Without wishing to spoil anyone’s anticipation of the upcoming publication of Iain Dale’s latest guide to political blogging, I’m one of forty bloggers who has a self-penned entry in the book’s ‘Who’s Who’ section, in which I make the point that one of things that motivates my writing is a deep-seated sense of irritation with people who routinely demonstrate their inability to back up their opinions with reasoned argument, not to mention actual evidence to support their position.
People like… David Cameron, who is currently on the ‘Laura Norder’ trail and heavily pushing his ‘broken society’ canard to anyone who cares to listen, and especially to anyone who exhibits signs of my other pet hate - a congenital inability to think for themselves.
One of the running themes of Cameron’s current campaign is the much disputed suggestion that violent video games are in some unspecified manner a causal/contributory factor in violent behaviour amongst young people.
So it is that we find Cameron stating in speech given at Brize Norton, last Friday, that:
“But it’s not just about parents. It’s about our culture too…
…Movie and video game directors who push the boundaries of acceptable violence, and the regulators who meekly give in to them. You all have a responsibility. We can’t change our society unless you change your ways.
While, yesterday, the press was full of speculation that Cameron may announce some sort of ban on violent video games as part of a Tory ‘mini-manifesto’ on law and order, following comments made on this morning’s BBC Breakfast news:
Speaking as he prepared to outline a Conservative “mini-manifesto” on law and order this afternoon, Mr Cameron criticised Labour’s “one-dimensional” approach to crime.
“We are never going to deal with crime unless we look at the broader context and say, ‘Yes, tough laws, strong action on the police, but also action to strengthen our society’.
“And that includes, I think, video games and things like that where we do need to think of the context in which people are growing up.”
In order to ‘think of the context in which people are growing up’ one needs to look at what we actually know about how video games may exert an influence on the behaviour, attitudes and values of young people and whether there is any conclusive evidence to support Cameron’s position.
So far as supporting the notion that violent video games exert a negative influence over young people, there are three main strands of argument that shape the public discourse on this subject. There is, first, the ‘common sense’ notion that ‘violence breeds violence’, simply cause and effect. Next there is the ‘evidence’ from violent incidents involving young people in which the perpetrator was found to have played violent video games. And then there is evidence from academic research in the field of adolescent development/psychology.
More astute readers will have already noted that two of these strands of ‘evidence’ are anything but rigorous or scientific in character, nevertheless it’s worth looking at all three strands, if only to dispose properly of two of them.
Starting with the idea that ‘violence breeds violence’, this what many - including Cameron one suspects - would see as the ‘common sense’ point of view, for all such a view relies on the logical fallacy of an appeal to the masses - argumentum ad populum - not to mention a modern variation on the old alchemical formulation of ‘like’ attracting, influencing or affecting ‘like’ that lies at the heart of all manner of unscientific ideas such as homoeopathy and astrology.
Common sense, in philosophy, is characteristic of epistemological particularism in which the core approach to any question is to ask, first, ‘What do we know?’ before asking ‘How do we know?’, in short its a matter of faith and belief and not evidence, logic and reason and therefore, to a rationalist like myself, an invalid basis on which to try and formulate public policy.
Arguments based on ‘evidence’ garnered from incident in which the perpetrator of a violent crime is later found to have played violent video games, for all its popularity with the press as a means of generating additional sales by way of stimulating a moral panic, are, similarly, founded on the use of a logical fallacy, specifically that of correlation implying causation in a form that leads inevitably to an infinite regress.
It’s a ‘chicken and egg’ problem. Did the perpetrator commit acts of violence because they were influenced by the content of the games they were playing? Or did their choice of violent games stem from their pre-existing capacity for and interest in violence? It’s a circular argument that cannot be definitively resolved in favour of only one of the two propositions and, therefore, again not one that can be validly advanced as a basis for formulating a rational policy in this area.
Neither argument stacks up when viewed rationally, nor do they provide anything that would approximate to ‘evidence’ at all, let alone anything that would legitimately support of Cameron’s stated position, and are, therefore, to be regarded as rhetorical arguments and discarded according.
This leaves us, naturally -and quite correctly - to consider the evidence as provided by academic research in the fields of adolescent development/psychology as the only valid basis against which Cameron’s position properly assessed - and at first glance the evidence appears fairly promising in terms of supporting his views.
