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Violence In Society: Blame It On Brutal Video Games

The dust has never quite settled. And the jury is still out. Thirty years, millions of dollars in research, and endless controversy over violent video games later, and there is still no conclusive evidence. Does the savagery in computer games make the people who play the games savage too? Answers still differ according to who you talk to.

Medical professionals, researchers and academics, all have their own take on the topic. Social psychologist Dr Angeline, said that "violent video games has a co-relational relationship to aggressive behavior, but not a causal one". This means spending hours playing brutal video games is one of many risk factors that could lead to anti-social, aggressive behaviour. But it does not necessarily cause it.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Henry Jenkins, agreed. On PBS, a non-profit media website, he wrote that "no research has found that video games are a primary factor or that violent video game play could turn an otherwise normal person into a killer. Also, the risk is more likely to impact "bad tempered, aggressive" individuals than normal folks, said Dr Angeline.

One of the most outspoken critics of aggressive video games is the American Psychological Association (APA). It charged that excessive time spent slugging it out on such games could make the player more aggressive - conversely, less helpful - and desensitise him to the use of violence - conditioning him to believe that brute strength is an answer to problems. In an August 2005 press release, APA spokesman Dr Elizabeth Carll charged: "Showing violent acts without consequences teach youth that violence is an effective means of resolving conflict."

The APA's research showed that perpetrators of in-game destructive acts go unpunished 73 percent of the time and are frequently encouraged to do so by the game. And in 1999, former military psychologist Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman revealed the US Marines showed recruits brutal video games repeatedly so to desensitive them to violence and instill the "will to kill".

However, for every study that says playing savage games is bad, there is one to the contrary. Nanyang Technological University lecturer Marko Skoric believes that spending a month in cyberspace slashing brigands and decapitating monsters will not make you more aggressive. Dr Skoric did a 2005 study on video games and violence with Dr Dmitri Williams of the University of Illinois in the United States.

The study was published in an international communication journal Communication Monographs. In the study, a questionaire that measured aggression levels was administered to two groups of participants aged 14 to 48. One group played online role-playing game Asheron's Call 2 for one month, while the other played no games. 

The aggression levels of both groups were then measured again at the end of the month. Asheron's Call 2 was chosen for its content, deemed to be substantially highly repetitive, requiring players to slash monsters repeatedly to build up points. The results showed no evidence that video game brutality affected players' aggression levels in real life.

Dr Skoric attributed the results, which differed from previously published studies on video game violence, to the fact that earlier studies had focused on the short-term effects of playing video games in an enclosed laboratory. Participants were tested within only 10 to 30 minutes after playing a game against a computer.

Said Dr Skoric: "The literature shows that short-term effects are present, but you could get the same reaction if you were watching a good football game and got more excited than usual." Moreover, research studies have limitations. Dr Angeline said that studies are limited by sample size, time and demographic "so it can't model a `real' society".

In addition, "researchers are morally and ethically bound not to make the study subjects worse off than they were when they started (that is, more aggressive)," she added. Alternative study methods, like retrospective studies which ask violent people whether they were influenced by video games, depended on their recall and are thus, inaccurate as well, Dr Angelin eexplained.

Dr Cheryl K. Olson, a professor of Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School's Center for Mental Health and Media agreed. In a 2004 article in the journal of Academic Psychiatry, Dr Olson wrote: "[There is] no indication that violence rose in lockstep with the spread of violent games... it's time to move beyond blanket condemnations and frightening anecdotes." Destructive video games could even be helpful:

People get to "work out [their] fears or anxieties without actually engaging in them", posited a book examining the effects of pop culture on children by University of Southern California sociology professor, Dr Karen Sternheimer. In fact, blaming the media for social ills is a way for the public to avoid addressing the real issues such as poverty, wrote Dr Sternheimer. Like his peers, Mr Brooks Brown, a 25-year-old gamer, has his own take on the topic.

But his views carry the tragic weight of personal experience. Mr Brown was a friend of both the killers and victims in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High, where two students carried out one of the deadliest school shootings in the United States. In the aftermath, attention focused on the killers' love for deadly shooting games, Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, as a possible cause.

Mr Brown begs to differ ."Eric and Dylan (the shooters) were drawn to violent video games because they were violent, brought-up kids. I am drawn to these violent games because they offer more freedom. And, it may sound naive, but I believe the vast majority of gamers play these.

Who's To Blame For Gaming's Bad Rep?

If there is no definitive proof that video games cause anti-social behavior, why have they suffered from such bad press? Blame it on the gaming people themselves, the media and a generation thing, say the experts.

The Game Developers' Fault?

As graphics technology have improved over the years, "depictions of violence have also generally become more disturbing, more graphic," said Dr Angeline, social psychologist. For instance, game developers seem to have revelled in the media fury about game brutalities to come up with more extreme products. Take Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games. Instead of cutting back on the graphic violence, it created sequels. The New York-based company has even branched into other areas just to push peoples' buttons. Its upcoming "Bully" title will have the protagonist picked on by schoolyard bullies and teachers. But he, in turn, has to bully others to get ahead.

The Media's Fault?

Media reports tended to highlight the possible negative effects of violent games only to fuel the fire, since "people remember scary and negative things more than [they do] the positive things", said Dr Angeline. But coverage is getting less simplistic, said Dr Skoric. Currently working on a study analysing coverage of gaming in newspapers, Dr Skoric expects to find that the "newspapers have shifted away from rather simplistic and mostly negative portrayals of video games and gamers towards more complex and more positive coverage of gaming issues".

The Generation Gap?

Much of the historical mistrust could have come from a lack of understanding, confessed Dr Angeline, who herself has a new-found understanding of gaming since playing them in last few months. In fact, the 52-year-old now plays online game World of Warcraft daily. She felt that adults who grew up in the 70s and 80s, simply do not understand today's games, which include strategic and tactical elements. So, they continue to think games are a waste of time.

Said Dr Skoric: "Parents usually do not approve of the ways their kids have fun and this applies to video games too. Think about the Rolling Stones versus Marilyn Manson. The former are a rather reputable bunch now, while that was hardly a case when they were in their twenties." Indeed, Dr Williams told The Economist magazine: "Old stuff is respected, and new stuff is junk. Once a generation has its perception, it is pretty much set "What happens is that they die. "Thirty years from now, we'll be arguing about holograms, or something," concluded Dr Williams.

Brain Drain

In 1998, British researchers using a brain imaging technique called positron emission tomography found that people playing thrilling video games experienced heightened levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a hormone that helps transmit signals between brain cells to control movement. The natural chemical also contributes to brain activity like a person's attention span and learning. More importantly, dopamine directly stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain. So, the brain tells the person to carry on doing what he is doing because it is enjoyable.

Today, playing thrilling video games is considered a reliable way of stimulating the production of dopamine for research. But it should be noted that dopamine is also produced when you eat or have sex to fulfill those urges. It is even in the high that addicts get from drugs like heroine and cocaine. Currently, though, studies on the effects of heightened levels of dopamine have yet to turn up conclusive evidence between playing violence video games and real life violence.

 

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