Sunday, July 24, 2011

News Report: Violence Causes Video Games

In 2007, teenager Danny Petric shot both of his parents with a 9mm pistol, killing his mother and severely wounding his father, allegedly over a video game. This bit of news is back in the headlines as defense attorneys now try the "video games made me do it" defense. According to Mark Petric, the shooter's father, Danny became obsessed with Halo 3 after a snowboarding accident left him housebound for nearly a year. His father is now on a mission to get violent video games out of the hands of children.

As shocking as this sounds, my gut reaction is to say that this is but one extreme example that isn't representative of the vast majority of people playing violent video games. But I don't want to jump to any conclusions without considering all of the possible angles. So let's take this opportunity to examine the claims made in this case, the news reports, as well as the larger issue of video game violence. More after the jump.

Here's one of the newscasts that aired recently. The very first thing that plays in the video is a quote from the defense attorney, James Kersey, saying:
"We have a young man, that's a normal young man, until he starts viewing video games." 
This is obviously taken out of context, but the way it's used in the newscast skews the scenario quite a bit. For starters, Kersey just says "video games," he doesn't qualify them as "violent." For all we know of this statement, he could be referring to something as innocent as Tetris. Secondly, he only says "viewing" video games, not "playing" them. Finally, the implication is that playing video games inherently makes someone abnormal. It immediately suggests a causal connection, that playing video games makes someone a killer.

These are the words of the man who's paid to defend a murderer in court, so we can already take these ideas with a heaping spoonful of salt. Defense attorneys are always looking for scapegoats to reduce the sentences of their clients. If a lawyer can convince a jury that his client was not in control of his actions, that he was not consciously aware of what he doing---"not guilty by reason of insanity" or "guilty but insane"---then the crime is not his client's fault. Lawyers have been doing this for decades, so it's no surprise that Kersey is shifting the blame from Petric to video games. That's his job. He gets paid the big bucks to do that.

But then we've got "teen killer expert" Phil Chalmers also voicing his opinion that "video games played a key role in this crime." Chalmers has spent 25 years studying cases of teen murderers, and wrote the book Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer. But I also have to take this guy with a dose of salt, because his credential for expertise is a retail book. Anyone can get a book published. There are so many quack-psychology books available from "psychologists" that you almost can't trust books these days.

But I don't know if I trust this book because it's being sold in bookstores, suggesting that Chalmers' motive here is to make some money off of his book. If he wanted truly credible credentials, then he'd have published his work in an academic, peer-reviewed journal or some other sort of peer-reviewed source. Peer-reviewed meaning a community of credible people who critique the relevance, importance, and validity of submitted work before publishing it, holding submissions to the highest of standards. I'm pretty sure there's no profit involved in such a publication, so that would also rule out money as a motivating factor to suggest that the work is genuine.

Chalmers may know what he's talking about, or he might not. The circumstances are a little unclear. But the first thing that Chalmers says in the newscast is this:
"[Kids playing violent video games] become obsessed with murder, and all of the lines to reality fade away."
I'd really like to know what kind of evidence supports this claim, because it seems pretty extreme. I guess it's possible for some people to be unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, but virtually anyone with a remotely healthy brain realizes the disconnect. You have to be pretty far gone to think that it's alright to shoot someone in real life just because it's alright in a video game.

The next thing that comes up is probably the crux of the issue, where the newscaster and Chalmers talk about the allegedly causal connection between violence and video games.
Entertainment Consumers Association: "There has never been a causal link established between real-life violence and videogame violence in any verifiable scientific study."
Newscaster: "Not entirely true, says Phil Chalmers."
Chalmers: "The medical community has released a joint statement that basically says that if children are exposed to violent media, they're going to become violent."
The first thing that comes to mind is to ask what he means by "the medical community," because that could mean several different things. I really wish he'd mentioned a specific organization or association to lend this statement some credibility and to let people research the data themselves, but as it stands he's being intentionally vague.

Next is the fact that Chalmers qualifies their statement (whoever "they" may be) by saying "basically." This suggests to me that there's more to their original statement that he's intentionally obscuring. A little bit of google searching found a source revealing the full version of that quote, in which Chalmers says at the end:
"The medical community has released a joint statement that basically says that if children are exposed to violent media, they're going to become violent. But they make it politically correct by saying some or maybe.
Now that sounds like a more reasonable statement to me, at least about the "medical community" saying "some" or "maybe." But Chalmers tries to discredit the medical community by accusing them of being "politically correct." It's like he took their statement, cherry-picked what would fit his argument, and then just disregarded the rest that wouldn't support it.

The newscast doesn't include this last sentence of Chalmers' quote probably for two reasons: because it would make the news story seem less significant (and less news-worthy) if video games only "may" influence "some" people, and/or because they realized it would make Chalmers look like less of a credible source.

I'd also like to point out that it's not being "politically correct" if they're in fact referencing actual studies suggesting that only some may be affected by video games. The American Psychological Association lists a study that reviewed past research and concluded that:
"[...] only some individuals are adversely affected by [violent video games] and that those who are affected have preexisting dispositions, which make them susceptible to such violent media."
Numerous other studies have also found no connection between real-life violence and video game violence, while other studies have found the exact opposite---playing violent video games can actually reduce aggression. That's just to name a few, plenty more exist. These handful of studies aren't conclusive by themselves, but it just goes to show that there's really no consensus at this point.

