There’s no doubt that the media we consume has an effect on us, the entire advertising and marketing industry is built upon that premise, however just how big that impact can be has always been a subject of debate. Most notably the last few decades have been littered with debate around how much of an impact violent media has on us and whether it’s responsible for some heinous acts committed by those who have consumed it. In the world of video games there’s been dozens of lab controlled studies done that shows consumption of violent games leads towards more aggressive behaviour but the link to actual acts of violence could not be drawn. Now researchers from Stetson University have delved into the issue and there doesn’t appear to be a relationship between the two at all.
The study, which was a retrospective analysis of reports of violence and the availability of violent media, was broken down into two parts. The first part of the study focused on homicide rates and violence in movies between 1920 and 2005 using independent data sources. The second then focused on incidents of violence in video games using the ESRB ratings from 1996 to 2011 and correlated them with rates of youth violence over the same period. Both periods of study found no strong correlation between violence in media and acts of actual violence, except for a brief period in the early 90s (although the trend quickly swung back the other way, indicating the result was likely unrelated).
Violent video games are often used as an outlet for those looking for something to blame but often the relationship between them and the act of violence is completely backwards. It’s not that violent video games are causing people to commit these acts, instead those who are likely to commit these acts are also likely to engage in other violent media. Had the reverse been true then there would have been a distinct correlation between the availability of violent media and acts of real world violence but, as the study shows, there’s simply no relationship between them at all.
Hopefully now the conversation will shift from video games causing violence (or other antisocial behaviours) to a more nuanced discussion around the influences games can have on our attitudes, behaviours and thought processes. There’s no doubt that we’re shaped by the media we consume however the effects are likely much more subtle than most people would like to think they are. Once these more subtle influences are understood we can then work towards curtailing any negative aspects that they might have rather than using a particular medium as a scapegoat for deplorable behaviour.
Natural selection has given rise to some incredible things. The diversity of life on Earth is an ongoing testament to that, showcasing that life can sustain itself pretty much anywhere so long as there’s water present. What’s incredibly interesting to see is how parts of nature take on properties of things you wouldn’t necessarily think they would, like the planthopper with gears in its legs. It seems the more we investigate life here on Earth the more weird and wonderful behaviour we come across and none seems to be more stranger than the hive mentality of fire ants giving rise to a substance that’s neither liquid nor solid:
The research paper that this comes from is quite interesting as they performed a whole bunch of materials tests on the fire ants to see what the properties of the giant ball were like. Interestingly the fire ants, whether they’re alive or dead, exhibit properties of non-Newtonian fluids, specifically shear thinning (like when paint doesn’t drip off a brush). However the characteristics of the live fire ant ball don’t directly classify it as either a solid or a liquid although a similar non-live sample acted much more like a solid. That interesting property is most likely due to the way the ants rearrange themselves in response to stress but the actual mechanism of how they do that, especially in large numbers, is still something of a mystery.
It seems that this behaviour likely arose out of a particular selection pressure, namely flooding. The fire ants can bind themselves together in a ball or mat to form a raft that will float on water thanks to the large surface area relative to the fire ants weight. It’s the same principle that allows water skimmers and other insects to seemingly float on top of water, using the surface tension to provide them with buoyancy. The material properties that fire ant ball carries with it are likely a side effect of that adaptation, although there might be other pressure that led to it as well.
I’d totally go out and try this for myself but I value my hands far too much.
It might surprise you to know that I have a pretty keen interest in the realms of psychology. I’m not exactly sure where the interest comes from but I think it has something to do with me viewing the human mind as an incredibly complex machine, one that we’re only just beginning to decipher the inner workings of. Primarily I’m interested in what motivates people to do certain things so I can understand where they’re coming from. Thinking back to my university years I can see that this interest probably stemmed from my obsession with trying to understand the everyman, figuring that I was so far removed from normalcy that I had to undertake such tasks. That interest has of course lead me to try and figure out why people keep coming back here to read my writing and I recently uncovered some interesting facts that might shed some light on that.
I’ve known for quite a while that I’m not particularly good at judging what articles of mine will be popular and ones that won’t. I’ve tried to crack that secret formula of writing something that will be an instant success but realistically the most popular articles I’ve written have always been slow burners, coming into fame a long time after I wrote them. Still I noticed an interesting trend after each of those hits took off on their own accord: more people would start visiting. Not just from random searches but also returning visitors and each new hit would build on the last one. I put it down to simple network effects (I.E. one new reader usually entails more readers as they share the posts around) for the most part, but something I read yesterday changed my view on this.
B.F Skinner was an American behaviourist who’s research into cognitive processes spans a good 5 decades from 1938 to 1989. He was also somewhat of an inventor, building several contraptions to test his various theories. One such device was the Operant Conditioning Chamber (or Skinner Box) a simple device designed to test the link between behaviours and their link to rewards both positive (reinforcement) and negative (disincentive). They’re usually quite simple devices consisting of some kind of operandum (say a lever or button) that the subject has to activate in order to receive a reward. Despite being so simple they can be used to study a wide range of behavioural mechanisms and one of them is particularly intriguing.
