Shoot-em Up Video Games – The Cause of Greater Anti-social Behaviors in Teens?
If you are a parent of a teen today you are no doubt concerned about what you hear regarding violent video games. Generally speaking, there appears to be a wide-spread consensus that such games are the bane of society and the source of growing anti-social and risk-taking behavior in teens.
At the same time, if you have discussed the issue at length with other parents you are also likely confused about violent video game play. Because, quite frankly, many teens are playing such games without the slightest indication of any negative impact on their psyche or their mental health never mind a propensity to act in a violent way towards others.
Now comes the work of Drs. Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson, the authors of the breakthrough book, “Grand Theft Childhood.” In their text the authors indicate that the politicians and even some health professionals may in fact have it all wrong.
One Who Has Previously Raised Concerns About Such Games
As a parent of two grown daughters, my early exposure to computer video games consisted of two very distinct categories. First, there were the earliest creations. PacMan, Donkey Kong, and the bubbly Mario all graced our computer and television screens. My children enjoyed these games, fervently trying to improve upon past accomplishments as they sought to find a way to reach the “next level”. These games, played individually or by two people together, were available to our children as a reward when other tasks were completed.
Later came the Sony’s PlayStation interactive games. The games that I became most familiar with were those that combined graphic caricatures of real professional athletes with very authentic strategies. Madden football or basketball were games that enticed teenagers and grown-ups alike. Though I never played them I was also familiar with the other popular game options based on skateboarding, skiing stunts, and the obnoxious world of professional wrestling.
I must admit, when I first became aware of shoot-em up games I had in mind games where a player might shoot spaceships out of the sky. Somehow I missed the initial release of the Grand Theft Auto series, becoming aware of the game only as Grand Theft Auto3 was to be released.
I was absolutely astonished to learn of the details within this game series. Using a joystick, the gamer controls a virtual thug. Basically, if it involves criminal-like behavior, the action is available to you as the game player through the virtual character you control.
The gamer can have his thug hijack cars, even police vehicles if he desires to. The gamer’s thug can rob a bank or opt to run a crime-laden vigilante organization.
As for random acts of violence, the gamer can bash into the rear end of a car plodding along too slowly or provide his/her thug a baseball bat as he roams the streets of a virtual city. On impulse, the game player can have the thug take the bat and strike any of the pedestrians he encounters, be they unsuspecting elderly people minding their own business or street-walking prostitutes soliciting customers.
A Failure to Understand the Lure of Such Games
Upon examination of the game I was at least relieved to see it carried with it a mature rating. The game certainly was not for young children. But upon further examination I personally couldn’t help ask who this type of game might be for?
At the time that Grand Theft Auto3 was the rage, Joanna Weiss of the Boston Globe published an article that featured interviews with some admitted game aficionados. What gave me the greatest concern were the words of the game players themselves.
Each indicated Grand Theft Auto contained graphics and interactive options that were so realistic that gamers felt immersed in the world the game simulates. According to Ms. Weiss, a 23 year-old computer programmer from York, England acknowledged the enjoyment the game gave him, especially after a grueling day of work. He stated, “Some people play squash after work. I just squash pedestrians.”
Weiss also noted an Emerson college freshmen reportedly calling GTA3 more exciting than other shoot-em ups. It’s a “different kind of violence,” she said, “because there’s no real good intent to any of it”.
Upon reading that article, I went on to write an op ed article for my local papers noting my concerns about these games. As a parent and educator, I noted the tremendous difficulty I had understanding the comments of the adults that Weiss spoke with. I also wrote how I could not comprehend what playing such games could do for the emotional psyche.
And lastly, for this writer, the concept of an interactive game that involves violence against people was even more troubling than the movies of Hollywood. My rationale was that the decision to make this rogue character act violently was based upon a conscious choice by the game player.
Simply stated, I found the unconscionable acts available to the player in the Grand Theft Auto series extremely troubling. At the time I was horrified by the thought that there might be many parents who thought of the bubbly Mario when thinking about video games. I expressed great concerns that many parents might be completely unaware of the content of this game, or even that such games exist.
Recent Developments – Contradictory Viewpoints
Soon, studies began to emerge that gave further rise to other concerns about such games. A University of Minnesota Professor and researcher released a number of articles noting some troubling findings. In one such study, Professor Sonya Brady, Phd, indicated that “violent video games create more permissive attitudes toward risky behaviors — such as using drugs — in youths who play those games.”
Over the past couple of years we have heard a number of politicians and children’s mental health experts rail against these games. In addition, many more reports had been released that indicated correlations between violent acts in school and a desire to play violent video games. Essentially, all of the material making its way before the public appeared to reinforce my personal view points regarding these games.
It was then that I stumbled across the work of Kutner and Olson, two researchers who happened to question this conventional wisdom. Back in 2004, they gathered together several researchers for a two year, $1.5-million multifaceted study of violent video games and children.
Their study involved researchers from a variety of fields: child and adolescent psychiatry, adult psychiatry, public health, clinical psychology, developmental psychology, educational psychology, and public policy. The goal was to examine the issue of violent video games from a broad set of perspectives.
It should be noted that unlike the prior work of Dr. Brady, they conducted a study instead of setting up an artificial experiment. For their data, they sought to “study real families in real situations.”
The researchers noted that much of what they uncovered surprised them. They noted, “The data were both encouraging and, at times, disturbing.” But they also noted, “It’s clear that the “big fears” bandied about in the press—that violent video games make children significantly more violent in the real world; that they will engage in the illegal, immoral, sexist and violent acts they see in some of these games—are not supported by the current research, at least in such a simplistic form.”
Acknowledging straight up that the findings surprised them proved to be the one hook to get this writer to read further. A second aspect, that Kutner and Olson note that “violent juvenile crime in the United States reached a peak in 1993 and has been declining ever since” created further questioning of my current assumptions.
As I delved further, I found a realistic treatment of an exceptionally complex topic and a study/book worthy of a thorough examination. Next up, we share with our readers an interview with Dr. Olson and a look at the various myths dispelled by her and Dr. Kutner’s research.