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Moms Talk: Do Video Games Lead to Real Violence?

This Christmas, games like Halo 4 were among the top requests from teens. But in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, experts and parents alike want to know, 'Do video games really increase real-life violent behavior?'

Last week, kids around the country ripped open their gifts in eager anticipation on Christmas morning. For many, a tiny package with the latest video game inside proved to be the highlight of the day. But in the wake of the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings that shook the nation, many parents were left conflicted about their purchase. Do violent video games, like Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Call of Duty promote real-life violence?

Following the mass shooting, the media immediately targeted video game violence as one possible cause. While it was unknown if Adam Lanza was influenced by video games, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut made this statement to the news: “The violence of the entertainment culture, particularly with the extraordinary realism to video games and movies now, does cause vulnerable young men, particularly, to be more violent.”

The video game industry is now worth several billion dollars, and that number is only expected to rise in the next decade. Sixty-five percent of American households play computer or video games, and 190 million Americans have some sort of next-generation game console in their home. What began as a chubby little guy hopping over mushrooms in the first Mario Brothers game years ago has transformed into alarmingly realistic and sometimes violent video games played by kids, teens and adults alike. But are these games really the cause of violent acts like Lanza committed, or are we shifting the blame in the wrong direction?

The benefits and downfalls of video games, particularly violent ones, have been a hot topic of debate for the past few years. Experts have weighed in on the issue, and many of them disagree. Paul Gee, author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy: Second Edition, says in his book, “None of the current research even remotely suggests video games lead to real-life violence in any predictable way. There has been a pronounced decrease in violent crime since the earlier 1990s, the very time when violent video games were introduced, like Mortal Kombat.”

Chris Ferguson, department chair of psychology and communications at Texas A&M International University, has conducted several studies on violence and its effects on youth and has concluded that video games do not lead to violence.

“If we are serious about reducing these types of violence in our society, video game violence or other media violence issues are clearly the wrong direction to focus on," Ferguson said. "Video game use is not a common factor among mass homicide perpetrators. Some have been players, some have not been.”

Douglas Gentile, psychology professor at Iowa State University, agrees. “Aggression is multi-causal,” he explained. “There are over 100 known risk factors for aggression; media violence is just one of them—not the biggest, but not the smallest … thankfully, most of our children have a great many protective factors, can consume a lot of violent video games and still never do anything violent.”

But other experts disagree and say glorifying violence is never OK, even in a game. Laura Davies, M.D. and child psychologist in San Francisco, said, “A huge part of discipline and development is understanding consequences, letting kids know that their actions have consequences. Video games like Grand Theft Auto turn the consequences into positives. You kill a prostitute, you’re rewarded.”

TV host Dr. Phil McGraw is on the same page as Davies. “Kids may not go out and shoot someone, but they do use more aggressive language, they do use more aggressive images, and they have less ability to control their anger and externalize things in these violent ways,” he said of violent video games, adding, “It’s absolutely not good.”

A blogger who is an avid video game fan, chimed in on the connection with Sandy Hook: “I don’t know what caused this tragedy, but blaming video games is complete B.S. I used to play Mortal Kombat for 18 hours a day and I’ve never ripped out someone’s spine in real life. I loved Oregon Trail, and I’m yet to have one person in my family die of dysentery.” While he may be speaking slightly facetiously, he makes his point clear: Hours of video game playing did not lead him to act out violently in real life.

Obviously, the Sandy Hook shooting is no laughing matter. The nation wants answers, and we want them now. In the wake of this tragedy, we can’t help but remember Anders Breivik, the Norwegian young man who killed 77 people in another mass shooting. He claimed that he had played Call of Duty to train himself for his bloody and horrendous operation. Some experts use this example to further their case that video games do increase violence. But others say the man was already troubled, and that the video game itself did not lead him to do what he did.

And this seems to be the across-the-board conclusion after years of research: A pre-disposition to violent behavior and a violent home life are much more likely to lead to violent behavior, not video games. However, many studies have pointed out that playing hours of video games, violent or not, does increase stimulation temporarily. Just as watching a suspenseful action movie can cause a rise in adrenaline, so can playing video games. Participants may become momentarily aggressive or excited as they engage in the game, but after they are done, nearly all of them are able to go on with their daily lives.

What experts can agree on is that too much of anything is usually not a good thing, and that playing video games rather than engaging with others in real life or being active outside, can be detrimental. They almost all unanimously agree that parents should absolutely have the final say when it comes to these games and use their discretion; the ratings are there for a reason.

As for my own household, my older two boys have played Call of Duty for several years. Both maintain healthy lives outside of playing video games and have never engaged in violent behavior. Many of my (conservative, church going!) friends allow their teens to play these games as well. I’ve been at more than one dinner function when fathers and sons engaged in these games together as the women sat in the kitchen. From the sound of things in the other room, you would have thought a riot was going on in there. But when the game was done, they all sauntered in the kitchen, grabbed a brownie and were back to joking around.

Whenever a tragedy occurs, it’s natural to want to place blame for these sorts of things. Nothing can be taken too lightly; everything must be investigated. Having answers helps us grieve, take action and know what to do and what not to do to prevent these horrific things from happening again. When violence rose decades ago, the media blamed comic books. And when Harry Potter first came out, we blamed him too. Now we blame gun ownership. And the list goes on. But I believe there is always something greater going on, that none of these things are the real problem.

Where do you stand on virtual violence and its connection to the real thing? Are your kids playingHalo 4 or Call of Duty and inching closer to becoming A monster, or is it hogwash? We want to hear from you!

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