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The shooters and the shrinks

The shooters and the shrinks
After Littleton, the media declared that studies show
computer games lead to violence. What studies?

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By Mark Boal

May 6, 1999 | As the Littleton tragedy unfolded, David Grossman, a retired Army psychologist, emerged as the media's most quotable expert on virtual mayhem. As he hawked his book, the good soldier explained to the world that video games were "murder simulators," just like the ones used in Vietnam to mold recruits into trigger-happy killers.

His spiel, despite its flimsiness, was picked up by at least 19 media outlets. And the New York Times lent him its credibility in a piece headlined "All those who deny any linkage between violence in entertainment and violence in real life, think again."

The path clear, President Clinton ordered a summit with Hollywood on the culture of teen violence (oblivious to the irony as U.S. bombs pummeled Yugoslavia), while Senate Republicans announced a conference of their own. Even the digerati got a touch hysterical, with some game designers posting notices about ending digital gore for the sake of the public weal.

OK, rewind.

As of 1996, there had only been eight peer-reviewed studies testing for aggressive effects of violent video games, according to a literature review conducted in that year by MediaScope, a think tank that specializes in media violence. Of these, four found effects, three did not and one found effects for girls but not boys. (To put this in some perspective, I have a paper in my desk drawer on teleportation that cites 49 studies.)

More recent work has been done by Dr. Jeanne Funk, a psychologist at the University of Toledo, who has conducted more control-group research than anyone in the country. As both a practitioner and a parent, Funk supports labeling games for violent content; she lets her own kids play, since "it's important for children to be part of the culture," but "draw[s] the line at the really violent ones."

As for Grossman, Funk tactfully points out that while "he believes in what he says," the "research is not exactly there to support it."

For starters, video games do not improve reflexes, which are innate. And while they can improve spatial recognition and coordination, the problem is "skill transfer": There's a tremendous difference between clicking a mouse in Half-Life and hefting a real eight-pound shotgun.

To put it another way, if all our GIs did was stare at monitors, Milosevic would have nothing to fear.

 Next page | But don't games make players more violent? Maybe, maybe not



 

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