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Marijuana, Cocaine, and Video Games?

Wed, 01/20/2010 - 4:58pm
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor
       

Jason_Pic130Are video games the equivalent of crack? That's the alarm sounded by a hyperbolic Fox News Live Science article titled, “Analysts: Video Gamers Get Hooked for Life, Could Become Addicted.” The author's bias is readily apparent (emphasis mine)-- “that's no surprise to the industry that peddles the games and the hardware," and thus, the piece deserves a strong rebuttal.
 
Historically, video games have been held responsible for everything from teenage truancy, to school shootings, to even global warming. They've spurred national debate, and their meteoric rise has only fueled the flames of opposition. Media personalities like Brent Bozell and politicians like Joe Lieberman have devoted countless man-hours combating the “indecency” in video games. In most cases, the voices of opposition haven't Nintendo-webbothered playing the games they condemn. Instead, they level wildly uninformed charges, based on selective game clips highlighting egregious violent and sexual acts free of any context. But that's not all. Live Science isn't the first to, in effect, equate video games with crack.

Type “Video Game Addiction” into Google and you'll get over five million results. A small sampling reveals a trend—a steady drumbeat of alarmist media reports, coupled with questionable scientific studies. Video games are a favorite target for politicians, journalists, and activists alike. Video games were blamed for the Columbine massacre, inasmuch as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were supposedly fans of Doom. As USA Today mentions, “At the time, Columbine became a kind of giant national Rorschach test. Observers saw its genesis in just about everything: lax parenting, lax gun laws, progressive schooling, repressive school culture, violent video games, antidepressant drugs and rock 'n' roll, for starters.” But for all the myths surrounding the tragedy, the inverse was often true.

The Live Science article quotes a study which notes that, “nearly 1 in 10 youths who play video games behaved in ways that were similar to other addictive disorders, such as compulsive gambling.” Alleged symptoms includes, “skipping chores, lying to parents and even stealing money.” On what they base these observations, I cannot say. But I don't remember deceiving my parents or committing crimes to play Nintendo. Moreover, these acts imply a dishonest thief, not a video game addict. Correlation is not causation. This study, and many like it, purports to show a link between video games and certain undesirable behaviors, not the least of which are addiction and aggression. But as MIT professor Henry Jenkins notes, “the laboratory context is radically different from the environments where games would normally be played. Most studies found a correlation, not a causal relationship, which means the research could simply show that aggressive people like aggressive entertainment.

Craig A. Anderson, Chair of the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University, would disagree. He claims that, “Arguments against laboratory experiments in behavioral sciences have been successfully debunked many times by numerous researchers over the years...variables known to influence real world aggression and violence have the same effects on laboratory measures of aggression.” Missing is an explanation for how demonstrable aggression in a laboratory environment equates to real-world violence. Video games contain many audio and visual stimuli. These undoubtedly cause excitement, aggression, and the steady release of endorphins. Action flicks provoke the same reaction in audiences—excitement, pleasure, and even aggression. How are video games any different?

It’s here that we reach the crux of the matter. Despite the popularity (and notoriety) of M-rated games like Grand Theft Auto, video games are still considered child’s play. Movies are far more gratuitous in their depiction of sex and violence, but video games are held to a different standard because the primary audience is assumed to be children. Nobody bats an eyelash at other “addictive” activities like reading and exercising--but then, those activities have positive connotations, while video games are often compared to drinking, smoking, and gambling as undesirable vices. In this editor’s opinion, reading, exercising, and video games are all preferable to the aforementioned addictions. 

Video games have been unfairly compared to reading, movies, and other forms of entertainment, when all are inherently different mediums. Held to a different standard, video games are easy targets for moral crusaders, journalists, and politicians. They also fit our pre-fashioned narrative—that today’s generation is lazy, uncultured, immoral, etc. Calling video games “addictive” is a straw man, masking deep-seeded resentment towards the medium as a whole. Now excuse me, I need to get my “fix.” 

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