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Are gamers captives of virtual violence?

Updated 9:32 am, Wednesday, July 10, 2013
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After Adam Lanza broke Connecticut's heart last December, speculation about what made him do it ran the gamut from easy access to guns to the shooter's difficulty dealing with peers.

On Dec. 14, Lanza killed 26 people, including 20 children, after killing his mother and before killing himself. Some news articles mentioned that before his rampage, Lanza had shut himself in his mother's Newtown basement and played violent video games. Only a few people took note. One, a 12-year-old Newtown boy, started a "Played Out" movement to dump violent video games, and residents in some other towns followed suit.

But mostly, gamers played on, secure in the knowledge that their passion was protected by the First Amendment. And virtual games that allow dismemberment, torture and rape continue to be sold to gamers of all ages at incredible numbers. According to the Entertainment Software Association, consumers spent $24.75 billion on their pastime in 2011 alone.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, Connecticut legislators discussed several measures addressing video games, including imposing an excise tax on violent games. Legislators have been discussing video games at least since 2001, when then-Gov. John G. Rowland vetoed a public act that would have prevented minors from playing "point-and-shoot" video games in public businesses, in part, he said, because there was no proof that such video games increase violent behavior in children and young adults. A similar bill was suggested this past session.

Growing evidence

The body of research supporting a link between virtual violence and real violence is slowly growing. Kirstie M. Farrar, a University of Connecticut associate professor of communication, recently published -- with co-authors Rory P. McGloin of the University of Connecticut and Marina Krcmar of Wake Forest University -- a study that examined the effects of games on players whose targets are human-looking, versus those who play against targets that don't look human.

According to her research, people playing against human-like targets were far more aggressive than the other group, and men were more aggressive than women. The games were, Farrar said, "very realistic, highly immersive war games." The study is not the last word on the topic, Farrar said, but it "contributes to the body of literature that suggests that violent video games can add to the puzzle about what specifically might be going on in that process, what it is about certain types of games or gamers that make that outcome more likely."

Violence is a "complex social behavior, and you're never going to explain 100 percent of the variants in aggression," Farrar said. Rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach, she suggests parents think of violent games as a risk factor. If you have a child who's bullied and withdrawn and that child is playing violent video games, Farrar said you might want to think about whether they should continue that exposure. She is not advocating censorship, she said, but is encouraging consumers to know what they're buying.

Sadly, money for research in the field is notoriously tough to come by, though there's a slew of industry-funded research that insists the games have no ill effect on players. However, acting on a request from the president, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked the Institute of Medicine, with the National Research Council, to assemble a committee that will study various aspects of firearm violence in the U.S., including the influence of video games. The results are expected in three to five years.

At the very least, it's a start.

This column was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (www.c-hit.org).

Susan Campbell is a former columnist at the Hartford Courant and is now communications/development director at Partnership for Strong Communities, a Hartford-based non-profit. She can be reached at slcampbell417@gmail.com.