Scientists have long clashed over whether violent video games have an adverse effect on young people. Indeed, the conclusions of different groups of researchers are so contradictory they could give a tennis umpire whiplash.
The Supreme Court recently overturned a California ban on violent video games. The court said that video games, even offensive ones, were protected by the First Amendment, and that there wasn't clear evidence that playing games such as Grand Theft Auto and Postal really harmed people.
So what explains the vehement disagreements among scientists about the effects of these games? The irony is that scientists who think the games are harmful and those who think they're not are both looking at the same evidence. They just see two different things.
Most experiments into the effects of violent video games are done with college students. Researchers divide them into two groups. One group plays a violent game, the other a non-violent video game. Then researchers measure how students in each group feel and how they behave. You can't give young people guns and knives to see whether they'll kill each other after playing a violent video game, so scientists have come up with other ways to measure emotional responses.
Social psychologist Brad Bushman at The Ohio State University once showed students violent pictures: one of a man shoving a gun down another man's throat; another of a man holding a knife to a woman's throat.
"What we found is for people who were exposed to a lot of violent video games, their brains did not respond to the violent images," Bushman said. "They were numb, if you will."
Bushman also had the students blast each other with loud noises.
"We try to make the noise as unpleasant as possible by thinking of every noise you hate," Bushman said. "So like fingernails scratching on a chalkboard, dentist drills, sirens."
Students could make the sound as loud as a smoke alarm, if they wanted. Some students in the experiments got really mean.
"Everybody was more aggressive if they'd played a violent game than if they'd played a nonviolent game, and the more numb they were, the more aggressive they were in terms of blasting their opponent with loud noise through headphones," Bushman said.
Desensitization Toward Violence?
That sounds airtight. Bushman believes that violent video games desensitize young people. Compared to people in the real world who are gentle and compassionate, students playing these games seem to be mean and hurtful.
But Chris Ferguson, a psychologist at the Texas A&M International University, disagrees. He's conducted similar experiments and also sees similar behavior changes among students. But he interprets them very differently.
Compared to people in the real world who shoot and stab one another, Ferguson said the changes in behavior he's seen among students are transient and trivial.
"You know most of the debate now is really on to these minor acts of aggressiveness," he said. "You know we're talking about little children sticking their tongues out at each other and that sort of thing."
Ferguson says it's easy to think senseless video game violence can lead to senseless violence in the real world. But he says that's mixing up two separate things.
"Many of the games do have morally objectionable material and I think that is where a lot of the debate on this issue went off the rails," he said. "We kind of mistook our moral concerns about some of these video games, which are very valid — I find many of the games to be morally objectionable — and then assumed that what is morally objectionable is harmful."
In other words, if you define harm as getting in trouble with the police, violent video games probably aren't a risk. But if you're worried about lesser kinds of harm, they can be a risk.
"Playing violent video games probably will not turn your child into a psychopathic killer," Bushman said, "but I would want to know how the child treats his or her parents, how they treat their siblings, how much compassion they have."
So the dueling scientific studies aren't really at odds with each other — they just make different assumptions. Which may be why Bushman and Ferguson agree on one thing: as fathers, they've banned their own kids from playing violent video games.