Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Meaning of School Shootings: Part Three

In parts One and Two we discussed the NIU shooting, the low rate of homicide in schools in America, possible demographic effects upon violent crime rates, studies of Arousal and Desensitization in consumers of violent media imagery, and I introduced you to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and his psychological model of resistance to killing and how the military overcomes the innate resistance 98% of us have to killing other humans.

I want to re-iterate that I have generally been talking about violent media imagery (which can include video games, but is explicitly also movies, TV, TV news, and music as well as video games), not specifically about violent video games. There has been a lot of discussion in comments about banning video games, and that is not the main thrust of this article. Certain specific video games will eventually enter the story, but most of our discussion so far has been about generalized violent media imagery. This part talks explicitly about counter-arguments, many of which deal specifically with video games. I want to make clear that I am talking about video games in this post because of those counter-arguments, not because I want to specifically attack video games.

We have established that there are studies showing effective Arousal upon viewing violent imagery and that Desensitization occurs (that is, over time it takes more violent imagery to create an equal reaction in consumers). It's not surprising, therefore, that we find trends of increasing violence in media:

For one thing, there's more of it. Laval University professors Guy Paquette and Jacques de Guise studied six major Canadian television networks over a seven-year period, examining films, situation comedies, dramatic series, and children's programming (though not cartoons). The study found that between 1993 and 2001, incidents of physical violence increased by 378 per cent. TV shows in 2001 averaged 40 acts of violence per hour.

Paquette and de Guise also identified a disturbing increase in psychological violence, especially in the last two years. The study found that incidents of psychological violence remained relatively stable from 1993 to 1999, but increased 325 per cent from 1999 to 2001. Such incidents now occur more frequently than physical violence on both francophone and anglophone networks.

Canadians are also heavily influenced by American programming. Paquette and de Guise found that over 80 per cent of the TV violence aired in Canada originates in the U.S. ... Overall, 87.9 per cent of all violent acts appear before 9 p.m., and 39 per cent air before 8 p.m. -- at a time when children are likely to be watching.

I assume it's unnecessary to cite increasing realism and violence in video games :-).

From the studies and books I have read and cited in this series, I am well-convinced that violent media imagery increases the chances of aggressive and violent behaviour. It's not clear how much, but I find the arguments in favor of Arousal and Desensitization very compelling.

So let's take a look at the other side of the argument.

While I was at GDC (the annual computer Game Developer's Conference) last month (part of the reason this piece is so late), I thought I'd see what the game developer's community had to say about this. So I went to the GDC store and bought the two books they had on the subject: James Paul Gee's Why Video Games Are Good For Your Soul and Harold Schechter's Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment. I read them cover to cover and I believe I held an open mind about their content.

Why Video Games Are Good For Your Soul
Gee's book is a short paean to the teaching ability of video games, with specific examples (numbers added for easy reference below):

(1) A player's actions and decisions in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night creates a colorful and affect-laden world, a world which recruits the player's feelings, emotions, and interest in powerful ways....Unfortunately, this background of affect -- of feeling, emotion, caring, interest and excited expectation about what will come next -- is treated as entirely unimportant in school. Nonetheless, it is the background without which there is no real learning. (p. 31)

(2) Things are different in a game like Full Spectrum Warrior for the Xbox. This game teaches the player how to be, albeit not a professional vampire hunter, but a professional soldier. It demands that the player thinks, values, and acts like one to "win" the game... (p. 43)

(3) Games like Full Spectrum Warrior allow players to participate in expert knowledge, values, strategies, and skills. They allow players to experience a sense of control -- a partial (but only partial) control over fate and caprice -- in a complex and sometimes dangerous and threatening set of situations. Players experience a certain expert mastery of complexity, risk, and danger. Such a feeling -- often quite lacking in real life -- is exhilarating. (p. 49)

(4) It is important -- and this is something we know from recent research on the mind -- that seeing and action are deeply connected for human beings (Barsalou 1999a, b; Gelnberg 1997; Glenberg & Robertson 1999). (p. 54)

(5) But adding authentic professionalism to a game does not just open up a unique space for strategy, it also opens up a unique space for identity. An authentic professional has values and attitudes, as well as characteristic ways of talking, acting, and interacting, connected to his skill or special skills and knowledge. These values, attitudes and ways of talking, acting, and interacting constitute and identity. In blending with the virtual character -- in acting out of a shared set of skills -- the player takes on this identity. The player gets to play with, think about, and empathize with this identity in an embodied way, since the virtual character is the player's surrogate body in the game world. (p. 68)

