I recently read this post over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which is a response to a UK teacher’s speech at a conference blaming games for negative behavior among young students. The piece rightly takes this teacher to task for making such claims without any supporting evidence, and calls for an investigation into whether such a link actually exists. Unfortunately, this teacher is not alone; similar unsubstantiated claims about the harmful effects of violent games appear with alarming frequency, and it’s not the first time that Rock, Paper, Shotgun has had to pen a rebuttal. While gamers are understandably upset by these attacks on their hobby of choice and worry that the prevailing negative stereotypes of games will stifle the growth of the medium, the problem is actually far bigger than just games. The problem is rooted in how people think, and how they are taught (or not taught) to think.
You see, humans are not, by nature, logical. There is increasing evidence that humans will make up their minds first, and apply logic second. It’s a product of evolutionary conditioning. We make connections and conclusions easily and quickly — for example, that all the human bones scattered on the ground imply that there is danger nearby — and do not spend valuable time examining the validity of this conclusion when we could be using that time to run away. To truly think logically, then, a person must actively step back from his or her instinctual conclusion (in this case, that violent games have negative effects on children) and ask whether there is evidence for this conclusion. And this person must also understand what is and is not evidence; there might seem to be a correlation between games and certain behavior in children, but is there actually a real correlation? And if there is, does this mean that games are the cause, or is it just that children with this type of behavior will also tend to play games?
As a race, we know that this logical, analytical thinking is required in order to make accurate conclusions about these kinds of issues. We have solved this problem. It has been demonstrated time and time again that conclusions reached without proof are no better than guesses, but applying an empirical approach to investigating questions will consistently yield valid, reproducible answers. It is the basis of science and technology, the reason for our rapid advancement in understanding and capabilities over the last several centuries. To cling to one’s initial, instinctual conclusions without evidence is to ignore all that our race has learned over those years. It is an outdated way of thinking, rendered invalid by recent discoveries.
The problem, then, is one of teaching people to think logically and scientifically. There are plenty of sources calling for better science and math education, but most of these use economic justifications (like this one, for example), arguing that new generations need to be adept at science in order for countries to stay competitive in a world with rapidly developing technology. But I think this education is important on a more fundamental level. Simply teaching children to question themselves and their surroundings, to analyze questions and come to intelligent answers, is critical. It’s not about convincing everyone to become a scientist, it’s about teaching them how to discern facts from conjecture. If this were more predominant, we wouldn’t see so many baseless accusations thrown around and would instead find well-reasoned studies into the true causes of the behavioral traits in young students.
Clearly, education alone won’t reach everyone. Someone, somewhere, will still make these kinds of claims without any evidence; it’s in our nature to do so. But we don’t have to give these kinds of claims a platform. I’m not surprised to hear the claims made, but I am always saddened to see them get high-profile coverage in major news media. Jack Thompson went on Fox News and was covered in countless newspapers with his claims that violent video games were to blame for several different school shootings in the United States, yet he had no real evidence and misinterpreted (or willfully twisted) the few scientific studies that he did cite. The truth is that there is currently no solid scientific consensus on this issue, with most studies showing no correlation between violent games and behavior, some showing evidence for short-term aggression but no long-term behavioral effects, and others actually showing positive effects on behavior.
The scientific community isn’t blameless here either, though. There are many scientific studies that claim to have evidence linking games and aggressive behavior; these studies usually make claims that their evidence doesn’t truly support, like a link between violent games and long-term increases in aggression when their studies only actually show a short-term increase in aggression. Other times the studies fail to use rigorous testing methods, and merely demonstrate that aggressive children happen to play violent games without investigating which of these facts causes the other, or if indeed both are caused by some third factor. Sifting through these and separating the well-designed studies from the poorly-designed ones can be difficult, and it’s exactly why we need higher standards in our media. Scientific journals need to stop accepting publications with poor methodology. Newspapers and news television need to stop highlighting positions that lack supporting evidence. And generally, we simply need to teach people how to think about these things. Then we can finally stop wasting time on groundless debates and spend time finding out what’s actually happening. The human brain and the ways it adapts according to a person’s actions and experiences is truly fascinating, and I look forward to learning how cognition and behavior relate to games and other hobbies or pastimes. But we have to move past these silly arguments first.
We know better than that. We just have to start acting like it.