In 2004, we began a two-year, $1.5-million multifaceted study of violent video games and children at the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, a division of the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. The U.S. Department of Justice (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) funded the research.
Our researchers came from a variety of fields: child and adolescent psychiatry, adult psychiatry, public health, clinical psychology, developmental psychology, educational psychology, public policy—we even had an evolutionary biologist working with us. This allowed us to look at the issue from a broad set of perspectives. (Our research assistants, who were recent college graduates preparing themselves for doctoral programs in psychology, relished telling their friends and parents that they had found a job that actually paid them to play video games!)
Two things separated our study from most of the research that came before us:
•We didn’t have a political or social agenda, or other vested interests. We weren’t out to prove a point or to defend an industry. Studying video game violence was only a small part of what we did professionally, so the outcomes of the research didn’t affect our careers. We didn’t own stock in the companies that developed the games or sold the hardware. Although we each had ideas about what we might find, we disagreed amongst ourselves. Some of us were gamers; others were not. Some of us were the parents of teenage children; others were not. As researchers, we simply went wherever the data took us.
•We interviewed and surveyed a large number of children and parents to find out what they actually did, why they did it, how they felt, what they thought and what they feared. Much of the earlier research on violent video games involved artificial situations, such as having college sophomores play a new game for a few minutes in a research laboratory, or measuring fraction-of-a-second differences in how long someone blasts an air horn or triggers white noise from a computer (a surrogate, the researchers claim, for aggression or for violent behavior) after playing a violent game. Instead, we studied real families in real situations.
Much of what we found surprised us. The data were both encouraging and, at times, disturbing. The more we analyzed our own data and looked at other research, the more we realized that we—parents, politicians, researchers and child advocates—are probably worried too much about the wrong things, and too little about more subtle issues and complex effects that are much more likely to affect our children.
It’s clear that the “big fears” bandied about in the press—that violent video games make children significantly more violent in the real world; that they will engage in the illegal, immoral, sexist and violent acts they see in some of these games—are not supported by the current research, at least in such a simplistic form. That should make sense to anyone who thinks about it. After all, millions of children and adults play these games, yet the world has not been reduced to chaos and anarchy.
It’s also clear that parents are both concerned and confused about violent video games. They are the first generation of parents to deal with children who use this technology. (Although, as we describe in Chapter 2, their own parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had similar fears about the new media of their day.) We want to protect our children from potentially harmful consequences, but we don’t know how to do that or what those consequences might be.
We may be asking the wrong questions, and making the wrong assumptions. For example, instead of looking for a simple, direct relationship between video game violence and violent behavior in all children, we should be asking how we might identify those children who are at greatest risk for being influenced by these games.
We should look at why children say they play both violent and nonviolent video games. (Some of the most popular games, even among teenage boys, are not violent. Our research also found that, contrary to popular belief, a few of the most popular games among teenage girls are extremely violent.) We should ask whether children who spend a lot of time playing video games are failing to learn important interpersonal and social skills, or whether they’re using the games to improve their social relationships with peers….