(6) Take first- and third-person shooter games as an example, games often derided by politicians and policy makers, e.g., games like Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid, Deus Ex, System Shock 2, Max Payne, and Far Cry. Here are just a few (there are many more) of the learning principles that the player is (however tacitly) exposed to in learning the play these games:
  • (6a) Learning is based upon situated practice, not lectures and words out of context;
  • ...
  • (6b) Learning is a form of extended engagement of self as an extension of an identity to which the player is committed;
  • ...
  • (6c) Problems are ordered so that the first ones to be solved in the game lead to fruitful generalizations about how to solve more complex problems later on;
  • ...
  • (6d) There are intrinsic rewards (within the game) keyed to any player's level of expertise
  • ... (pp. 112-113)

It's tempting to just say "Gee says games are great teaching tools" and point out that such a statement would be supportive of the idea that violent media encourages violent behaviour, but I hate to pass up the opportunity to go point by point....

(1) When Gee talks about the effectiveness of affect as a teaching aid (indeed, the
requirement that affect be present for learning, he's saying that Arousal is an effective teaching aid. So increased Arousal in consumers of violent media imagery means that learning is happening more easily while consuming violent imagery.

(2) Do we really need several million more Americans trained to think, value, and act like soldiers? And does the game include training and values based upon the Geneva Accords?

(3) Once again, "...is exhilarating" links us back to Arousal. The effective transfer of expert knowledge leads us to the point (below) of successful training.

(4) "...
[S]eeing and action are deeply connected for human beings" reminds us that the interactivity of video games makes them even more effective teaching (and training) devices than other (more passive) media.

(5) Players "...empathize with this identity in an embodied way", implying greater connection between the player and their avatar/character.

(6a) Emphasizing the conditioning effect of shooters.

(6b) Again, emphasizing the connection between the player and avatar/character

(6c) Overgeneralization of game behaviour is exactly what those derisive "politicians and policy makers" are worried about.

(6d) Rewards are an effective conditioning teachnique.

In the end, Gee's arguments sum up to "computer games can be effective learning techniques". And as I already noted, that is an argument in support of the idea that violent media (and computer games in particular) can encourage Arousal and Desensitization (as shown by studies) and potentially transmit game behaviours to the real world. I have no argument with Gee's conclusions -- computer games can be powerful learning tools. The question is: what should we use them to teach?

Savage Pastimes
Most of Savage Pastimes can be summed up as "there used to be really ugly media before TV". Dime novels, murder ballads, and so on. This is immaterial. Our argument against violent media is that studies demonstrate certain effects. We do not claim that current media is uniquely violent, but that it is (as measured by studies) effective at reinforcing certain behaviours.

The remainder of Schechter's arguments against violent media encouraging violent behaviour are a claim that critics of pop media overstate the number of studies showing correlation between violent media and violent behaviours and generic claims that those studies that do exist are flawed. The first is irrelevant (I have made no claims about vast numbers of studies) and the second lacks enough detail to consider. I have found no specific claims that the studies I cite are flawed.

One quote is perhaps worth addressing:

There's no doubt that, for young boys, there's a connection between watching action-packed entertainment and roughhousing. That was certainly true of me and all the other nice, middle-class Bronx-born boomers I grew up with. After watching a few hours of Wild Bill Hickock or the Cisco Kid, we could hardly contain ourselves. We would strap on our leatherette holsters and leap into action, galloping around the house on invisible steeds, taking potshots at each other with our Hopalong Cassidy pistols, throwing ourselves at each toehr and wrestling like bear cubs. The cries of our mothers -- shouting at us (in those pre-PC days) to go play outside if we wanted to act like "wild Indians" -- still echoes in my ears.

Grossman (and others) explicitly argue that it is the lack of this physical release for the Arousal of violent media which contributes to the Desensitization and conditioning of consumers of violent media. Instead of using media imagery in constructive ways, the constant exposure without catharsis is a part of the problem.

If these two volumes represent the best arguments against the idea that violent media has negative effects upon at least some consumers, then the defenders of media have a problem.

I had thought that I'd finish with this part, but I think that's enough for now. I apologize for the long gap between postings and promise that I'll be quicker with Part Four, which should wrap things up. We've now covered all the essential bases except one: how specific arcade games act as enablers (training devices) for shooters and why the military uses even simple games to condition soldiers to fire. Once we know that, we see how the chain operates: from violent media through Arousal, Desensitization, and Conditioning, adding Training to enable some few individuals to perform quite incredible feats of combat shooting without ever having touched a firearm before. Finally, we'll talk about how the decontextualization of violent media imagery contributes to the problem, and how relatively small changes in the content of violent media presentations can make a difference.