaming is “disproven” based on the fact that people who play games, and parents who let their kids play games, say there is no negative influence. This only shows that people tend to be defensive of their hobbies and parents tend to be defensive of their own parenting. The idea that it proves or disproves anything about the influence of gaming is laughable.
Other studies have vindicated video games by analyzing the crime rate around periods when violent video games hit the market. Shockingly, the crime rate goes down during that time because most kids are inside playing video games. Eureka! Of course, this only disproves the idea that violent video games hypnotize children and cause them to immediately run outside and murder each other. Studies like the one linked above indeed decimate such claims. The only problem is that literally no one on Earth has made that claim. Nobody thinks that video games take control of a child’s brain like a zombie virus and “make” or “cause” them to commit acts of violence. What some of us do think, however, is that video games are a form of media, and media influences people. Those influences can be hard to discern, hard to tabulate, and impossible to quantify on a pie chart, but we know they exist. The marketing industry would be bankrupt, otherwise.
If I turned on Peppa the Pig to find Peppa ripping bong hits, I would be very displeased and I certainly wouldn’t let my three-year-old son watch the program anymore. Is that because I think the show will “cause” my son to become a pothead by next Wednesday? No. But I do think that images on the screen influence children, just as they influence adults. The reason why we generally frown upon drug use by children’s cartoon characters is that we don’t want our kids desensitized to it. The same process of desensitization can certainly happen with violence — violence on TV, in movies, on the internet, and in games. You shouldn’t need a study to tell you this. It’s a basic fact of human nature.
It is plainly absurd to argue that a child who plays gory first-person shooters for hours and days and years of his life will come out on the other side totally unaffected by the experience. Certainly such an argument is so counter-intuitive, so opposed to everything we have observed, so contrary to what any person familiar with human psychology would expect, that one would need very compelling evidence to support it. A study showing that the mommies of gamers think games are fine doesn’t qualify as compelling evidence, I’m afraid.
But all of this talk about violence in games misses the point. A child who plays violent games sparingly while maintaining a healthy social life and engaging in lots of physical activity will probably be influenced only negligibly by the content of the game. On the other hand, a kid who stays inside for hours every day, has no social life, eschews almost all physical activity, never plays sports, and never climbs trees or plays tag or gets grass stains on his jeans, will almost certainly be negatively influenced by his video game diet — even if none of the games are violent. The real danger of video games is the same sort of danger inherent to television and to the internet. These things, if consumed immoderately, cause isolation and loneliness. They impede the development of social skills and prevent a child from having anything like a real childhood. They replace his imagination with images on a screen and destroy his inner life.
The Sandy Hook shooter was obsessed with video games, playing them for up to ten hours a day. Gamers who suggest this fact is completely irrelevant and utterly disconnected from his eventual burst of murderous violence are defying common sense. Video games breed addiction, which is an argument not for banning games or censoring them, but for parents strictly regulating the amount of time kids spend playing them.
It is often argued that there isn’t a link between violence and gaming because everyone plays video games in East Asia yet mass shootings are rare. This is true, but people in that part of the world also go on days-long gaming binges until they keel over dead. Asia is evidence that video games don’t directly cause mass murder — a claim that, again, nobody is making — but it’s also evidence that video games can have a profound psychological effect on a person who lets his gaming habit get out of control.
We should be, as much as possible, guiding our kids away from activities that involve long stretches of self-involved isolation in darkened rooms, and guiding them towards fresh air and grassy fields. Our kids may not become mass murderers or serial killers if they play games for eight hours a day, but they won’t become well-adjusted adults, either.