UPDATE: Dan suggests from afar that I may have somewhat misunderstood his point. We’ll be having a chat about it later, and I will certainly update and clarify if it does indeed turn out to be the case, as I consider him a friend and would not want to misrepresent him in any way.
It is with the utmost respect that I challenge my friend and colleague Daniel Lipscombe’s assertion that more parents should be involved in the debate surrounding the effects of violent videogames upon children. Here’s what Dan wrote across a series of Twitter transmissions earlier, following the release of and reporting on a study which concludes that violent videogames can be a trigger towards violence for children predisposed to such behavioural problems, rather than a cause:
These videogame violence articles are being written by the wrong people, all the time. […] I think everyone has an opinion, however, most of the argument revolves around children/teens and violent games etc. Yet a tiny proportion of games journalists are actually parents and know what it means to be a protector and guardian. Not saying John [Walker, who wrote about the study at Rock, Paper, Shotgun] or anyone else is wrong, but there are others whose opinion would be more grounded in experience and responsibility.
I imagine this will go off on plenty of tangents. Stick with me.
This is a debate that has surfaced and resurfaced not just since the dawn of violent videogames, but since the dawn of violence in any area of the media. Everyone has a view. I find Dan’s theory fundamentally flawed by the simple assertion that anyone else’s opinion is what we need at all. What the discussion is crucially missing is an abundance of empirical evidence that provides us with information about how children do interact with violent media, about how the agency of a human-controlled videogame affects the way this interaction is processed in a child’s brain, and about the effects that this has on the behaviour of young people across a wide spectrum of society.
Tanya Byron’s pivotal report touched on this, but only briefly, and within the practical context of how the sale of videogames should or should not be restricted by age. Other reports and studies have similarly failed to delve into the behavioural issue to any great degree. The paper that is being reported on today is a corpus study which compiles the results of several different items of research, attempts to draw parallels between them, and logically apply the findings to the specific field of videogames. It is an important step in the right direction, but once again we are left with a lack of hard evidence developed from a study very carefully tailored to this enormously specific medium.
To me, approaching parents for comment on the matter is no more useful than approaching someone like Steve Pope, who, in the Lancaster Evening Post, recently made the absolutely absurd comment that playing a videogame for two hours is equivalent in effect to consuming a line of cocaine. Of course, I would hope that most parents – and I’m sure Dan himself would be among these people – would be sensible enough not to make such staggeringly wild, uncorroborated and simply astoundingly inaccurate claims as Pope’s. (If not, I fear for the world’s children far more because of such obnoxious idiocy than because of violent videogames.) But the potential usefulness of this in propogating actual, substantiated evidence on the matter is categorically no higher than a single therapist making bold claims based on a single anecdote. What can a parent offer us beyond “My child seems to behave in this way after playing a videogame,” or “I worry about the matter because I care deeply for my children and would hate to see them come to any harm”?
Tangent time. At the end of the Labour Government, it took the absolutely preposterous decision to ban the cathinone class of drugs, making them Class B substances. This decision was made – and worryingly recommended by the Drugs Council, from which the previous and very sensible head “resigned” under apparent Government pressure to make recommendations against the Council’s findings – based on absolutely no evidence of harm. The decision sticks two fingers up in the face of research, as only those with a specially granted license, which will no longer be at all easy to come by, will be permitted to be in posession of any of these drugs in order to conduct any studies into them. The absolutely unquestionable reason for the ban, then? Public concern that these terrible bags of white powder would do awful, hideous things to our children.
The comparison is obviously tenuous, and by no means am I suggesting that I believe mephedrone or any of its analogues are harmless. But I’m going to draw the link anyway, because the reporting and the action taken all went by the same token: uncorroborated anecdotes. “Someone I know.” “I’m worried about my children.” It’s utterly, supremely useless information.
And the problem is that, with any of these concerns that parents completely rightly have about anything which may damage their children’s health, whether physically or psychologically, if you are a parent or carer then you have an intrinsic bond with the life for which you are responsible, and a human instinct to protect them at any cost. I really don’t want to speak out of turn here, because I am not a parent, but I would certainly imagine that if I were I would be enormously more concerned about such issues than I am. But I don’t feel that not being a parent, and therefore not being quite so concerned, should have anything like a negative impact on my ability to assess the situation. On the contrary, I believe this allows me to objectively analyse the available information, with no instinctual desire to protect anybody, and simply form educated views on the necessary action that needs to be taken in order to better understand the issue and, from there, take the appropriate action to most benefit society at large.
I want to stress once again that this post is written with the utmost respect for Daniel’s views. And I want to really highlight the fact that I absolutely believe I would be of his view should I have a child. Right now, however, I don’t. So right now, what I want to see is more people worrying about uncovering the facts, rather than worrying about specific individuals and the possible harms media may have to them, and as such being in a conflicted situation where evidence – quite naturally – may not corroborate with human emotion.
Does that make sense?
I really hope so.
I think this is an absolutely fascintaing discussion. I absolutely do not have all the answers. Above is by no means what I consider to be the “correct” view for everyone to take. But it is mine. I also think it’s incredibly important to talk about this in a sensible and mature manner. It’s a field which is woefully under-explored, despite all the debates. Let’s explore it.