Violent video games factor in violent behavior but not seen as sole cause

By Elizabeth Bachmann Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Violent video games are a problem. But they are not the problem.

Psychologists who specialize in studying violence, aggression and violence in the media agree any claims that violent video games do not teach violent behavior ignore decades-old knowledge about the brain.

“What we know about the brain and what your grandmother knew about the brain is that practice makes perfect,” said Douglas Gentile, an award-winning researcher and professor of developmental psychology at Iowa State University. “You practice, you get better. Can you stop that? No. There is no possible way to not learn from practicing something over and over again.”

However, video games are by no means singularly responsible for mass shootings or increased violence, agreed Gentile, Brad Bushman, a professor of psychology and mass communications at Ohio State University, and Ryan Hall, a psychiatrist at the University of Central Florida.

Violent video games, TV and movies — which all have a similar effect — are only one of a web of risk factors, many of which must align for a person to pick up a weapon and fire it with the intent to kill other people.

“To get to that point, you have to have lots of risk factors and no protective factors,” Gentile told Catholic News Service. “Columbine had illness, uninvolved parents, he (the shooter) had access to weapons, he was bullied — that’s a big risk factor — and lots of violent video games. Was that the thing that did it? It increased the odds, sure, but lots of other things increased the odds.

“All the debates about guns and video games, it’s a stupid debate because it’s not that simple. Violence is multicausal. We need a multicausal approach to solving it. To try to blame one thing is silly.”

That said, Gentile, Hall and Bushman all agreed that video games do, in fact, teach violent behavior.

Bushman explained a study he conducted in which one group of kids watched 20 minutes of the same video game: Minecraft. One group watched play involving guns, one watched play involving swords and the third watched peaceful gameplay.

Afterward, they were released into a room filled with assorted toys, including Legos, games, puzzles, Nerf guns, etc., and told that they could play with whatever they wanted. In the room, Bushman and his colleagues also left an unloaded handgun with a trigger counting mechanism.

Bushman and his colleagues found that kids who had watched the violent, gun-involved video game spent about three times longer holding the handgun, and that they pulled the trigger with the gun pointed at themselves or each other three times more than kids who watched nonviolent video games.

Ultimately, he concluded what researchers, pediatricians and policymakers already knew: that the things kids play and watch do, indeed, influence their behavior.

Gentile explained that observing violence influences three distinct mental calibrations. First, it increases hostile attribution bias, or, the idea that accidental bumps or discourtesies are actually intentional affronts to one’s person. Secondly, playing or watching violent games or movies shifts normative beliefs about aggression, making someone believe that a more aggressive response to a situation is appropriate. Finally, violent media stimulates aggressive fantasies, causing players to think positively about engaging in violent situations.

“What does this look like in school. A kid who gets pumped in hallway stops thinking it’s an accident, and starts thinking he meant to do it. He turns to look at kid who bumped him, calls to mind he should do something,” Gentile said. “The thing that comes to mind is to retaliate, because that’s what he has practiced thousands of times in games. Not enough to make him do it, because there is a high threshold to do that in a school hallway, but he has been reinforced by video games, which lowers the bar.

“You can see how odds have shifted in that school hallway and he is more likely to say something unkind or shove back. If he does push back odds of fight breaking out increasing.”

However, Gentile stressed that even a fight is an example of aggression, not violence, since typical schoolyard fights are not life threatening. The threshold for violence is even higher than for aggression, and, again, is usually triggered by multiple risk factors.

Like everything, though, these studies about violence in the media, are left to the strong arm of the media itself to expose.

“For media to deny media is harmful. It is not in their economic self-interest. I don’t think they are the most reliable source on this,” Bushman said.

Apparently, most scientists within the field research aggressive behavior, and not specifically violent behavior. Violent behavior is defined as a subset of aggression in which physical behavior towards another person escalates to a life threatening level. In other words, it is a physical intent to kill, whether or not that intent is successfully manifested. Truly violent behavior is notoriously difficult to study.

So, video game companies and supporters can say with a somewhat clear conscience that there are no or few studies connecting game play with violence, simply because aggression is considered a distinct behavior from violence and few studies on violent behavior in relation to media exist.

“It is rhetorical divide people use to make people believe there is no connection between video games and violence,” Gentile said.

Ultimately, Hall explained that there is no difference between violent video games, gory movies and TV shows, which, together, make up a media package that is present in almost every American home, and almost every American home does not house a mass shooter, or even a potential mass shooter.

“Whether you look at Grimms’ Fairy Tales, the Bible, TV, or movies, violence has always been a part of society,” Hall said. “Media can have an effect, but generally moderation is the right answer.”

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