Monday, December 5, 2011

Video Games in TV: Penn & Teller's Bullshit

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV.

For this installment of the series that makes fun of the absurd portrayal of video games in mainstream television media, I'm pleased to reference an episode from Penn & Teller's Bullshit series: season 7, episode 3, "Video Games." The show, if you haven't seen or heard of it (and can't guess from its title), is usually about debunking misconceptions and generally applying critical thought to controversial topics---in, of course, the characteristically blunt and comedic tone of the magician/comedian duo.

In a society that's often plagued with inept understanding and misrepresentation of video games on television, it's nice to see some people actually treat the "violent video game" controversy with sensibility and reason. In this episode, Penn & Teller interview Jack Thompson (the industry-opposing activist against violent video games) and get opinions from people on both side of the argument, basically concluding for themselves that violent video games aren't the real problem when it comes to real world violence.

It's a fun, entertaining watch that might also give you some new thoughts and perspectives on the issue. I don't have much of my own analysis for this one because the real analysis is done in the episode, but there are a few points Penn & Teller missed that I'll go ahead and highlight. My own thoughts (and the embedded link to the episode) come after the jump.

So the episode opens with a fairly amusing satire of video game culture and the media's depiction of gamers. I liked the HUD displaying his decibel level and synchronization with the teleprompter and the director, and that kid that says "Video games without big fucking guns are bullshit" literally made me "LOL." And then, of course, Penn gets trivially upset over the teleprompter and goes on a shooting spree.

My next thought came at a video game convention where they show dozens of people playing video games, and I was pleased to see people actually playing games realistically. That is, they were using the correct controller for the platform (not using a PS3 controller to depict an Xbox 360 exclusive) and weren't furiously mashing away at controls like monkeys. You just don't get that kind of fidelity in TV dramas or newscasts.

Anyway, there's one moment where Jack Thompson says this: "Grand Theft Auto is the worst assault on children since Polio." Clearly, that's fear mongering. There's way worse stuff out there than GTA. Hell, the chemicals in the processed foods we eat are probably more assaulting on children than GTA.

But then Thompson immediately busts out the causal link, saying that violent video games directly cause children to commit acts of violence. When no scientific study actually purports that. Most of the studies that find a relationship between video games and violence are only by correlation, that the two are merely related in some way.

Whenever a psychological study is released, there are always a number of different reasons to remain skeptical of its findings. I went into them in detail in another post about a video game-related shooting, but I'll quote a few of them here:

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • 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.

Basically whenever anyone makes the claim that there is a conclusive, causal connection between violent video games and real world violence, I roll my eyes. Because I've also read a number of different studies that even say the opposite. Studies are really inconclusive at this point, and I lose the ability to take anyone seriously who says the studies are conclusive, because they're obviously just pushing an agenda and not actually looking at the evidence through a scientific lens.

The next thing Thompson said also caught my attention: "Common sense tells you the last thing you want to be doing is putting into the hands of sociopathic kids, in effect, training videos on how to do what they might be, let's say, predisposed to do."

The whole point of this argument is that the kids are sociopaths who are already predisposed to violent behavior. A number of studies (such as this one on the American Psychological Association's website) even argue that the only people susceptible to the supposed connection between video game violence and real violence are those with "preexisting dispositions." The argument is frequently made that aggressive people are drawn to violent video games, not that video games cause people to be aggressive.

If that's the case, then wouldn't it make more sense to focus our attention on the problem children, the mentally unstable ones, the "sociopaths," to get to the root of their problems instead of legislating a widespread ban on violent video games? Banning violent video games isn't going to solve the problem if people have deeply-seeded psychological issues.

Violence and mass murder have been around long before violent video games. You'd think that if violent video games were really an epidemic among today's youth, then we'd be in the middle of a crime wave right now. Consider that in the last 25 years, video games have become far more prevalent in society with nearly all children playing games, and that they've come to depict violence more graphically and more gloriously. And yet, during this rise in video game violence, rates of violent crime, including those by juveniles, have actually decreased.

These statistics could be due to any number of different factors, but if video games really were such a definitive, conclusive problem, wouldn't we see the opposite trend with violence rising over time? It's entirely possible that video games are themselves staving off acts of violence by keeping kids off the streets. Kids can even learn good lessons from some of these violent video games (that joining a gang can be hard to get out of, and that there are consequences for bad actions, as two of the researchers in the episode mention).

At one point someone like a psychological expert or something (she wrote some retail books, who the hell cares) mentions that children need to build social skills instead of playing video games. Well that's not a fault of video games or violent video games themselves---you may as well come out and say that books are bad for children since a bookworm who spends all day with his nose in a book is getting little social development. A bookworm probably gets even less social time than a gamer, because video games can in fact be very social with online multiplayer and local co-op with your friends sitting on the couch with you.

That's basically all I've got. The United States' freedom of speech applies to video games and they therefore cannot be censored by the US government. Basically if anyone's got a problem with violent video games affecting children, that should be between themselves and their children. Any reasonable parent knows what's good or bad for their own kid and can handle the responsibility themselves.

If you want to watch the full video, by the way, it's currently available on YouTube:


  1. Nice, what is your opinion of the series overall? Been interested in trying it a few times, but really know nothing about it and have only seen Penn and Teller on Babylon 5.

  2. I've only watched about four episodes myself, but they've all been entertaining, with the added benefit of being somewhat informative as well.

    The show's format is clearly not an authority in investigative journalism, so as long as you don't get caught up on the fact that they're not doing the most scientific job of handling their topics, then it's pretty enjoyable, especially if you have an interest in the topics.