He didn’t understand that I meant a man in a Daniel Tiger costume would be here. He took it to mean that the cartoon character would come out of TV land and grace us with his anthropomorphic presence. He knew it doesn’t work that way because he can largely differentiate fantasy from reality.
And this ability certainly exists among teenagers and young adults, which is one of the reasons why the supposed link between playing violent video games and committing mass murder is as phony as Daniel Tiger popping out of our flat screen.
Penn & Teller demonstrated this on “Bullshit!” They took a 9-year-old who incessantly played violent video games to a gun range, where he popped off three automatic rifle rounds. He then broke down weeping because the experience so traumatized him. Yet, there are those who insist that playing shoot-‘em-up games makes one more desensitized and violent.
Of course, the crying at the gun range is merely an anecdote. We need statistics to turn this into a valid argument. So here we go. Arrest rates for violent juvenile crime peaked in 1993, at 500 per 100,000. By 2013, that number had plummeted to 195 per 100,000. During this same 20-year stretch, sales of Grand Theft Auto and games with similar themes quadrupled.
Still, if a child who perpetrates a mass shooting is found to have an Xbox in his room, some assign the blame to the games. Next to the Xbox may be tennis shoes and candy bars, but nobody is blaming the sneakers or Snickers. Video games are so common they’ll be in almost any child’s home, including the overwhelming majority of non-mass murderers.
There are some numbers that might suggest a link between games and behavior. In the book Grand Theft Childhood, 60 percent of middle school boys who played violent video games responded that it would be OK to slug someone who offended them. By contrast, just 39 percent of those who didn’t play such games said it would be OK. But this confuses correlation and causation. Youth that are more prone to violence are drawn to images of legs being blown off and bloody corpses strewn across a post-Apocalyptic landscape. My boys play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video games because they love the characters; they do not love the characters because the play the game.
It’s similar to the way that some persons blame mass shootings on antidepressants, noting that a high percentage of perpetrators were on them. Of course, the reason they were heavily medicated was to try and tame their simmering rage. An otherwise normal person won’t turn into a killer by playing Call of Duty any more than playing Mario will make one a plumber.
Despite the idea that the joysticks are being throttled by sulking loners, most video games are played with friends or with online partners. A 2007 study found that 45 percent of boys played video games for anger relief and 62 percent said it helped them relax. There have always been violent youth, long before video games, and no study using sound research methods has found a causal link between the two.
The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged this in 2011 when it declared Game Over to California’s attempt to ban violent PlayStation imagery. In an unusual move, the Court went beyond the law and addressed the scientific inadequacies of those arguing for censorship. From the ruling: “These studies do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively. The research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.”
Indeed, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, toying with the idea of federal legislation, said, “Recent court decisions demonstrate that some people still do not get it. They believe that violent video games are no more dangerous to young minds than classic literature or Saturday morning cartoons. Parents, pediatricians, and psychologists know better. These court decisions show we need to do more and explore ways Congress can lay additional groundwork on this issue. This report will be a critical resource in this process.” Rockefeller was encouraging scientists to arrive at the conclusion first, then seek supporting evidence, which is the antithesis of research.
When the type of research that annoys Rockefeller was conducted, results were clear. Christopher Ferguson, chair of Stetson University’s psychology department, found that the studies linking video games to violent behavior failed to account for other factors such as abusive homes or mental illnesses.
Ferguson also studied 165 10-to 14-year-olds for three years and published his results in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. He found no long-term link between violent video games and aggression and violence. Similar study results were published in Media Psychology and Review of General Psychology.
There’s more. A 2004 U.S. Secret Service review of school shootings found that 88 percent of shooters had no interest in violent games. In 2005, the United States, adjusted for population, had three times as many murders committed by juveniles than did Japan. Yet the Asian nation had nine times as many video game sales.
These numbers illustrate that fantasy is unlikely to change behavior. I already knew this, because my 4-year-old is no more likely to clean his room after seeing Daniel Tiger do so.