We haven't heard much about the scapegoating of video games as a cause of violence among children lately. At least, nothing major since Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in April 2007, when it was brought to everyone's attention that he was an avid fan of Counter-Strike.
There have been no Joe Liebermans or Jack Thompsons cranking up the heat to say gaming is a pox on society, though there are no doubt plenty who still feel that way.
But now a new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project says that not only are video games an unlikely candidate for the root of anti-social behavior, they may be doing quite the opposite.
The report, released last week, says that as many as 97 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls said they play games, and of those, a full 76 percent spend their time playing those games with others — including 65 percent who play with someone else in the room, which is how they did it in my day, before consoles went online. That goes a long way toward debunking the stereotype that gamers are solitary maladroits who sit in darkened rooms covering controllers in layers of Chee-to dust and Mountain Dew.
"The stereotype that gaming is a solitary, violent, anti-social activity just doesn't hold up," said the report's author, Pew senior research specialist Amanda Lenhart. "The average teen plays all different kinds of games and generally plays them with friends and family both online and offline."
Indeed, while the Virginia Tech gunman was an FPS addict and the study acknowledges that many kids play violent games, your average gamer regularly tries out five different categories, and 40 percent have eight or more game types in the rotation. And from those categories — think strategy, puzzles, action, etc. — there's a lot to be learned.
Of the 1,102 children between the age of 12 and 17 surveyed, 52 percent said they play games that force them to consider moral and ethical issues. Those can't all be about whether an NPC lives or dies, especially when 43 percent claim those dilemmas include making a decision about how a community, city or nation should be run, or some other social issue.
What this is saying, of course, is that games are affecting children's development in ways we by and large haven't considered before. Everyone has been so worried about whether Grand Theft Auto was making us into a nation of killers, no one thought to explore whether Civilization was promoting diplomatic solutions to political problems, or The Sims was teaching youngsters that in order to go out and have fun on a Saturday night, they needed to work Monday through Friday.
And while it may be possible that gunning down Arabs and Russians in Call of Duty desensitizes a kid here and there, the crux of the argument still comes down to parental involvement. If young people are learning how to formulate social, economic and political values from pixels on a screen, you'd think responsible parents would want to know what's being digested.
There's evidence that's not always the case, since 32 percent of respondents between 12 and 16 said they play titles not considered appropriate for their age group, and the same number of teens said at least one of their favorite games is rated Mature or Adults Only.
The judgment call for this statistic lies not with the child or game stores or even Hillary Clinton. That's something in which a guardian should be involved, especially when real-life subject matter such as a rollercoaster election, a tanking economy and pending doom are real-life issues every day.
"We need to focus less on how much time kids spend playing video games and pay more attention to the kinds of experiences they have while playing them," said professor Joseph Kahne, director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., and co-author of the Pew report. "Games that simulate aspects of civic and political life may well promote civic skills and civic engagement. Youth, parents, teachers, and others who work with youth should know about the wide diversity of video games — so they can take full advantage of games and their civic potential."
So think about that the next time you (or your child) are weighing what to do with that Little Sister in BioShock.
Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at [email protected]