Playing games with violence

A Pennsylvania commission spreads fallacies about video games

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A Pennsylvania commission’s year-long study into harmful effects of video games failed to find any. Its conclusion: Keep trying to find some.

The “Violence Prevention in Pennsylvania” report by the Joint State Government Commission’s Advisory Committee on Violence Prevention admits that “a direct causal link between violent video games and violent behavior has not been established to date,” but it perpetuates the scapegoating of video games through logical fallacies, guilt by association, inaccurate paraphrases, false equivalencies and the blatant omission of the reasoning of one of its own members.

Here are a few ways the commission failed the people of Pennsylvania:

1) Perpetuating a logical fallacy: The commission claims that “over half of the attackers demonstrated some interest in violence, through movies, video games, books or other media, but no one common type of interest.” Since most of the U.S. population shares that interest, what is the point of that claim, other than guilt by association?

Even commission member Patrick Markey, associate professor of psychology at Villanova University, has previously ridiculed this flawed thinking by saying, “It could similarly be argued that bread consumption predicts school shootings, because most school shooters likely consumed a bread product within 24 hours before their violent attacks.”

The commissioners included some useful, factual comments by Mr. Markey, so why did they choose to omit his rationality on this subject? Why did they choose to perpetuate a logical fallacy instead?

2) Misrepresenting the U.S. Supreme Court: The commission misquotes the U.S. Supreme Court by saying, “The court found that the current state of research on the effects of violent video games on violent behavior cannot distinguish effects produced by other media.” What the Supreme Court actually said was that the effects produced by video games are “both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.”

Notice how the commission left out the essential word “small”? Its garbled version obscures the fact that the Supreme Court pointed out that “the same effects have been found when children watch cartoons starring Bugs Bunny.” Applying the same methodology to other media finds the same effects even from reading the Bible.

3) Selectively omitting essential evidence: The commission notes that “the debate has been replete with charges of bad research techniques, faulty conclusions, misrepresentations of data and politicization of public policy,” but it fails to add that those who keep getting caught with flawed methods are a small group of anti-game researchers.

Just ask the more than 80 prominent scientists and scholars who pointed out the repeated methodological failures of these few anti-game researchers. Or ask the U.S. Supreme Court, which repudiated the anti-game researchers, saying “These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason … most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.”

The commission needs to be honest about how the flawed methods of the anti-game researchers keep getting exposed by large numbers of their peers.

4) Losing the distinction between real violence and imaginary violence: The commissioners warn against “misinformation and fears of the unfamiliar” and the possibility of a “moral panic” even as they fan the flames of a moral panic by falsely equating actual violence with imaginary violence.

The commission wrote, “In contemporary culture, noncriminal violence is not banned. It is regulated. Cruel and unusual punishment is constitutionally prohibited, and convicted criminals have appeal rights before the death penalty can be enforced. Movies and video games are rated, and music is labeled.”

Movies and games are not “noncriminal violence.” They might depict violence, but they are not violence. Executions and cruel punishments are actual violence; movies and games are not. Small children know the difference between reality and make-believe. Why does the commission misinform the public by falsely equating the real and the imaginary?

The net result of the commissioners’ many failures is to spread unreasonable suspicion of video games and to perpetuate the moral panic they warn against.

The commission makes some useful recommendations for curbing violence, such as lifting certain restrictions on the treatment of mental illness, but scapegoating the work of game developers isn’t going to help. Any useful conclusions in the report are marred by a persistent anti-game attitude that is still too common in government and the media.

The commissioners’ charge was “to conduct a thorough and comprehensive analysis.” Because they omitted facts and erred so often on the side of the anti-video game crowd, we reluctantly conclude that they failed at their task when it comes to video games.

The commission owes the people of Pennsylvania an amended report that corrects logical fallacies, removes guilt by association, accurately quotes the Supreme Court and honestly acknowledges that the pro-censorship side has been repeatedly caught with flawed research.

Daniel Greenberg is a video game designer who volunteers as chair of the International Game Developers Association’s Anti-Censorship and Social Issues Committee.

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