Tuesday 11 February 2014

Video Game Violence and Sociology

While we're on a moral panic tip, here's a recurring one for you: violent video games cause x, y, z social pathology. The latest story to plough the well-worn farrow is that killing digital representations of human beings leaves teenagers morally immature. Yup, blasting away at screens of bad 'uns, Russians and space Nazis stunts emotional growth and depresses developing empathy. Readers know I'm interested in the the narcissistic self, hence the claims made of this research are worth a look. After all, preoccupation with self demands a certain crowding out of others (though, paradoxically, the narcissistic self needs others to reflect by its "unique" qualities).

Here, Mirjana Bajovic of Brock University in Canada took a sample of 109 13 and 14 year olds (61 boys, 48 girls). Of the half that played video games, violent titles were the most popular. Of these, the the gamers who spent between 1-3 hours every day shooting and maiming things were found to be perfectly fine. However, for the eight boys who spent more than three hours daily on violent games, there were signs of stunted emotional development.

Two points about this. As Bajovic notes in her PhD thesis on which the news story is based,
Correlational studies usually suggest that there is a relationship between two variables; they cannot prove that one variable causes a change in another variable. In other words, correlation does not equal causation. Other variables may also play a role, including social relationships, cognitive abilities, personality, socioeconomic status, and a myriad of other factors (Creswell, 2003, 2008; Creswell & Plano Clark, 2007). One of the limitations of this study was that it did not investigate causation and did not take into account those other variables. Another limitation is derived from the small participant sample. Data in this study were collected on a small sample of adolescents in seven schools in Ontario and should not be generalized to adolescents in other schools from other regions (Kerlinger & Lee, 2000). (p.230)
In other words these are only preliminary findings. They suggest in the absence of other variables, there is a statistical artefact between the length of time playing violent games and emotional maturity. Also, claims made cannot be generalised because of the very small sample involved. What there is is a suggestion that something might be happening.

The second point regards the measurement of 'emotional maturity'. When I was a kid at school I was bombarded with all sorts of essentialised gendered nonsense about emotions. On the one hand I was told boys lagged the emotional maturity of girls by two years. And on the other women, generally, never grew up emotionally. There is a burgeoning literature on the sociology of emotions, hence the very idea of what is and what isn't emotionally mature behaviour is very much up in the air. The other issue, also acknowledged by Bajovic, is that self-reported data may be inaccurate for all sorts of reasons, such as lapses of memory or fibbing to make one look more grown-up. The same is true of interviews - each research encounter is an arena of self-construction and self-assertion. If you go with Goffman, self-presentation is the driver of social behaviour.

Quite rightly, Bajovic calls attention to the limited nature of her venture and that it needs filling out with additional research. And yet, despite the caveats, we are given deliberately misleading headlines strongly suggesting that "science has proven" linkages when only a tentative avenue for further investigation has been opened up.

Of course, there's long been panics about video games, being as they are associated with violent killings, asociality, and health problems (remember The Sun's 'Nintendo Killed My Son'?). They are caught up in a spiral of signification that annexes seemingly innocuous pastimes and behaviours and splices them with more sinister things that frighten honest, hard-working folk (more here). And like all moral panics, whether they're live or low level pangs of collective unease, they focus attention away from the sources of unease. They work to promote outright misrecognition.

Much of our culture is based around screens. A typical evening in the BC household involves two computers and a telly. Looking at my internet friends and comrades, it's reasonable to assume theirs is much the same. So what this means sociologically and especially in terms of childhood/teen socialisation (in Bajovic's case) demand investigation. But one should never lose sight of basic questions that always must be asked. These involve always-already acknowledging  the political economy and control implications/effects/histories of screen technology, allied to multi-faceted approaches that place those technologies and their users in their lived contexts without bracketing those away as messy variables. That is the path to truly useful knowledge about the social impacts video games have.


Anonymous said...

and yet these same newspapers are full of grim and grisly details of murders, rapes etc. do newspapers encourage murders?


Anonymous said...

Has anyone done a study about the damage that One Direction inflict on our youth?

Anonymous said...

i think the other thing that video games teach us (much more so now than movies or tv) is the power of narrative or maybe how to play with narrative frames. not certain what the broader social implications of that might be, although that does sound a little creepy to me. of course, as someone who grew up in the 1950s, where in school everything was presented as a narrative--our friend the atom, the story of the painted desert, the tender tundra, etc. etc.--i wonder if that isn't why most video games seem somewhat retrograde to me.


p.s. i don't know if that old american tv program "the outer limits" was ever shown in the uk, but in the introduction the voice over narrator uttered the famous phrase "we control the horizontal. we control the vertical." i wonder, with the rise of the video game, has the "we" just been replaced by "you" ? as i think i may have said once before, a lot of video games seem to be about control, or rather, the illusion of control, but i don't know how "contested" that illusion is.

Phil said...

I was a fan of the Outer Limits! It had some really great thought experiments, and some pretty naff ones too! Interestingly though narrative is a big selling point of the immersive experience modern video games shoot for. And yes, there is an illusion of control - this might interest.