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A 2008 Pew Research study found 97 percent of teens in America play video games, with two-thirds playing games that include violent content. (Photo by Chad Stiles)

A 2008 Pew Research study found 97 percent of teens in America play video games, with two-thirds playing games that include violent content. (Photo by Chad Stiles)

Guns and games— Links to real violence unclear

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This is the fourth in our series “Guns and the Village.”
Click here to see all the articles in the series.

Jamie, 18, and Jeremiah Scott, 15, of Yellow Springs are poised at opposite ends of the TV, controllers ready. Before them, the screen shows their weapons drawn — one holding a pistol, the other an automatic rifle — as they shoot down human-like aliens in the post apocalyptic world in the video game Halo 4. Later, Jamie shoots countless zombies as blood and body parts splatter the walls and floors in the game Left 4 Dead.

Such scenes might be a typical way to “burn time” on a recent Saturday for the Scotts and other teens for whom playing video games is becoming increasingly common. A 2008 Pew Research study found 97 percent of teens in America play video games, with two-thirds playing games that include violent content. Yet in the context of the Newtown shooting and the ongoing debate on national gun violence and culture, many have cited the possible effects of media violence on youth — with particular attention paid to violent video games. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have called media violence “a significant risk to the health of children and adolescents” that “can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed.”

When President Obama announced 23 executive orders to reduce gun violence last month, he pushed for Congress to fund research on the effects of video games and other forms of media violence with $10 million for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to study the matter.

“We don’t benefit from ignorance,” Obama said in his remarks. “We don’t benefit from not knowing the science.”

In addition, the Hartford Courant, which collaborated in a recently aired PBS Frontline documentary Raising Adam Lanza, reported that police discovered thousands of dollars worth of violent video games in shooter Lanza’s home and suspect he may have been emulating some actions portrayed in video games.

But many gamers, researchers and media representatives have countered such views. In a statement responding to Obama’s remarks last month, the Entertainment Software Association argued that “Scientific research and international and domestic crime data all point toward the same conclusion: entertainment does not cause violent behavior in the real world.”

While some research studies would agree with this conclusion and have called the national concern over video games a “moral panic,” other researchers have said evidence supports a link between media violence exposure and aggressive behaviors in youth. Amidst this debate, local youth and parents shared their views and experiences of video games.

Gamers weigh in

While some see video games as promoting violence, a few local teens who play them regularly explained how they see video games as much more than violent entertainment.

“They combine so many things…graphics and sound,” explained Jamie Scott, who plans to attend Ohio University this fall in audio engineering. For the games’ creators, “it really is an art form,” he said.

Likewise, Jeremiah, a sophomore at YSHS, said he is drawn to the storyline in certain games.

“The shooting and violence may be the ‘fun’ aspect, but what keeps me coming back [to playing a game] is the story aspect.”

Of the dozen or so games in Jeremiah’s collection, many are first-person shooter games (FPS) depicting an armed person going through screens and shooting enemies. There are also games that encourage free-range exploration of new worlds, called “sandbox” games, he said, and “horror games,” that mirror the plots of movies and are “very creepy.”

Cinematography in games counts for a lot, he said. While playing BioShock, which takes places in a secret undersea world, Jeremiah noted, “It’s a very violent game, but it’s beautiful…Look at the water droplets on the screen!”

Dakota Blaze Wright, age 16, a sophomore at YSHS, cited social interaction and teamwork among the more positive aspects of playing video games.

“You don’t know what the other team is going to do,” he said, explaining how several players team up to compete against others online in the game Halo 4. “You go around a corner, put on your camo…you employ tactics and see others’ tactics as well.”

The camaraderie of working together in the game with others runs alongside the entertainment of doing something larger than life on screen.

“When in real life can you say you drove a car across a ravine, the car was blown up by a grenade, then you flew into a base with a jetpack to capture the flag?”

Both Blaze and Jeremiah said they are frustrated by misinformation distributed about one of their favorite games, Mass Effect. The game was unfairly criticized, they said, when early reports found it to be a favorite game of Adam Lanza’s older brother, Ryan Lanza, who was briefly held as a suspect in the Newtown shooting. Blaze called the game “One of the greatest stories told — in any medium,” which includes “a complex morality system” and “many paths to choose,” set in a space-opera setting. Instead of these details, Blaze said reports wrongly called Mass Effect “a game about killing children.” Jeremiah said he also follows the debate over video game violence through articles he finds online and is discouraged by the “articles and articles of parents who think video games caused the Sandy Hook shooting.”

