Less Like Poison, More Like Peanut Butter: The Case for Violent Video Games
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
Should the government protect society from the bad effects of violent videogames? Game-makers invoke freedom of speech to stave off such laws—including California's 2005 attempt to ban violent-game sales to minors, which the U.S. Supreme Court will take up this fall. But maybe there's a better defense: According to this paper (pdf), published this month in the Review of General Psychology, there's nothing to protect against, because violent games have no bad effects.
Studies to the contrary, which say violent games make kids more likely to be nasty, brutish and curt, are better read as an indictment of academic psychology than of Grand Theft Auto, asserts the new paper's author, Christopher J. Ferguson, a psychologist at Texas A&M. "Violent video games are like peanut butter," Ferguson told Reuters earlier this month. "They are harmless for the vast majority of kids but are harmful to a small minority with pre-existing personality or mental health problems."
That he was able to get some press for this claim is already a tribute to Ferguson's tenacity and media-savvy. The position he seeks to debunk is consistent with public fears about new technology, and it's politically popular: In recent years, five other U.S. states beside California passed laws restricting videogames. That violent games harm kids is the official position of the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association.
Maybe it's because almost every American under 40 has played videogames, but Ferguson apparently decided society could stomach open rebellion. There's no quiet mumbling in his journal-battles with anti-game psychologists—notably, this year, with Craig A. Anderson of Iowa State. These are ferocious, with both sides accusing the other of cherry-picking data, "cynically" (Ferguson's word) massaging experimental protocols to get desired results, ignoring inconvenient evidence and misrepresenting opponents.
You can get an idea of the tone from this paper (pdf) of Ferguson's, published in March under the title "Much Ado About Nothing," and "Much Ado About Something," the reply (also pdf) from Anderson and colleagues Brad J. Bushman and Hannah R. Rothstein. The rhetoric might entertain you (in a videogamey way). More likely, it will leave you mistrustful of the "games are poison" school in particular, and psychologists' claims about any politically hot topic in general.
Here is why: Were I to hyper-cautiously set aside all the disputed points in Ferguson's indictment, I would still be left with this damning list—flaws in the "games harm kids" argument which suggest flaws in any claim that "psychologists know X hurts people." These points struck me because they're the ones that even opponents don't dispute:
1. The link between videogames and serious violence is feeble. In their riposte, Anderson and his colleagues admit this, saying their Ferguson and his allies "probably are correct in noting that violent video games have a weaker effect on serious acts of aggression and violence than on less serious acts." But, hey, acts of serious aggression is so rare, they say, "they are difficult to predict with relation to violent video game exposure or any other single risk factor."
Ponder that one for a second: It means nobody, not even the most anti-game researchers, has evidence that violent games lead to violent acts. Instead, the studies claim that the games make it more likely that a kid will manifest "aggressive" or anti-social thoughts or behavior. (What one researcher calls aggression, though, another might label "boys at recess.")
2. The measurement of "aggression" is not consistent from one study to the next. "Ferguson and Kilburn raised a potentially valid point about the use of unstandardized aggression measures," write Anderson and Co. If I understand their argument, they're claiming this doesn't matter, because aggression is aggression, however it is quantified: Your score on one measure will be consistent with your score on another. Maybe so, but the anti-game case would be much stronger if the all those rafts of papers were referring to the same thing.
3. The correlation between violent videogames and aggressive or anti-social behavior is not very strong. In many studies it's between r=.1 and r=.3, on a scale where 1.0 is the strongest possible correlation and 0 is no relationship at all. R=.3 is not huge: As Ferguson like to point out, the correlation between rising sales of violent games and plunging rates of violent crime per 100,000 youths is much larger, a nearly perfect r=.95.
Anderson and his colleagues concede that correlations in violent-games studies are "small" to "medium" in size. But, they write in the Much Ado paper, "effect sizes" in that range were big enough to establish a risk to physical health from lead, asbestos or second-hand smoke. (Ferguson says no; as for me, when I Googled asbestos and cancer, I turned up references to correlations ranging from r=.4 to r=.88.) Their other line of defense really gave me pause. It is that "this is the range of effects most commonly observed in social psychology." Hmm.
This journal-jousting will no doubt continue (I highly recommend a read of the three papers below for more details). Meanwhile, the rebels are on the move: Ferguson's latest paper says it's time to examine the positive effects of violent videogames. That would include the way online games encourage socializing; the way first-person shooters hone visual acuity; and the way young cancer patients benefit from playing this.
Ferguson, C. (2010). Blazing angels or resident evil? Can violent video games be a force for good? Review of General Psychology, 14 (2), 68-81 DOI: 10.1037/a0018941
Ferguson, C., & Kilburn, J. (2010). Much ado about nothing: The misestimation and overinterpretation of violent video game effects in Eastern and Western nations: Comment on Anderson et al. (2010). Psychological Bulletin, 136 (2), 174-178 DOI: 10.1037/a0018566
Bushman, B., Rothstein, H., & Anderson, C. (2010). Much ado about something: Violent video game effects and a school of red herring: Reply to Ferguson and Kilburn (2010). Psychological Bulletin, 136 (2), 182-187 DOI: 10.1037/a0018718
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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