Virtual unreality


The Minneapolis-based National Institute for Media and the Family is getting lots of local and national coverage today with its report on video games. Its 13th annual Mediawise Video Game Report Card is timed to coincide with the holiday shopping season and a fairly slow period in newsrooms.

The “report card” notes that video games are a part of family life, and that they’re used for good in battling obesity, for example. But it saves its fire for the usual suspects:

Another online challenge is the vast and alluring world of mega multiplayer games that put many users at once into virtual worlds. These games, such as Second Life’s Teen World and World of Warcraft, put users in unpredictable social environments. There have been anecdotal reports of extreme psychological trauma for players who become too involved in the virtual world. And, any online environment involving kids seems to be a hunting ground for sexual predators. Most parents are aware of the dangers posed by chat rooms and social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, but do not yet realize that predators can gain access to kids through video games as well.

“We parents need to wake up and realize that the games our kids play do influence them,” said institute president David Walsh to the Associated Press.”And it’s our job to make sure they are playing age-appropriate games. It’s the nest big step.”

The Associated Press story, however, did not bother to point that there’s very little science to support the group’s assertion that video games are negatively influencing kids, and that anecdotal reports are neither science nor useful, especially when actual scientific research is not included. A story in the Star Tribune today similarly fails to challenge Walsh’s basic points.

In many cases the assertions Walsh makes have either never been proven or have been debunked by research. Isn’t that worth pointing out?

“Over-dependence on video games could foster social isolation, as they are often played alone,” is one oft-repeated claim of Walsh. Sure, video games could foster isolation, but there’s ample evidence they don’t. An article today from Worcester Polytech Institute in Massachusetts profiles the first-in-the-nation graduating class in a media and game development program.

“I looked at a lot of colleges with general technology programs like the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, but those schools either didn’t have any course of study in game design or only had it as a minor,” Alexander R. Schwartz of Fairfield, Connecticut said. “WPI was the only school that offered a full major in the program.”

Want to guess what Schwartz’s hobby was as a kid?

But it’s hard to get people worked up over the fact kids who play video games — even ones that are age inappropriate according to Walsh — could end up in a career that pays tens of thousands of dollars more in average salary than kids who don’t.

Walsh’s “report card” cites Pew Internet Study research on video games, but doesn’t point out that a recent Pew research paper said video games do not lead to social isolation.

Earlier this year, M.I.T. professor Henry Jenkins challenged 8 myths of video gaming, some of which form the underpinning of Walsh’s group.

“Playing violent video games may (note the number of times Walsh uses words like “may” or “could”) be related to aggressive behavior,” Walsh says.

Jenkins asked for proof:

According to federal crime statistics, the rate of juvenile violent crime in the United States is at a 30-year low. Researchers find that people serving time for violent crimes typically consume less media before committing their crimes than the average person in the general population. It’s true that young offenders who have committed school shootings in America have also been game players. But young people in general are more likely to be gamers — 90 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls play. The overwhelming majority of kids who play do NOT commit antisocial acts. According to a 2001 U.S. Surgeon General’s report, the strongest risk factors for school shootings centered on mental stability and the quality of home life, not media exposure. The moral panic over violent video games is doubly harmful. It has led adult authorities to be more suspicious and hostile to many kids who already feel cut off from the system. It also misdirects energy away from eliminating the actual causes of youth violence and allows problems to continue to fester.

For the record, researchers at Harvard concluded the same thing.

Other studies have shown that video games improve vision, can make people smarter, and can reduce stress.

Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a parent who doesn’t want his/her kids playing video games. And Walsh certainly has the right to call attention to his mostly-imagined threats they pose. But there is a lack of evidence to suggest that the parent who allows it isn’t a responsible one. And at least today, there’s a lack of journalists to say “prove it” to Dr. Walsh