Given a direct relationship between the operandum and the reward (press button, receive bacon) subjects in the box will make the association and would operate it when they wanted said reward. However should the relationship be indirect, say the reward only comes randomly, then the subjects began to develop behaviours that they believed were consistent with the reward. Examples of this were birds performing such unusual behaviours as bowing or dancing before pressing a button as they associated that behaviour with the completely random reward. With that in mind I started thinking about where I’d seen this behaviour elsewhere and pennies started dropping.
Games, especially casual and MMORPGs, are heavily based around this concept of random rewards. MMORPGs are probably the best example of this when they follow the usual formula of “kill baddies, they drop loot” but the best rewards don’t drop often. Indeed back in the beginning days of World of Warcraft one of the end raid bosses, Onyxia, had an ability called Deep Breath that, from a scientific point of view, was triggered completely at random. However guilds attempting this boss would employ crazy strategy after crazy strategy to stop her from using said ability, with some swearing by its effectiveness. It got to the point where it became a meme for each new patch that players would observe “Onyxia deep breathes more often” or someone would discover yet another mechanic that apparently affected the frequency.
For bloggers the effect is somewhat similar, although it usually takes a slightly different form. I know for myself that if I find a blog post that I really like I’ll usually end up subscribing to the author’s RSS feed, hoping to get more of the same. Of course not everything they put out will be gold but day after day I’ll find myself coming back hoping to see the writing that captured me in the first place. Every so often they’ll hit on it again and I’ll be hooked again for however long, but usually long enough that they’ll strike gold again.
And that, my readers, is probably why you keep coming back. I don’t know what post brought you here or what may have made you subscribe to me but undoubtedly the reason you keep coming back is that you’re hoping to see something along those lines again. I hope I can deliver on that often enough to be worth your while and indeed, since so many of you do come back I get the feeling I do that often enough to keep reinforcing that behaviour. Not that I’m actively trying to condition you though, although now that I think of it the prospect of doing so is rather tempting… 😉
When tragedy strikes we humans always look for someone or something to lay blame on. It’s part of our grieving process, done so we can struggle with the enormity of the situation that has been presented to us. It’s also an emotional time and this has the unfortunate side effect of clouding our usually rational minds, possibly leading us astray in our search for understanding. One such topic that has always managed to get muddled in with the emotional blame game is the effect that violent video games have on both children and adults. The recent events in Oslo have brought this topic back to the front of everyone’s minds and it would seem that the debate has begun raging once again.
The general sentiment amongst the public seems to be that violent video games do adversely affect children in some way. As a child growing up in a world that thought this I was often barred from playing games that involved killing human or human looking creatures. I wasn’t alone in this respect either, with many of my friends relying on their older siblings to gain access to this banned material. Still none of my friends have grown up to be violent individuals so at least anecdotally it would seem that there’s no real substance to the general public’s sentiment on violent video games.
Still there have been so many incidents where the two have been linked that it’s warranted further investigation. There have been many direct studies and meta-analysis done on the subject and the results don’t provide any evidence for a strong link between violent video games and violent tendencies. There is some evidence to suggest that there might be some short term effects but the evidence to the contrary of that conclusion is strong enough to warrant further analysis before drawing conclusions. Scientifically then it would seem that the idea that violent video games breed violent children and adults simply does not hold up to scrutiny and should be taken as such.
It was at this point that I was going to go on a long tirade against all the major news publications for their portrayal of games in the media when it comes to tragic events, quoting various articles and debunking their points with copious amounts of links and evidence. I sifted through dozens of news articles on the subject, cherry picking out the ones that mentioned video games and pouring over them. What I found was a trend the likes of which I hadn’t seen before, most of the big media sites were running articles that would usually only mention the video games in passing not even attempting to make a tenuous link between violent games and real world violent behaviour.
There are of course some notable exceptions (with the ACL chiming in during SMH’s article) but overall the coverage of the Oslo incidents lay the blame squarely at the perpetrator and not at video games. It seems that finally after decades of video games being the punching bag for all sorts of societal problems the media, and thus the general public, are coming around to the idea that video games aren’t the murder simulators they were once made out to be. It’s a sign that the gaming industry has finally started to be taken seriously by the wider public (mostly because we make up a much greater percentage of the population than we used to) and this means we can finally have rational discussion on the real impacts of gaming on our society, rather than the emotionally charged blame games we’ve had until now.
Gaming is and always be a big part of my life and it has always pained me to see how ignorant the general public was being about how those games were affecting both children and adults. The Oslo terrorist attack, whilst an unforgivable tragedy, has shown that perhaps we as a society have begun to turn the corner on the violent video games issue. With a R18+ rating on its way for Australia the evidence is mounting that we’re beginning to accept games as a real medium for expression that’s appropriate for both adults and children alike. The future will bring us conclusive evidence as to the real affects that games have on our society and we can look back on the emotional debates as simply part of the medium maturing, hopefully as a fading memory.