The problem of using science to determine whether or not violent video games like Grand Theft Auto do harm to our children is neatly summed up in one article on Scientific American - there's always good news and bad news.
In an article titled "Grand Theft Auto Is Good for You? Not So Fast...," Scientific American's Dara Greenwood takes apart a recently published paper from Grand Theft Auto co-author Dr Cheryl K. Olson, addressing each point with research from other scientists that conflicts with her findings.
Olson's paper, "Children's Motivations for Video Game Play in the Context of Normal Development", explores the role video games play in the development of today's children. She claims the question of whether or not they should play is now moot; now we must deal with the effects.
The debate has moved from whether children should play video games to how to maximize potential benefits and to identify and minimize potential harms. To do this, we must understand what motivates children to play electronic games and what needs the games meet.
In the process of writing the paper, Olson surveyed 1254 boys and girls in seventh and eighth grade, asking them what motivates them to play video games. Here are the results:
The most popular game series among surveyed boys and one of the most popular with girls? Grand Theft Auto, of course. The appeal of violent games can't be denied, though according to Olson, it can be explained.
"When we asked preteen boys whether violence makes a video game more fun, some agreed that they enjoyed games featuring over-the-top violence "that you can't do in real life." But some also noted that violent games were more likely to include action, challenge, and options. It is interesting that multiple regression analyses of our survey data from seventh and eighth grade youth did not find a relationship between trait anger or aggressive personality and greater use of Mature-rated games."
Overall, Olson's latest paper focuses on the positive aspects of video game violence. She cites the example of one young player who creatively solved the problem of finding taxi passengers in Grand Theft Auto by running them over first. See? It encourages problem solving.
A win for the 'violent video games don't harm our children' column, right?
Not so, says Greenwood.
As much research as Olson can dig up about the positive aspects of violent games, Greenwood finds equal evidence that violent games are harmful. Why dig? Greenwood says:
As laudable as it is to debunk negative stereotypes about non-violent game play, it is less laudable to gloss over the negative effects of violent video games. Olson's rosy spin on violent video games positions her on one side of a heated academic debate with staggering stakes in policy and industry.
There are two sides to this debate. More importantly, there are different groups craving different outcomes of this research, and when you're dealing with something as mysterious as the mind of a child, it's all too easy to sway findings in one direction or another.
Greenwood cites various reports over the years that have leaned towards video games doing more harm than good. From a 2001 study that found violent games increase aggressive behaviour and decreases prosocial behaviour, to a 2008 study that showed people who had just played a violent video game were less likely to react to a violent situation than those who had played a non-violent game.
There are too many factors. Too many variables. This is a fight no one can win. The human mind is a complex machine, and just because we understand one of them doesn't mean we understand all of them. It's nice to think that a scientific survey could produce exact results and end this debate once and for all, but it's just not possible.
Greenwood ends the article with her opinion on how to put an end to the violent games debate once and for all: get rid of them.
No media psychologists worth their salt would conclude that violent video games will turn your children into gun-toting sociopaths. Instead, violent media may affect us in countless subtle ways, increasing hostility and apathy to those around us. Rather than straining to rehabilitate an antisocial genre, why not go in search of non-violent but equally exciting, challenging, and enjoyable games? Let the multi-billion dollar gaming industry respond to social pressure and create non-sexist, non-racist, non-violent games that confer as many developmental benefits as violent games apparently do.
Is genre-cide the answer?
Grand Theft Auto Is Good for You? Not So Fast... [Scientific American - Thanks Aaron!]