The Game-Expert Man
Add It All Up and It Spells Trouble
With a capital "T", which rhymes with "P" and stands for "pool"...
It's that time of year again. All the experts are weighing in with their take on videogames and how they're harming our children. The National Institute for Media and the Family released their 2007 Mediawise report to much self-generated fanfare.
"The Musicman" must be required study material for these guys. In case you've never seen the movie, a huckster trying to fraudulently sell band instruments comes into a small town and attempts to bilk them into protecting their kids from the evil influence of a pool table installed in the local billiard hall. He convinces a bunch of the locals they would be keeping their kids moral after school by starting a marching band. It's a tactic certain people are using to great effect in the real world.
When it comes to getting straight answers about kids and videogames, supposed experts aren't much help. The medical community is divided on the whole affair. Their approach to the problem is greatly hindered by their methodologies and also by the sources of their information. A great deal of their funding comes directly from anti-game groups who make their bread and butter trying to make non-gamer parents afraid of video games.
The American Psychological Association has published an article stating that, while they believe it is likely video games can cause aggressive behavior, parents can mitigate it by enforcing limits. They have another article where they claim they have proved that media violence on TV causes violent behavior in children. However, both of those articles cite as their base studies completed by a several professedly anti-video gaming groups such as the National Institute on Media and the Family, and Children Now.
These think-tanks are at the base of much of the mainstream "thinking" on the problem. For example, an article entitled Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts, and Unanswered Questions by a Dr. Craig Anderson cites 11 "myths" about the research linking violent video games to violent actions. The myths are not properly cited out, and not only that, but a quick look at the bibliographical list on the bottom shows that he participated in most of the studies, and ones that he didn't participate in were done by his colleagues.
If you read the media reports and their corresponding published study papers, a consistent group of practitioners emerges. A Dr. Douglas Gentile is thoroughly cited at the bottom of the APA article. He's one of the staff over at National Institute on Media and the Family. Dr. David Walsh is the president and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family. Dr. Craig Anderson is currently on staff at Iowa State University. And he has a new book out. Note who his co-authors are. Dr. Gentile, I presume?
That's just part of the NIMF gang. Other groups have their own pet researchers. Take Dr. Vincent P. Mathews, professor of radiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. He recently published a study that was cited with a big writeup in Newsweek claiming to have proven there a biological change in teenage brains that were exposed to violence. He has also provided this study, which was paid for by the Center for Successful Parenting.
There's no wide groundswell of public concern about media content coming through to the watchdog agencies. It's a focused campaign by a specific group. You can see just how effective they have been looking at the stats over the last several years. The FCC received a total of 111 complaints about 101 shows in the year 2000. According to this Princeton courseblog, in 2003 the FCC "received 240,350 complaints about 318 programs." The difference is a group called the Parent's Television Council, who coordinate to take the newly expanded options for complaint all the way out to the edge of the envelope. All but 513 of those complaints in 2003 focused on nine shows, mostly specific episodes of particular shows the group targeted through it's email network which gives it's members incidents in specific episodes of shows so they can go to the FCC site and complain in great numbers. They and similar groups are also targeting the ESRB and the MPAA (who rate video games and movies, respectively) and the proportion to what I'll call "free range" complaints to group complaints is similar.
Who are these groups?
National Institute on Media and the Family produces the MediaWise report each year. The Center for Successful Parenting makes their feelings on the matter quite plain right there on their homepage. The term "gamewashing" and the parental warnings all over it point out their target. The Parent's Television Council organization continues to grow, and with 28 state chapters they're branching out into other media. They're at the head of an initiative in Colorado to stop the local transit systems from allowing advertising M-rated video games on buses and trains. They're not alone. The Family Research Council is a conservative Christian group also founded by Dr. Dobson of Focus on the Family.
As gamers we may snigger at their antics (and the fact they're using a Dreamcast as their example of a game system). But mainstream media here in America and all over the world uses the studies they pay for to write articles.
These groups raise money to further their research supporting their assertion that video games directly cause violence. Due to ignorance or having the same axe to grind, others take these biased numbers and baseless opinions and pass them. And they go down the chain from pundit to teacher to preacher to parent and with each hand off they break down the links between the baldly false sound byte and the current rendition. Eventually the tie is broken completely, and everyone hears the blindered junk science that originally started this as a proven fact.
Group and pundits like Dr. Dobson and his Focus on the Family group use that same research over and over again. If you have an asbestos-covered temper, you can buy his seminal radio broadcast on the topic "Sounding the Alarm on Video Games" on their site. Their political arm, the Family Research Council, is behind last week's article on the conservative news site CNSNews.com which posted an article decrying the game Mass Effect as being pornographic in nature due to a cutscene contained within the game and accusing Bioware of marketing the game to children.
Then the tale gets embroidered. This week, a conservative political site called Townhall.com posted a long diatribe full of fallacies and falsehoods that tries to paint the science fiction shooter as the equivalent of a pornography studio stocked with aliens on the basis of that same single 40 second long cutscene. He ends his article with a call for politicians to begin to weigh in on the damage he perceives as being done to our children and society. The site has since pulled the article and he himself has since retracted some of his statements, but still maintains his stance that videogames are an evil that needs to be fought for the sake of the children.
