It's Addictive! Or Is It?

Video games have perennially faced fire for their graphic violence and undue influence on tender minds. It's time for a sober revaluation

Fear of new technology, anxiety about cultural change, and the desire to confirm our own prejudices can cause even the most dogmatically anti-scientific among us to turn hungrily to natural philosophy for “evidence.”  

We may not believe in evolution, but give us some popular science that cobbles a bunch of dimly related research into a seemingly coherent whole and we’ll take notice. Spice it up with factoids and slick graphics, and we won’t even chew before swallowing. In this respect, articles like NewScientist’s August 28 cover story, ‘Hooked: Your Brain Is Primed For Addiction’, is nothing short of mana from heaven.

Onslaught 1.0 focused almost exclusively on “games with violent content.” Among other things, it allowed most of the industry to take a giant step backward (or as far away as possible) from studios like Rockstar and Running With Scissors.

Onslaught 2.0, however, will target the medium in general. There’ll be no slouching back to Tiburon this time round.  And thanks to the kind of uncritical, sensationalist popular science that has found its way into places like NewScientist, the crusaders have acquired precisely the ammunition they need to stoke the stigma against videogames and renew their campaign to make gaming a sin that demands government temperance.

Cultural Landscape

Almost as soon as they exploded onto the cultural landscape in the early 1970s, videogames became the object of intense cultural ‘concern.’ At first the concern was relatively mild—worries about children trading time in the sun for the digital joys of the cathode ray cathedral. But in the 1980s, just when cultural Cassandras everywhere thought videogames might quietly go the way of the hula-hoop and the pet rock, Nintendo came along and resurrected gaming, its blinding success lending new force to the idea that games had the power to turn happy, well-adjusted kids into vapid husks umbilically tethered to pricey, largely-foreign-made consumer electronics.

In 1993 Mortal Kombat sparked a sizable backlash against violence in games, but it wasn’t until 1999 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold failed in their attempt to blow up their school and their classmates in Columbine, Colorado, and murdered 13 children in the process, that family-friendly vigilantes, poll-wearied politicians and media effects mavens started to take serious regulatory aim at gaming culture.

Around 1999, roughly coinciding with an appearance on 60 Minutes the Sunday after the Columbine shooting—the same episode that introduced the gaming world to Jack Thompson—retired Army psychologist and former Ranger, Lt. Colonel David Grossman, began offering a view of videogames that would drive regulatory legislation into the next century. “I sincerely believe that if [legislation] is not passed we will pay a tragic price in lives, just as surely as if we had failed to keep guns or alcohol or tobacco out of the hands of kids.”

Jack Thompson, among others, took the idea—as well as Grossman’s favorite phrase, ‘murder simulator’—and began shopping it around state legislatures, resulting in the passage of myriad videogame bills over the next five years. The basic strategy was to press the claim that rather than being protected speech, violent videogames should be considered ‘harmful products’ just like alcohol, tobacco and firearms. As such, the government is within its jurisdiction to restrict their access by children. It was a novel and bold approach—no expressive medium in the history of American society had been so radically recast as dangerous contraband.

The problem, however, was demonstrating that violent videogames are actually harmful to kids. Although Grossman and Thompson and people like National Institute on Media and Family founder David Walsh had seen enough to convince themselves, they needed science to back up their claims and win over recalcitrant politicians, frightened parents, and bored pundits.

They hit the jackpot with Craig Anderson.

On March 21, 2000, Dr. Anderson—Chair of the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University—testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee’s hearing on the “impact of interactive violence on children.” Anderson introduced himself to the committee as an expert on videogame violence and children, testifying that

Social Psychology

“My first publication on videogame violence appeared in 1987. Next month the American Psychological Association will publish a new research article on videogames and violence that I wrote with a colleague of mine (Karen Dill). The article will appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the premier scientific outlet for research in social and personality phenomena.”

Dr. Anderson, however, neglected to tell the committee that out of 46 scientific publications he authored between 1987 and the Columbine shootings in 1999, only two involved videogames and violence and only one (published in 1987) sought to analyze the media effects of violent games. In fact, while Anderson had indeed dedicated much of his research to aggression, almost none of it outside these two articles had anything to do with media effects in general.

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