Video game violence: Putting study results in perspective

As news reports surface in regards to the negative aspects of video games on teen development, it is important to look at where the data is coming from and also learn opposing viewpoints to develop a complete picture and plan of action.

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Before parents hit the panic button in fear generated by a new Canadian study that asserts violent video games lead to teens being “morally immature,” we need to consider where natural teen developmental issues and real world experiences fit into the equation.

Revisiting the topic of “respond vs. react” as a parent, the media began trumpeting results of a Brock University study that warns parents about teen development. The headlines, from such reputable sources as the BBC, were enough to make any responsible parent want to scream, “Shut that thing off and go outside!”

However, after reviewing the actual study, I learned Mirjana Bajovic of Brock University surveyed the relatively tiny sampling of 109 Canadian teens ages 13 and 14 and concluded that for teens in general, overexposure to violent games weakened empathy for others.

Mr. Bajovic found that 88 percent of these 109 teens said they played games and more than half of players admitted to playing games every day.

The media then picked up the published study of this small population and trumpeted the conclusion that researchers warned of adolescents losing a sense of "right and wrong."

That’s a single-bound leap worthy of Superman on his best day.

As a parent, I am a peaceful video game warrior. Over the past 20 years, I have tried banning all video games with any hint of violence.

That failed, because other parents didn’t adhere to my house rules, so my sons would simply play at the other kids’ homes without me knowing.

While I was able to enforce the rules when the boys were in elementary school, it became a losing battle on my part when they became teens because the issue shifted from snuffing out violent games entirely to nurturing my sons' abilities to discern right from wrong.

One son pointed out years ago, when he was 13, that his gaming had no effect on real life, and he saw it entirely as an activity meant to blow off steam. He was more worried about kids who were out doing drugs at parties and vandalizing property because they didn't have an outlet like gaming.

Now 20, this son is a total peacenik who’s joining his local Amnesty International chapter at college, volunteering to help those in need in his community, and studying international justice to become a force for good in the world.

Yet, he still loves the hack and slash of role-playing games online. And because I did my homework on teen development, I’m OK with that for him and my other boys. What is more important to me as a parent is to make sure I limit their time in front of the screen so they get out and see daylight.

I frequently turn to the video game ratings done by Common Sense Media, which includes still banning violent video games for my youngest son who is 10 years old. 

When this new study came to my attention via the sensational headlines I decided that before I gave into a knee-jerk reaction, I would respond with research, and made a call to Dr. Arthur Bowman, chair of the Biology Department at Norfolk State University, to see if something deeper than violent games could be a culprit in the moral immaturity claim.

“Parents who have teens know that moral immaturity is a fact of life,” Dr. Bowman said in a phone interview Friday morning.

He also pointed out how hard it is to determine the validity of a study with so small a sampling.

“You’d have to look at a way larger number, across cultures,” Bowman explained. “Canada’s got something like 35 million people; we’re in a country with 340 million people. So, to study 100 kids and draw any valid conclusion isn’t even laughable.”

He also asked, “Who determines what is ‘moral?’ Is killing a zombie 'immoral'? Is a game in which you are a soldier defending innocents from terrorists 'immoral' because it’s doing violence to another human being?”

According to Bowman, just trying to determine the level of empathy requires more in-depth scientific methods to discover how a teen responds when real life situations are at hand and not those the teen knows to be manufactured and without real consequence.

I think the only benefit of the study is to serve as a reminder that we always need to balance virtual violence with what we define as highly moral, non-violent real life experiences.

And sometimes the need for blowing off steam through video games can help squelch what could turn into a violent outburst in real life. I learned this first hand as my son came home from school after coping with a group of bullies in his class.

I offered my son a hug, a bike ride, and kicking a soccer ball, and none of those options quite provided the release from social injustice he’d just experienced on the playground.

“Just this once, please let me hack away at a zombie villager in Minecraft and watch stuff blow up online,” Quin, 10, pleaded. “I know the difference between right and wrong. It’s just that after a day of dealing with bullies in school who I can’t fight back against this is where I need to go.”

We reached a compromise. I guided his choice to the video game "Final Fantasy 4" – where you defeat non-human foes – and I sat with him as he played. We took turns.

As a parent who is frustrated for my child who is constantly bullied, I can tell you it not only felt great to chuck fireballs at monsters, but also resulted in me being a calmer and gentler mom.

It’s not whether you win or lose the battle over video games. It’s about how you play the game in the real world that counts.

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