Culture War Games

How video game science has become self-injurious.

Posted Apr 16, 2013

In the months since Sandy Hook, debates about video game violence have become more vitriolic than I can remember. Readers only need look through Psychology Today’s blogs to see that scholarly opinions run the gamut. At this point, I’m less interested in discussing the issue of whether video games do/don’t cause societal violence, but rather whether the rhetoric in this field has gone beyond healthy debate into something that will be difficult to recover from.

In a recent article in American Psychologist I expressed some hope that the Brown v EMA (2011) Supreme Court decision which gave violent video games full 1st Amendment protections would cool down debates in this area and lead to cross-debate discussions. And I think this began to happen. But obviously Sandy Hook changed all of this with a massive influx of societal and political pressure on the field.

Senator Rockefeller called for “research” that congress would use to back up regulation of media violence. Congressman Wolf, a long-time anti-media crusader, commissioned a report funded by the NSF (whose appropriations he oversees), which implied that media violence is a risk factor for mass homicides. That paper appears to have suffered from that political process: two chapters on media violence not citing a single study that differs from Wolf’s views (with the exception of a meta-analysis by Joanne Savage that was cited as supporting links between media violence and violent crime when, in fact, she concluded the opposite). Sweeping political statements of this nature invite sweeping generalizations in return from the media industry.

All of this gives people the impression that this research field is a mess. Which it is. Speaking as a media violence researcher, there are probably few fields in more desperate need of methodological and theoretical reform than this one. But it isn’t going to happen while the field is continually under such intense pressure. So, I’ve come to the unusual conclusion that our field needs a little time off.

Time off from media attention, time off from grant funding, time off from politician’s commissions. Time off from policy statements, too. Policy statements by the American Psychological Association and American Academy of Pediatrics are, by this point, well known to be error prone. Unfortunately, the APA seems to have difficulty appointing an ostensibly unbiased media violence task force. The current task force includes two signers of the amicus brief supporting California’s failed effort in Brown v EMA (and none from the opposing brief) and one of the authors of the NSF report I mention above. The task force includes no members who have publicly made skeptical comments. To my mind, the APA should simply retract the flawed 2005 policy statement and be done with it. Trying to delineate “truth” on cultural issues merely pours gasoline on the flames.

So long as this field is mired in culture war issues, it will never be able to rise above the level of a cargo cult pseudoscience. This is a rich field, with lots of divergent opinions and theoretical perspectives. I remain optimistic that this field can be truly objective, with collegiality between scholars with vastly divergent views. The field needs time to dialogue out of the public eye. It may be naïve to expect this, but a little less focus on media effects as a pressing issue could actually do the field a lot of good.