Game over for video game violence alarmism
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In 1999’s comedic classic, “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut,” a mob of angry parents, searching for an explanation for their children’s increasingly profane language, point the finger at Canada — the country of origin for a pair of fictional comedians, Terrance and Phillip, whose routine consists entirely of fart jokes. In a fittingly named song, “Blame Canada,” the parents sing the following lines:
For the smut we must stop/
The trash we must bash/
The laughter and fun/
Must all be undone/
We must blame them and cause a fuss/
Before somebody thinks of blaming us!
The lines are obviously meant as a swipe at the sort of moral panic that has attended just about every controversial or new form of media, including jazz, comic books, rock and roll, tabletop role-playing games, the Harry Potter novels, novels in general, trading card games, and of course, video games. In fact, moral panic is arguably as old as Western civilization itself, as evidenced by the state-sponsored murder of Socrates in Ancient Greece for “corrupting the youth” with his questioning of everything.
Fortunately, we have moved on since Socrates’ day. Yet if Socrates were to step into the present and see the arguments being advanced that video games cause violence, and that their enthusiasts are especially at risk of engaging in violence, he might feel compelled (as many gamers would) to quote the apologia written for him by Plato:
I know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was – such was the effect of them; and yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth.
There is no point in mincing words: The only violence that can be linked to video games is the persistent violence that is inflicted on the laws of reason and evidence by the art form’s detractors. It is only through manufacturing studies with faulty methodology, spewing hyperbolic speculation meant to scare ignorant parents, and offering dubious if not laughable “expert” opinions that those detractors have a seat at the table to discuss the issue. And it is time that seat got kicked out from under them.
Begin with the manufactured studies. The only supposed experts to have done any quantitative work showing a link between video games and violent or otherwise aberrant behavior are Brad Bushman of Ohio State University and Craig Anderson of Iowa State University. However, their studies are so transparently ideological and poorly constructed that they don’t bear even casual scrutiny. For instance, one study purported to show increased impulsive and/or antisocial behavior by those who played violent video games, when its findings actually showed that those who scored the highest on impulsive and/or antisocial behavior prior to the beginning of the study kept scoring the same way after it. In short, video games didn’t make these people bad. They came that way. As TechDirt put it, “The problem with Bushman’s study is that it collects evidence on short-term effects (behavior observed during or shortly after play) and uses that to suggest there are long-term repercussions inherent in playing violent games.”
To add insult to injury, many of the studies which allegedly demonstrate such violence were funded by groups with a transparently anti-video game bias. For instance, Anderson’s studies have been shown to be funded by the National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF), who the video game rating company ESRB “flunked” in 2005 for its intentionally misleading video game report cards. Indeed, no less an eminence than Justice Antonin Scalia threw out Anderson’s studies, writing for the court in the case Brown v. Entertainment Merchants’ Association:
Even taking for granted Dr. Anderson’s conclusions that violent video games produce some effect on children’s feelings of aggression, those effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects by other media.
Not that this has stopped some respectable people from falling for such data. For instance, in 2005, the American Psychological Association issued a statement advocating that video games contain less violence, fearing for their psychological effects on young people. Fortunately, in response, 228 psychologists, media experts and criminologists signed a letter protesting the APA’s statement, calling its association of violence with video games a “classic illusory correlation.” Since 2005, we now know they were right to do so, as a subsequent study, undertaken over 10 years, with no less than 11,000 children as subjects, has shown absolutely no effects on children’s long-term behavior.
In fact, there is even some evidence that video games improve children’s problem-solving abilities, can work as a treatment for ADHD and can even improve relations between parents and their children when played together. It should also be noted that many video games, such as Minecraft, actively encourage their players to brave extremely fierce adversity in order to construct monuments to their own creativity in an endless frontier. What better metaphor is there for the spirit of American innovation and entrepreneurship?
So the quantitative evidence concocted by anti-video game crusaders is nonsense. This should not be surprising, given the extremely low quality of their spokespeople. For instance, the most notable anti-video game crusader in recent memory, Jack Thompson, ended up disbarred for persistent professional misconduct. Among the instances of that misconduct? Accusing Al Cardenas, then an attorney and now chair of the American Conservative Union, of distributing child pornography to minors, a charge so ludicrous it doesn’t pass the laugh test.
Thompson’s claims about games were no better, as he accused the popular video game Counter-Strike of being responsible for the Virginia Tech massacre, even though there is not and never has been any evidence that the shooter ever played the game in question. And even if he had, Counter-Strike boasted millions of players in its day. One or two out of millions is not exactly a high success rate for such a supposedly ironclad correlation.
Now, many of those advancing this sort of slander claim that their cause is simply ignored by a media that is inclined to liberal permissiveness at the expense of society. Therefore, they claim, to be anti-video game is to be a good conservative. This is perhaps the most pernicious lie of all, and it unfortunately has fooled more than one highly respectable conservative. As noted above, Justice Antonin Scalia, arguably the most conservative Supreme Court justice in recent memory, is responsible for writing the most pro-video game court decision in recent memory, and outright rejected the “evidence” of these self-proclaimed “experts” in his opinion.
Moreover, the California law that Scalia was striking down in his opinion was sponsored by Leland Yee, a rabid left-wing Democrat whose other causes included making a crusade out of Sarah Palin’s speaking fees. Indeed, most of the support for legislation censoring violent video games has come not from Republicans, but from Democrats like Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton, Tipper Gore, Evan Bayh and Dianne Feinstein. The truth has no agenda, but if it did, it certainly wouldn’t be the agenda advanced by these people, and conservatives have no business lending aid and comfort to partisans of censorship based on lies.
And yet, if conservatives are duped by the technophobia and dishonesty of video gaming’s enemies, that level of innovation and entrepreneurship will be in constant danger of being snuffed out. Already, the forces of political correctness are converging on video games and trying to limit the stories they can tell in the name of sensitivity, fairness and every other Trojan Horse in which censorship can hide. Conservatives should heed the age old call of duty to defend freedom and this thriving art form, rather than calling for nothing but artistic and creative dead space.