Over the course of the 1980s and 90s, a string of media-fuelled moral panics around the suspected influence of, in the first instance, violence on television and film, which stemmed in the main from the growth of the market for VCRs and home videos, prompted a considerable amount of research into the possible effects that access to violent material in the home could be having on children and young people. And as the video game market developed during the mid to late 1990s and rapid technological developments in computers and games consoles enabled these games to become more and more immersive and interactive and to deliver increasingly realistic graphics and sound, researchers made the logical move from investigating the impact of a passive medium (film/TV/video) to that of this new interactive form of entertainment.
And so, by the early part of this current decade one began to see the appearance of a series of research studies into the effects of video games on young people, studies that appeared to provide evidence that supported the contention that violent video games could, and did, have a harmful impact on at least some young people to the extent that the accepted, and widely promoted, view of the American Psychological Association is that violent video games can have the following effects on children and young people:
1. They can cause young people to inappropriately resolve anxiety by externalising it in the form of violent actions rather than by talking about their feelings or expressing emotions by way of, for example, crying,
2. They fail to teach young people that actions have moral consequences and desensitise them to the real effects of violence behaviour,
3. They encourage and foster feeling of aggression and anger, and
4. They inhibit the development of effective communication and social skills.
That’s, broadly speaking, been the prevailing, if disputed, view since around 2000/2001, and the one most extensively promoted by the media, not least in the context of the growth and popularity of ‘pop psychology’ programmes and afternoon talk/discussion shows - think Oprah, Ricki Lake,Trisha, that kind of thing. Indeed, for a good example of how this particular perspective on violent video games is being pitched in the US, one needs look no further than this page on the website of Dr Phil McGraw, whose syndicated afternoon show ranks second in the industry in terms of viewing figure and, so his biography page tells us, ‘garnered the highest ratings of any new syndicated show since the launch of The Oprah Winfrey Show’.
This is all well and good, but for the fact that the research from which this evidence was taken is now getting on for 7-8 years old, and in some cases more than 10 years old when one allows for the time required to carry out the research and the time-lag between completion of a study and its publication in an appropriate journal.
Things have moved on, both technologically in terms of the capabilities of computers/game consoles and the scope and breadth of video games, particularly in terms of increasing levels of visual and auditory realism and interactivity, not just with the game but increasing, via the internet, with other players; and also in terms of our understanding of how young people respond to them.
The litany of negative effects ascribed to violent video games given above has long been subject to dispute. This paper (abstract only), from ‘American Family Physician, and published as early as 2002, concludes from a meta-analysis of 29 published studies that:
…contrary to popular impressions, little evidence supports concerns that violent video games are linked to aggressive or antisocial behavior. They caution that this topic is quite complex and not easily studied. The effect may depend on individual characteristics, including age and mood before playing the game, as well as the characteristics and complexity of the game itself. Modern, more realistic games may have very different effects than earlier versions. The authors do not regard violent video games as a significant public health concern.
Which prompted this, in many ways, remarkable ‘Editor’s note’ to be appended to the abstract:
EDITOR’S NOTE: While this article is somewhat reassuring, the pervasive nature of violent video games continues to be disturbing. Besides the direct effects on behavior, what effects do these games have on developing understandings of reality or “normality”? These questions have been raised by every generation about the recreational pastimes of young persons. Novels, films, radio, and television have all been accused of leading young people astray and inducing violent or antisocial behavior. The fuss about video games may be just another case of curmudgeons complaining–but they do differ from earlier pastimes in their reality and scope for direct participation. It will be good news if the link to violent behavior turns out to be a false alarm, but we still have to deal with the consequences of the time diverted to these games. In addition to time lost from studies and other activities, the passive nature of the games plus the link to snacking makes them prime contributors to the epidemic of obesity in young persons.–a.d.w.
It is unusual in professional journals, in the first instance, for an editor to append openly sceptical remarks to a piece of published research but even more so ones in which the editor’s commentary persists in asserting, as a matter of fact, an assumption that the paper, itself, quite clearly rebuts, i.e. the editor’s reference to ‘the direct effects on behaviour’ against the paper’s conclusion that ‘little evidence supports concerns that violent video games are linked to aggressive or antisocial behavior’.
Noticeably, the editor then seeks to ‘move the goalposts of the debate’ with the following remarks:
…what effects do these games have on developing understandings of reality or “normality”? These questions have been raised by every generation about the recreational pastimes of young persons. Novels, films, radio, and television have all been accused of leading young people astray and inducing violent or antisocial behavior.
