Thursday, 5 June 2008

One for the moral majority.

I recently stumbled across an interesting piece of research that seems to challenge the widely held perception that ‘violent’ video games naturally make their players more aggressive.

As I have often written I enjoy many a happy hour blasting, hacking, destroying in an orgy of visceral virtual violence. But have never had the urge to grab a meat cleaver from the kitchen and run amok through the quiet streets of our sleepy part of Sussex.

That doesn’t mean that I would advocate younger games players getting hold of titles in the 15 or 18 advisory categories but once one reaches the age of majority surely it’s up to the individual which games they want to play.

But as the recent case around the classification and release of Manhunt 2 shows it seems we just can’t be trusted not to commit savage acts of RL brutality after playing the game of ‘killers’.

It was with interest then that I read about the article in the International Journal of Liability and Scientific Enquiry by Patrick Kierkegaard of the University of Essex which suggests that that there is scant scientific evidence that video games are anything but harmless and that they do not lead to real world aggression. Moreover, his research shows that previous work is biased towards the opposite conclusion.

Kierkegaard points out that these violent games are growing more realistic with each passing year and most relish their plots of violence, aggression and gender bias. But, he asks, "Is there any scientific evidence to support the claims that violent games contribute to aggressive and violent behaviour?"

Media scare stories about gamers obsessed with violent games and many research reports that claim to back up the idea that virtual violence breeds real violence would seem to suggest so.

However, Kierkegaard has studied a range of such research papers several of which have concluded since the early 1980s that video games can lead to juvenile delinquency, fighting at school and during free play periods and violent criminal behaviour such as assault and robbery.

However, Kierkegaard explains, there is no obvious link between real-world violence statistics and the advent of video games. If anything, the effect seems to be the exact opposite and one might argue that video game usage has reduced real violence. Despite several high profile incidents in US academic institutions, "Violent crime, particularly among the young, has decreased dramatically since the early 1990s," says Kierkegaard, "while video games have steadily increased in popularity and use. For example, in 2005, there were 1,360,088 violent crimes reported in the USA compared with 1,423,677 the year before. "With millions of sales of violent games, the world should be seeing an epidemic of violence," he says, "Instead, violence has declined."

This isn’t conclusive. But the next time some poor kiddie gets whacked by a mad bloke who has played a video game and certain sections of the media get going with their normal shrill ‘something must be done’ over reaction, perhaps it might be worth remembering that the kiddie got whacked because the bloke was mad rather than because he had played a game.

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