Let's not ignore the studies that do claim to have found a positive effect of video games on aggression. I think there's definitely some sort of connection, potentially very minor, but the studies thus far are not always conclusive. Even though they come to these conclusions, we can't necessarily derive a causal connection that video game violence begets real world violence. Some things to consider when it comes to experimental research:
  1. How do these studies define and measure aggression? Is aggression just a hostile thought, or is it acted upon? If it's acted on, is it actual violence or just hostility? It's unethical to have research subjects hurting each other, so studies have to find ways to allow them to express aggression in a harmless way which doesn't necessarily translate to real world violence.
  2. How does the lab setting reflect the real world? Research subjects are aware that they're in a study, and they're taken out of their normal environment and put into one that's looking to produce certain effects. Is a person likely to act differently because they know they're in a research study where the effects are harmless, as opposed to how they'd act in real life?
  3. Have the results been replicated in subsequent experiments? Sometimes experiments find significant results by accident, or because their methodology (the way they run the experiment, not the testing variables themselves) specifically produces the effect. If other researchers with different audiences can produce the same effect then the results are more credible.
  4. Are the results actually significant, and what is the effect size? Effect size measures the magnitude of the effect of your independent variables, essentially. Sometimes studies find significant results (meaning it's unlikely that they were obtained due to experimental error) with small effect sizes that don't really make any difference. 
  5. Are the experiments actually measuring what they think they're observing? There are often other variables that influence test results, which researchers may have unwittingly introduced into an experiment. Sometimes experiments are designed to necessarily produce the kind of effect they're looking for.
  6. Correlation does not equal causation. Just because two things are related, it doesn't mean that one causes the other. Both factors may be involved with multiple other factors that are unknown.
Number 6 tends to be the biggest trap when interpreting data. Chalmers seems to have concluded that because video games are [somehow] involved in a number of juvenile homicides, that they are a genuine cause of real life violence. The image at the top of this article is taken from the newscast, listing the top 10 "causes of teen murder" according to Chalmers, with "Obsession with violent media" ranking in at second place.

I'm rather curious to know the actual rate of juvenile homicides involving video games as a serious factor. (I'd like to emphasize "serious.") Because it seems like the vast majority of homicides do not involve video games in any way, and that the vast majority of people who play violent video games do not go on to commit homicide. If there were a definite causal link between the two, would there be any speculation in the first place?

It's also worth pointing out that there actually appears to be a negative correlation between violent crimes and the rise of video game violence. That is to say, over the years, video games have become more prevalent in society with more and more people playing them, and video games have come to depict violence more graphically, more interactively, and more gloriously; meanwhile, rates of violent crimes, including those committed by juveniles, have actually decreased.

This is only a correlation, mind you, but if there were a conclusive, causal connection between the two, wouldn't it be more likely to find violent crime rates increasing with the rise of video game violence? Any number of factors could be going on in these crime statistics, so I'm not drawing any conclusions from them other than the fact that video games causing real violence is still inconclusive.

I'm still intrigued, however, by the rest of Chalmers' list of the top 10 "causes of teen murder." Because a lot of his so-called "causes" don't seem like they'd be actual causes. For example, "easy access to guns" does not cause someone to murder; lack of spiritual guidance does not cause someone to murder. The other ones are a little more hazy, but ones like "peer pressure," "anger/depression," "bullying," and "cults, gangs, and hate groups" influence someone's decision to murder, they don't cause murder. 

It's also especially perplexing that Chalmers put "obsession with violent media" above "anger/depression." Everyone suffers from depression, everyone experiences major depressive episodes, everyone gets angry at things. So we've got an extremely broad, vague topic sitting right next to an extremely narrow, precise one. And then "mental illness and personality disorder"---the things you'd think actually would cause murder---only rank in at number 10. Again, "mental illness" and "personality disorder" are extremely broad and could refer to any number of disorders. 

I wish I knew more about how Chalmers came up with this list, but I don't want to buy his book to find out. So for now I'll just say that his list seems suspicious and doesn't make much intuitive sense to me.  

It seems to me that video games are merely an influence when other factors are present. A violent video game isn't going to compel someone to murder unless they're already mentally unstable. A video game may catalyze preexisting aggression, and in some cases they make someone more hostile in a relatively harmless way, but a video game is perhaps never the cause of violence. 

This bit of news preaching about the harmful effects of violent video games seems like simple fear-mongering, and should be taken with a reasonable dose of skepticism.

Someone was kind enough to share a link that speculates about the downward trend in falling crime rates. It suggests that one of several potential factors is that video games are helping to keep juveniles off of the street who might otherwise become involved in gangs or other criminal activity. The article further suggests that, even if video games do cause violent impulses in certain people, they're keeping enough other people out of trouble and thus significantly off-setting whatever the damage may be. The benefits outweigh the negatives.

It's worth keeping in mind, though, that crime rates wouldn't be dropping necessarily because kids are playing video games; they'd be dropping because kids are staying in to play them. We could produce the same effect from kids playing board games or reading books, if those ever caught on. But still, perhaps video games can keep some of the credit for being so widely popular and engaging---the only time kids have kept off the street to read a book is whenever a new Harry Potter book came out.

Thanks for sharing. 

1 comment:

  1. Article- US crime figures: Why the drop

    "9. A study released last month suggested video games were keeping young people off the streets and therefore away from crime. Researchers in Texas working with the Centre for European Economic Research said this "incapacitation effect" more than offset any direct impact the content of the games may have had in encouraging violent behaviour."