That said, both teens said they could understand some of the concerns. “I can understand how a mother would be scared” of how video games affect children, Jeremiah said. And Blaze acknowledged there may be some truth to studies linking video game violence and behavior. “I use to have the opinion there wasn’t really a correlation,” he said. “But I feel as someone who plays video games, [and] as a community [of gamers]… we need to stop running away from this correlation.”

However, Blaze believes the connection between video-game violence and real life incidents only goes so far.

“You have to be a special kind of person to be triggered by video games.” The same kind of person, he said, who could also “be triggered by a song or a movie.”

Jeremiah noted the impact of action movies when he was younger, when Star Wars or Pirates of the Caribbean could “rile [him] up” to act out, he said. As he’s grown older, the connection between violent content and his behavior has faded, he said. “Now the emulative idea is gone. I can’t explain why it’s entertaining to shoot someone or fight in video games. But at a certain age you just lose that influence.”

Parent concerns

For Amy Scott, mother of Jamie, Jeremiah, and two more boys, ages 9 and 6, the process of figuring out when to limit and when to allow media exposure has been “super hard.” A short conversation with her son recently illustrated the challenge around video games.

“I would love it if you didn’t play them,” Amy told her son, Jeremiah. “Well, a hobby’s a hobby,” he responded. “What you put in your mind matters,” Amy countered.

Working in tandem, Amy said she and her husband, Evan, make decisions about their boys’ exposure to media violence as a compromise. Evan “tends to have more tolerance,” she said in deciding what age to allow movies with violence, such as Lord of the Rings or Matrix Reloaded. Yet “gradually we’ve waited,” she said, to give the older boys access to video games. Her younger boys are not allowed in Jeremiah’s room where the video games are kept, though she knows they may have accidentally seen some graphic video games while visiting other homes.

“Most parents assume like-mindedness,” she said, explaining that for her older boys the biggest concern is that they not spend too much time playing games.

Amy, a sociology professor at Sinclair Community College, said she based her decisions on researching the games’ ratings and “using my best judgment.”

“Can I relate to why he likes it?” she asked of the violence in the games. “No, but Jeremiah’s an even-tempered, generous kid.” While she takes media exposure as a serious concern, she cited poverty and mental illness as more significant factors in the violence “we condone as a culture,” she said. She also noted that some research studies may be economically driven and provide misleading statistics.

Evan Scott, who works in marketing and communications, added that he looks at each boy’s age and personality as key factors to make decisions about media violence exposure. At a certain age, he said, he worries less about content and more about whether playing the games is limiting time outdoors or socializing for his teens. “The kind of violence” does matter, he said, and he is more likely to allow “good versus evil” content in movies such as Star Wars, than in video games like Grand Theft Auto that allow characters to perpetrate violent acts on women. Evan said he is cognizant that his children need to be ready to use current technologies on the job and sees their media use as part of that training, he said. Otherwise, “at some level we’re not equipping kids for the working world.”

By contrast, Eric Wolf said he is concerned about kids growing up in a present-day “cell phone culture” with “buds in their ears, not paying attention to their environment.” As step–dad to three children, Erin, 23, Stefan 21, and Jade, 19, Wolf, along with wife, Marybeth, set up clear limits on the children’s computer and TV use because “kids don’t have the ability to discern what is real and what is not, what is safe and not safe,” he said. “There was a computer in the front room where they could look up stuff [online],” where everyone could see, he said. And “No cable, no TV access, except for movies they could borrow from the library.”

Wolf said his goal wasn’t to control his kids, but to provide a space of self-respect for them to consider the types of media they consumed.

“I don’t want horror in this house,” he remembered saying if his children brought home a movie that was too violent. “You can’t watch that here,” he told his kids. “And they seemed to respect that.”

Later, when they turned 17 or 18, his children had their own laptops and computers, but it was their interactions with the larger world he found most valuable. Wolf, who spent several years as an alternative educator, said his kids benefitted from “a geography of childhood” growing up in the Vale which allowed children to roam in the woods, visit neighbors, and build their own sense of confidence. “My children know who they are. That’s the best thing I could do for them.”

