Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Research on kids, games and violence seems strangely jumbled

In the news, last friday, was a meta-study of children and violent games. The ever-burning question, of course, was if children who play violent games become more violent than other children. Not so surprisingly (irony alert), the study found that children did become more violent in the short term when playing violent games. This bugs me:

1) Studies included stretched over 20 years. The world, as experienced by kids, has actually changed quite substantially in the last 20 years. Not to mention how much computer games have changed in the last 20 years. So, I do not think the long timespan makes the study more valid. It merely makes for a lot of uncontrollable parameters.

2) The definition of "violent game" was not at all similar between the studies. We can all agree that "violent" has many different meanings, right? Even in computer games. especially in a 20-year old computer game compared to one from last year.

3) Differing recruiting methods of subjects. Some studies recruited children (randomly, I assume), and let them all play the same game for 10 minutes, whereupon they were asked to grade how they felt on a verbal scale. Other studies investigated children who often played violent games, compared to other (non-gaming?) children.

For instance (citation, from Newswise):

In another study of over 600 8th and 9th graders, the children who spent more time playing violent video games were rated by their teachers as more hostile than other children in the study. The children who played more violent video games had more arguments with authority figures and were more likely to be involved in physical altercations with other students. They also performed more poorly on academic tasks.

Does it sound like damning evidence to you? If so, consider this: "Children who perform badly in school have more arguments with authority figures and are more likely to be involved in physical altercations with other students. They also tend to play more violent computer games than other children". Same information, different wording. (And the situation in the first sentence sounds familiar). Y'know, with all the pent-up frustration from school/authority/peer pressure, I'd probably enjoy playing violent games to let off some steam myself. And if frustrated children play more violent games, of course you will have more frustrated children in your sample when you specifically recruit players of "violent games". Duh.

And, as an aside: many computer games are designed specifically to let you succeed "just enough" to keep you maximally challenged and minimally bored. Not at all like most school work...

4) Inconsistent grouping into categories.

citation (same Newswise):

The authors also found that boys tend to play video games for longer periods of time than girls. Boys may play more of these types of video games, said Kieffer, because women are portrayed in subordinate roles and the girls may find less incentive to play. But those girls who did play violent video games, according to the review, were more likely to prefer playing with an aggressive toy and were more aggressive when playing.

Mhm. So let me hazard a guess here (or, rather, let me point out what I see in the text combined with some general knowledge of scientific studies): some studies divide children into boys and girls, and some studies divide them into "(violent-)game-players" and "non-players". And as they say in the above citation, more boys than girls play video games. If, in both instances, there are approximately as many girls as boys , then the "non-players" group is going to have a disproportionate number of girls. Now, I certainly don't subscribe to the "it's given by nature that girls are little angels but boys are born to be aggressive" bullshit. BUT. Due to the heavy socialization if nothing else, the girls as a group will tend to be rather less aggressive than the boys as a group. So, then the "non-players" are going to be less aggressive (and presumably less violent) than the "violent-game-players". Due to how groups were constructed and social factors outside of the study, and not at all due to the games. Duh (again).

5) So much of this seems to build on the notion that children are peaceful, loving little creatures that wouldn't normally hurt a fly (until they met the Evil Violent Computer Games). Haven't these people ever visited a schoolyard?

6) The possible link between self-esteem and aggression (or assertiveness) seems to be overlooked most of the time . Part of what draws people to computer games certainly is that they have clear goals that are relatively easy to fulfill (compared to real-life problems). Quite often you come out of a gaming session with the feeling that you did stuff and had some (or a lot of) success, whatever the game was you played. Maybe a way to correct for this could be to have groups of children playing different games - preferably as similar to each other as possible but with differing levels of violence - rather than a playing and a non-playing group. I'd suspect that many of the researchers are not gamers at all, and then this could be quite easy to miss.

7) And as long as the semi-accepted (or at least the politically correct) view is that violent games will make children violent ( i.e hurt them), there's no way an ethical committe will approve long-term studies on only non-gaming (peaceful and problem-free) children that are recruited to play a violent game (and a non-violent game for the control group, of course) over a longer stretch of time to see if they become more violent. That would be interesting to see the results of, but that won't happen and instead we get lots of politics dressed up as (pseudo-)science. Sigh.


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