By Marion Givhan
Recently, Professor Sherry Hamby of the Psychology department participated in a task force for the American Psychological Association that compiled a report discussing the positive correlation between violent video games and aggressive behavior. The Wisconsin Public Radio picked up on the story and interviewed Dr. Hamby over the phone. She answered questions about the findings of the study and answered calls from people who had strong reactions. The interview can be found on the WPR website, which also has a link to the task force’s resolution. The 200 studies that the APA task force compiled did find a statistically significant link between playing violent video games and aggressive behavior. Though definitions for aggressive behavior can differ, most studies did not define it as criminal acts for which adolescents could be arrested. Instead, they observed bullying, physical fights at school, and general peer aggression. During the interview, Hamby described the findings as “troubling” and said, “We should give serious consideration to how much exposure children and adolescents should really have to violent video games.” She used Grand Theft Auto as one example of a problematic game. The player has to take on the role of the criminal, and he earns more money for worse criminal behavior, such as sexual assault. “I was shocked by how graphic some of the content was,” she said. As the mother of a twelve-year-old son, she experiences the same issues other parents do in regulating the games her son can play. One issue she believes needs to be changed is the way video games are rated. She described them as needing to be more explicit. Instead of putting an M rating on the case, the rating should also come with specific reasoning, such as “encourages players to decapitate other players” or “encourages players to sexually assault other players.” “Something could be rated M for violence or sex or drug use or alcohol,” said Hamby. “There should be separate scores for each category of inappropriate content.” She believes that this would end the misconceptions some people have about acceptable content for children and young adults.
The calls she received during her WPR interview expressed defensive backlash against the studies. Multiple callers claimed that parents do not do enough research on the video games. One even called parents the “gatekeepers setting the tone for the child.” However, Hamby pointed out the two-way street that exists between the parents and the community. Parents face a rough task against the onslaught of advertisements and media. Leaving the job of regulating video games completely up to them does not help. “It’s not on the parents to read dozens and dozens of studies and put them together to see the big picture,” said Hamby. One of the goals of the report was to expose the problems that arise from violent video games so parents, psychologists, teachers, and other people who work with children could be aware of potential dangers. She also made sure to point out the important difference between video games and overall media. She followed this comparison with a discussion on the contrast between video games and other competitive activities, such as sports. In regards to other media, Hamby made the argument that the impact of the practice and rehearsal of playing a video game differs from that of seeing something violent in a movie. The key difference is participation. Competitive activities such as sports and hunting do not fall under the same category as video games, either. “Sports encourage teamwork and camaraderie, while putting limits on acceptable behaviors,” said Hamby. “They teach a control and self-discipline that one does not find in video games.”
Hamby is not suggesting censorship when she says regulation, stating that she is a firm believer in first amendment rights. “Whatever a 25yearold wants to play, that’s fine,” she said. But it’s different when it comes to children. Nor is she suggesting that violent video games are the sole cause of aggressive behavior. “Violent video games may not be the straw that broke the camel’s back, but they are certainly a straw on the camel’s back,” she said. Despite criticism in gaming publications and the struggle of facing a billion dollar industry, the findings of the APA study remain relevant in a world where technology has a strong impact on the minds of children, adolescents, and young adults.