The decision whether to limit their children’s access to video games or not varies widely among local parents. Some parents said they preferred not to view the games themselves, while Scotty Wright, Blaze’s dad who lives near the village and calls himself “of the Atari Generation,” said he sometimes plays video games alongside his sons.

“I’m enjoying trying to keep up with them in the more complex games,” he said. While his sons were introduced to video games at the relatively early age of 6 or 7, he kept in tune with their reactions to on-screen imagery and made sure it wasn’t affecting their ability to “separate fantasy from reality.”

He said, “Do I think it de-sensitizes us [to violence]? Heck yeah. But there is more to be gained than lost from it.”

Wright said he sees mental health as more of the issue impacting violent behavior. Meanwhile, exposure to violent media could have surprising benefits, he said, including, “You’re less likely to freeze up if you come across a car wreck.” A member of the band Full Circle, Wright believes video games may have been partly responsible for his sons’ abilities to play musical instruments at young ages. With improved “hand articulation” through video games, he said his sons have become accomplished musicians in their own right.

Local mom Jeanne Ulrich said she struggled with the decision to not replace her 17-year-old son Gabe’s broken Play­Station and allow him to play video games at home. It feels, she said, like “the kids don’t come over here because we don’t have video games,” adding that she knows of one friend who “caved” to allowing video games at home because she wanted to see her son. She acknowledges a positive aspect in that her son has used video games as a social activity.

“It seems to me it’s really an easy way to be together and relax.”

However, as a high school teacher in West Carrollton she also sees the negative effects of video games “isolating” some students with limited social interactions.

“Some of them really live in their own little worlds.”

Wally Rehm, Gabe’s dad, said he has neither worried about nor supported his son’s exposure to violent games, but allowed him to make his own decisions about them, trusting that Gabe can distinguish between fiction and reality.

“There’s a certain genuineness and honesty to hunting with real guns that doesn’t come across in video games,” he said. “I mean, you shoot a gun in real life, you shoot an animal, you see the blood…it has a different kind of reality.”

Experts argue

“No one can link any act with media violence,” local psychologist Bob Barcus said. Yet some experimental research studies have found test subjects “are more likely to apply force” or an electric shock after being exposed to violent content, he said. “Even after watching the evening news, people are more likely to see the world as a dangerous place [which] affects our willingness to participate in violence.”

While Barcus’s two statements may seem contradictory, they bring home the complexity of data and conclusions reached by the many research studies on media violence. In his often cited 2010 meta-analysis of several studies covering data from 130,000 people, Iowa State University psychologist Craig Anderson wrote, “The evidence strongly suggests that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive” behaviors.

Yet Texas A&M professor Christopher Ferguson in his studies countered with the view that concerns over video games increasing aggression amount to a “moral panic” with “no significant relationship between violent video game exposure and school shooting incidents…demonstrated in the existing scientific literature.” Ferguson points to declining youth crime statistics amidst the growing popularity of video games. “In fact, during the years in which video games soared in popularity, youth violence has declined to 40-year lows. And while it’s natural, in such an emotional time, for people to search desperately for answers, that often results in misinformation,” he wrote in a December 2012 article.

Teach your children well

In remembering his own childhood, Barcus has observed that symbolic play among children is not a factor in increasing aggression.

“We played cowboys and Indians and war. We’d fight, and tie each other up, and we didn’t turn out to be a generation of violent guys,” said Barcus, 65, referring to other Baby Boomers.

But he worries about the impact depictions of graphic violence may have on younger kids who are “impressionistic,” he said. “They’re taking images into their brains and incorporating them to learn about our culture.”

Although he can’t make any scientific conclusions from his 35 years as a clinical psychologist, Barcus said his experience has been that “violent parents are the most common factor in making violent teenagers.” In other words, if parents use physical force, it becomes more likely kids will do the same, he said.

“The values that parents teach far outweigh anything that society can do. Kids are built to glom-on to anything parents teach.”

University of Southern California professor Henry Jenkins might agree. He cited a 2001 U.S. Surgeon General’s report that said “the strongest risk factors for school shootings centered on mental stability and the quality of home life, not media exposure.”

Barcus advised parents to talk and listen with kids in light of growing media violence concerns. He suggested asking children, “What do you think of that?” when faced with violent content, and helping them tell the difference between imaginary depictions and real life behavior. “What we invest in our children in terms of compassion and humanity,” he said., “we get returned to us with more than compound interest.”

*Chad Stiles is a local freelance writer.


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