It is palpably the case that no one has ever successfully established a clear, and generic, causal link between any of the listed recreational pastimes (novels, etc.) and violent/anti-social behaviour:
The research paper also notes clear methodological deficiencies in the published researched reviewed in the course of this study:
An extensive search of literature databases, personal contacts, and other sources identified 29 studies of this topic. The studies varied greatly in design and quality, leading the authors to conclude that a major deficiency in randomized, well-controlled studies prevents firm determinations from being reached.
Nevertheless, by the time of publication, the doubtful notion that a causal link between playing violent video games and anti-social behaviour had been established had not only passed in the public domain but had also been accepted as ‘conventional wisdom’ within psychology/psychiatry and amongst medical practitioners.
There are two other reasons for picking out this particular study from a number that have been conducted over the past 8-10 years that directly challenged the notion that there is an established causal link between violent video games and violent behaviour.
First, as the abstract points out, in the United States:
rates of adolescent violence, homicide, weapon-carrying, and other markers of antisocial behavior fell consistently during the period when violent video games became ubiquitous, more graphic, and more realistic.
Such a trend, although a matter of correlation and not an established proof, quite obviously, militates against the suggestion that violent video games cause or create a tendency towards violent behaviour in young people, which if it were true would see youth violence increasing as such games became more widely available and more realistic/immersive.
The overall trend in youth crime in the UK over the last ten years is, admittedly, a little different to that found in the US at the time of this study.
Over the last 3-5 years both the overall levels of youth crime and the numbers of offenders have remained pretty much stable, for all that both press and politicians would appear to want us to think otherwise when it suits their agendas; and for the four to five years before that, while the level of crime remain broadly static, the number of offenders actually fell (by 14% between 1998 and 2001). Recorded figures for certain types of offences, particularly offences involving violence against the person and sexual offences do show marked statistical increases over recent years, but much of this stems from changes in both the recording of data on criminal offences and, particularly in relation to sexual offences, from changes to the law introduced by the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which have put many more offences on to ‘the books’.
The relevant data, in this case, comes in part from the 2005 Offending Crime and Justice Survey which, like the British Crime Survey, tend to present a more even and balanced picture of trends in criminal activity than does data taken from the recording of reported offences by the Police.
The overall trend in youth crime in the UK over the last ten years or so has, therefore, been one in which the level of criminal activity has been broadly stable but increasingly concentrated within a core group of serious, persistent and frequent offenders who make up 30% of those young people who carry out criminal acts but account for 82% of all criminal conduct.
Again, this is not really a pattern of activity that supports the contention that a causal link exists between violent video games and violent behaviour - the most one can say is that the data here is inconclusive.
The second reason for picking out this study lies in this set of observations:
In children of middle-school age and younger, no association was found between video games and aggression in girls. In boys, studies report both increased and decreased aggression. Studies of middle- and high-school students predominately studied boys and often used self-report. Again, both calming and arousal effects were reported, and no consistent relationship was demonstrated between violent games and actual behavior. In college students and young adults, results were again mixed, but studies reporting calming effects were more common, particularly if the prior mood was hostile, angry, or aggressive.
This provides a neat bridge to a recent study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Psychology, by researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Centre for Mental Health and Media - which, in addition, is part of the Harvard University Medical School - which investigates in detail the use of video games, including M-rated games (those classified for over 17s due to their violent content) amongst Middle School children (12-14 age group), and in particular, asks those young people why they play these games and what they get out of the experience.
The findings of this study are, to say the least, interesting not least in noting how widespread access to M-rated games is amongst this age group - it reports that two-third of the boys and and a quarter of the girls included in the study had played at least on M-rated game in the preceding six month period, with ‘Grand Theft Auto’ being the most popular game amongst boys, and second most popular amongst girls behind ‘The Sims’ - GTA is, of course, based on the premise that the gamer plays out, in the first person, the role of a member of violent criminal/street gang. And yet, despite this evidence of the young people in this group having such extensive access to games of this kind, the trend in youth crime in the US continues to head downwards.
Moreover, this study reports that:
Many children are playing video games to manage their feelings, including anger and stress. Children who play violent games are more likely to play to get their anger out.