And as much as we would wish otherwise, people in secular authority are listening to these think tanks and these organized groups and spending pubic money based on their rhetoric. Senators Clinton, Brownback, Lieberman, and Beyh, known for their anti-gaming stance, have decided to weigh in on the waning Manhunt 2 controversy by sending a rather pointed letter to the head of the ESRB asking, among other things, that the game's M rating be reconsidered. The text of the letter is available from Senator Lieberman's website. There have been several attempts to get a bill passed for a federal study on videogame violence, and not to mention the over a dozen failed attempts to get a law passed to limit videogame sales based on their content. California's governor has just sent their failed game sales limiting law up for yet another expensive appeal.
Our country has already played this game before. In the 1954 a psychologist named Dr. Fredric Wertham wrote a book entitled Seduction of the Innocent. He maintained that comic books were a serious cause of juvenile delinquency. After all, an extremely high percentage of the kids in juvenile hall read comic books. Therefore it must be the comics fault and it was turning our children bad. The books claimed to find evidence that there was suggestive pictures hidden in the backgrounds of the art work, and he also decided Wonder Woman was a lesbian due to her strength (remember that time frame here; we wouldn't bat an eye but back then that was a serious charge). It was a minor bestseller and galvanized parents to lobby for censorship and Congress muddled their way into the debate. The Comics Code Authority was established by the industry in self-defense, and all comics were neutered down to what comic book afficiandos refer to as The Silver Age. And it did absolutely nothing to affect the juvenile crime statistics.
Does this sound like a certain Colonel Grossman to you? Or perhaps a certain Florida lawyer who continues his crusade to convince the world that games are turning us all into killers. His recent suit against the police chief of Omaha, Nebraska because the man won't announce that a mall shooting spree was caused by a young man playing violent videogames is merely the latest in a decade-long string of his attempts to litigate his paranoid fantasy of millions of mass-murders waiting to happen into reality.
The Musicman reference at the beginning of this article is there for a reason. We have that same situation going on in our own town squares right now. These groups and their pet experts are rousing all sorts of ire by convincing people that others are outraged or upset. The currently demonstrated facts of the situation seem meaningless to them. And those who have cause to worry about people's opinions like elected officials are being fooled into thinking this group's ideas are what people really want.
I try to speak out, but I have a hard time keeping calm sometimes. When Colonel Grossman trots out his Ranger tab to bolster his credentials list I look at my eldest son's Ranger coin and shake my head. It makes me furious that he's using it that way. I hate that they take the trappings of science and turn them to their own purposes for money and notoriety instead of truth. I hate that many of them are doing it in the name of a faith I profess.
The most frustrating part is I want the answers they claim to have. Being a parent is hard enough without the armchair moralizing and social engineering that they're trying to pass off as truth. I want to see a properly run study with a large enough statistical base and a long enough span to give us some real guidance. There are other groups doing better studies, but in the current climate they're not getting the attention they should be getting. For a good start, try Gamestudies.org, which is a cross-disciplinary peer-reviewed journal that tries to academically address gaming and all it's issues. This one is particularly interesting as it's an attempt by the authors to start to design a rational methodology for studying videogames and their content. It's a first step towards a real framework to design a study that might give us some clearer answers. But real science takes time and I'm not sure we're going to get those answers before the powers that be start barking at the base of the NIMF tree again.
Just talking doesn't give us our happy ending where we all dance off down the street with 76 trombones behind us. Reading through the comments on that Townhall.com article gives a pretty good cross section of the standard reactions. I've never had much luck trying to have an unbiased conversation on the topic. The game industry's many attempts to bring John Bruce and his ilk to bay have their echoes in the foyer of my church every Sunday and in the boardrooms of the local school district offices.
I don't necessarily disagree with some of their points. But when you dig to the bottom of the whole mess, all they've got to back them up is a study paid for by an organization with a cause, a designed-in results bias, an unproven methodology and just enough subjects to dance on the head of a pin, they are nothing more than opinions and hearsay. Stacking a bunch of them up and repeating them over and over doesn't make them real. The plural of the word anecdote is not data.
What Do we Do?
If you feel strongly about this topic, then get involved. It's the only way to counter this sort of organized tactics. Groups like the ECA are trying to get the word out with communities like GamePolitics. Gamer-run parenting sites like Gamerdad and WhatTheyPlay are trying to help other parents start to come to grips with the whole media influx and what it means for their families where it actually happens - their living rooms. But they have nowhere near the resources of the anti-gaming crowd.
Do it now. We're coming up on a contentious election year and these groups have already demonstrated that they want game content on the agenda. And the industry big-names are starting to take it seriously, too. It was announced in the New York Times on January 15th that the videogame industry is forming a PAC of it's own.
It's time to tell Washington and your local authorities that if they're going to spend money on this then it better not be at the hands of special interest groups who have already made their position very clear. And wasting it on yet another unconstitutional game sales law isn't the answer either.
We want hard facts. We want our laws and public policies based on those facts instead of someone's opinions. And until they find a way to get those hard facts, we want them to stop wasting the taxpayer's time and money on their opinions.