March 26, 2012 by vreddy92
The court case Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association (formerly Schwarzenegger vs. Entertainment Merchants Association) is a pivotal one for video game fans everywhere, answering whether states can restrict the sale of violent video games to minors. Surrounding this is a pivotal question: are violent video games harmful? This is a question we will be talking about later in class, but one which I nonetheless took an immediate interest in when reading this article. This question is tackled in a study done by psychology and law professors from Ohio State University, Iowa State University, and Texas Southern University. This study, summarized in a ScienceDaily article, takes a very interesting perspective on the idea: noting not whether scholars agree or disagree on the notion of whether violent video games are harmful, but rather the extent to which each scholar’s claims can be considered valid.
Through an analysis of briefs filed in the Supreme Court case, the study resulted in some very conclusive data: those who argued in favor of violent video games being harmful were more likely to have published a study regarding violence or aggression in the past (60% to 17%). Those who argued in favor of them being harmful were also more likely to have studied media violence in the past (37% to 13%). Perhaps most damningly, those who argued in favor of them being harmful were 48 times more likely to have had those studies published in a top-tier journal compared to those who believed they are not harmful.
Although this analysis’s results go counter to the court’s decision (they ruled in favor of the EMA, saying that video games are indeed a form of free speech), the point stands. It would appear that more credibility can be given to the claim that violent video games are harmful. However, while the study designers hail the study for its objectivity, there are many sources for error that I see. For instance, who is to say that this sample reflects the whole universe of those who study this matter? Who is to say that there is no bias in top-tier journals for research related to video games being violent? Is there even a way to tell which journals are top-tier and which ones aren’t? Does having published a study in the past qualify you to discuss video game violence? Why is the simple act of having published studies the only criterion? What about the credibility of the studies themselves?
The debate on whether or not violent video games encourage violence rages on. As someone who has logged many hours on Grand Theft Auto, I can say that I am perfectly able to separate reality from fiction. I don’t go out shooting people or having sex with prostitutes only to bludgeon them and take their money. All of that is an escape in a game, a sort of out-of-body experience, a rest from the social and legal confines of reality to enter a fantasy world where anything is possible. Most importantly, it isn’t you. This is my personal take on this matter, from experience playing all kinds of gory and violent games, and having friends who also do so.
Ian Bogost disagrees in his book “How to Do Things with Videogames”. He notes that there are games that can be considered “murder simulators”, games such as Torture Game 2 (playable here: http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/439144) and Manhunt, both games trivializing the most egregious acts of society: murder and torture. He notes, though, that it is not the sadism of the game that causes it, but rather the trivialization of the material. “Torture Game 2 fails not because it makes us feel pleasure but because it makes us feel nothing, or not enough anyway, about the acts it allows us to perform. We should simulate torture not to take the place of real acts but to renew our disgust for them,” he says. This raises a good point: while video games may not create sadists who enjoy a good-natured murderfest, maybe it’s simply the fact that you are desensitized to the notion of a murderfest that leads violent video games to be harmful. Maybe it’s not the fact that one may gain pleasure from murdering a prostitute in Grand Theft Auto, but simply the fact that it doesn’t give the player pause. I know I don’t really care (that sounds awful, but it’s the game).
Going back to the article, I think this method was not as objective or edgy of a way of framing the issue as the study designers probably envisioned it was. It seems like nothing more than avoiding the question entirely. As I have noted, there are very good arguments that violent video games can be harmful to the psyche: Ian Bogost’s is extremely effective in this regard. However, instead of focusing on these arguments, this study seems to focus on subjective criteria of “reliability” of a study and a sense of “top-tieredness” that I think takes away from the whole argument. This debate is an important debate to have, and one we as a society have grappled with, and the designers of this study have done nothing to add to the discourse. Instead, they have hidden behind smoke and mirrors, refusing to look at it either from the standpoint of the gamer (as I have), or as a psychologist (as Ian Bogost seems to have attempted as a non-psychologist, albeit extremely logically and in my view successfully).