As the Littleton tragedy unfolded, David Grossman, a retired Army psychologist, emerged as the media's most quotable expert on virtual mayhem. As he hawked his book, the good soldier explained to the world that video games were "murder simulators," just like the ones used in Vietnam to mold recruits into trigger-happy killers.
His spiel, despite its flimsiness, was picked up by at least 19 media outlets. And the New York Times lent him its credibility in a piece headlined "All those who deny any linkage between violence in entertainment and violence in real life, think again."
The path clear, President Clinton ordered a summit with Hollywood on the culture of teen violence (oblivious to the irony as U.S. bombs pummeled Yugoslavia), while Senate Republicans announced a conference of their own. Even the digerati got a touch hysterical, with some game designers posting notices about ending digital gore for the sake of the public weal.
As of 1996, there had only been eight peer-reviewed studies testing for aggressive effects of violent video games, according to a literature review conducted in that year by MediaScope, a think tank that specializes in media violence. Of these, four found effects, three did not and one found effects for girls but not boys. (To put this in some perspective, I have a paper in my desk drawer on teleportation that cites 49 studies.)
More recent work has been done by Dr. Jeanne Funk, a psychologist at the University of Toledo, who has conducted more control-group research than anyone in the country. As both a practitioner and a parent, Funk supports labeling games for violent content; she lets her own kids play, since "it's important for children to be part of the culture," but "draw[s] the line at the really violent ones."
As for Grossman, Funk tactfully points out that while "he believes in what he says," the "research is not exactly there to support it."
For starters, video games do not improve reflexes, which are innate. And while they can improve spatial recognition and coordination, the problem is "skill transfer": There's a tremendous difference between clicking a mouse in Half-Life and hefting a real eight-pound shotgun.
To put it another way, if all our GIs did was stare at monitors, Milosevic would have nothing to fear.
Putting aside the argument that computer games transform their players into soldiers, one is left with the somewhat more plausible theory that games bring out aggression among adolescents and adults. While it's been shown that 5-year-olds, after playing a karate video game, will go around chopping at each other, young children are highly impressionable by just about any stimulus. Therefore, older kids are more interesting from a scientific perspective; but they are also more problematic to study -- observing them at unguarded play is nearly impossible. So most studies of adolescents and adults have them hammer on the fire button and then answer a battery of questions.
Funk's most recent work in this vein will be presented in public in August at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. Her study hypothesized that adolescents "with a preference for violent games would be associated with more behavioral problems, particularly externalizing problems such as aggressive behavior." But the facts proved otherwise.
As it turns out, 10-year-old gamers who preferred a lot of violence scored higher on internalizing and anxious-depressed behaviors scales -- meaning they were withdrawn, not aggressive. On the other hand, those with a preference for less violent games scored highest on the delinquent behavior scale. Shifting away from the aggression thesis, Funk concluded that future studies should focus on correlations between time spent playing computer games and subsequent depression.
This finding jibes with several older studies that correlate avid gaming with low self-esteem among boys. Oddly enough, girls who play a lot often didn't show the same problem. Cultural constructions of gender may account for the difference, with girls feeling good when they break out of the mold of timidity, and boys feeling lousy for being game geeks.
One 1985 study of fourth-graders showed positive effects. Quoting the abstract from the Journal of Child Study: "Subjects who played violent video games exhibited fewer defensive fantasies and tended to exhibit more assertive or need-persistent fantasies than did subjects who played non-violent games. For non-aggressive females, the barrier responsible for frustration was more salient in their fantasies after playing the violent video game. Results suggest that aggression in the context of a video game discharges children's aggressive impulses in a socially acceptable way, leaving the children less defensive and more assertive."
A Columbine high schooler said as much when she told the New York Times, "I know this sounds weird, but some violent games are a therapy for kids."
Why, then, the assertion in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times of overwhelming evidence? The mountains of research they are referring to was done on television and film violence -- and while it's presumed reasonable that video games would exhibit the same impact, a presumption is not exactly hard evidence. Though the few empirical studies on games are mixed -- at best -- facts alone cannot cool the media's fever.
One reason for the disconnect, argues Andrew Ross, who chairs the American studies department at NYU, is how the media handles race. Ross notes that when white suburban kids go wrong, there's enormous pressure to find a psychological cause rather than a social explanation.
"White suburban kids are assumed to have an individual psychic development that can be sidetracked into dysfunctional forms of expression, if there is some sufficiently powerful external stimulus -- a video game, a lurid Web site -- that can knock them off course." But when it comes to inner-city black kids, "the explanations are assumed to be socially determined from the get-go." By the media's lights, "Society explains their behavior in a way that strips them of their individuality and retains only their class and race attributes" -- which is why video games are never trotted out to explain homicide in inner-city schools.
In the end, says Ross, the pattern is distinctly American: "Since the early days of the republic, it has also been an elementary rule of public life for grandstanding experts and gatekeepers to hold popular culture responsible."