Dr Phil would probably contend that this is no real substitute for a good cry and a trip to see a therapist, but what this does appear to show is that far from stimulating the kind of externalised aggressive behaviour previously reported as evidence for violent games having a harmful impact on young people, teenagers are actually using these kind of games to manage and ameliorate feeling of stress, anger and aggression by taking out their frustrations on pixels instead of people. And to explode yet another negative characteristic previously attributed to video games, the report also notes that:
“Contrary to the stereotype of the solitary gamer with no social skills, we found that children who play M-rated games are actually more likely to play in groups - in the same room, or over the Internet,” says Cheryl K. Olson, ScD, co-director of the Center for Mental Health and Media and lead author of the study. “Boys’ friendships in particular often center around video games.”
What was once widely regarded as a solitary and anti-social activity has, with the development on online, multi-player gaming, become an important social activity amongst boys in this age group and one in which the greatest degree of social engagement is focussed on M-rated games, many of which support both competitive and team-based play.
Olsen goes on to make the point that:
“…violent game play is so common, and youth crime has actually declined, so most kids who play these games occasionally are probably doing fine,”
“We hope that this study is a first step toward reframing the debate from ‘violent games are terrible and destroying society’ to ‘what types of game content might be harmful to what types of kids, in what situations?’ We need to take a fresh look at what types of rules or policies make sense.”
In simple, and eminently sensible terms, she suggests that for the vast majority of young people, exposure to fictional violence through the medium of video games has no appreciable impact on behaviour in the real world. If anything, the evidence that shows these young people actively using such games as a means of safely releasing pent-up frustrations suggest that they may even be making some small contribution to the ongoing trend in which youth crime is falling in the US.
What see, quite correctly, notes is that such games can, in very specific circumstances, prove harmful, but that this is function of the individual circumstances of the young people who do experience such effects. Of themselves, video games do not, globally, cause violent behaviour but in some individuals they may serve to trigger a pre-existing disposition towards violent conduct or other relevant psychological condition that can produce a harmful outcome.
As evidence goes, that’s a damn good argument for parental vigilance when it comes to knowing what kind of games your child is playing and what they might be getting up to online, but not a basis for imposing a ban on the sale of violent games or for making public policy.
As it turns out, what Cameron appears to be proposing is something less than the ban on violent video games about which the press have been speculating, as is apparent from the relevant section of the Tory’s mini-manifesto:
The second aspect of popular culture which causes concern is the content of films and video games which are marketed at children and young people, or accessible to them. Extreme, casual and callous violence in a context of social indifference and moral ambiguity and in the absence of positive, counterbalancing influences from family, community and the wider culture has a coarsening effect on the ethical sensibility of young people.
We all have a responsibility to ensure a healthy culture for our children to grow up in. This includes not just the producers of films and video games, but the manufacturers of relevant hardware, and the regulators who determine age-related classifications.
A Conservative Government will review the regulatory framework relating to films and video games to ensure that violence and misogyny are not directly promoted to young people.
This should include the role of the British Board of Film Classification. Regulatory authorities must be on the side of parents, building classifications that are trustworthy. Our review will consider what regulation is practical given the wide availability of content through a variety of modern media.
Which is some considerable way short of the ban that the press have been speculating about and likely only to result in a bit of tinkering with the current classification regime and, possibly, a few curbs on the advertising of some games in publications that are aimed at, or likely to reach, a youth audience.
The key phrase in all this is that this review ‘will consider what regulation is practical’, which in the internet age amounts to ‘next to none’ unless they intend to introduce Chinese-style monitoring and fire-walling of internet usage. Tightening the classification regime could result in a small number of films/games being refused a classification certificate, prohibiting their sale in the UK, but only at the cost of adding a bit more download traffic to the torrent networks, and while the publishers of gaming magazines might wonder whether restrictions on advertising could hit their revenues, such restrictions will have no effect whatsoever on gaming websites that operate from outside the UK and, therefore, outside the reach of the UK government.
One might easily write the whole thing off as no more than a typically Cameroonian exercise in empty, gestural politics, were it not for the reference to ‘the manufacturers of relevant hardware’, who are almost certain to view this as yet another opportunity to push for the wholesale adoption of their desperately unpopular digital rights management system; which, of course, have nothing whatsoever to do with limiting young people’s access to ‘inappropriate’ material and everything to do with controlling the distribution chain in order to screw as much money out of punters as humanly possible.
That aside, this looks to be nothing more than an exercise in empty-headed, cheap moralising, as does most of this ‘mini-manifesto’, which I’ll be getting on to over the next few days.