Op-Ed

Op-Ed
Gaming in Black and White

Karen Dill | 7 Nov 2006 12:33
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imageDr. Karen Dill received her Ph. D in Social Psychology from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1997. She has published in the areas of stereotyping, prejudice, and human aggression, with an emphasis on video game violence effects and portrayals of sex and race in video games.

She currently serves on the APA's division of media psychology committee on Interactive Media, which is partnering with the ESRB to work on improvements to the video game rating system. Dr. Dill's dissertation, Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors in the Laboratory and in Life, co-authored with her mentor Dr. Craig Anderson, is the single most-cited research paper on video game violence effects. - Ed.

Gaming in Black and White

In the public debate about the effects of negative content in video games (violence, stereotypes...) we seem to be stuck in the tired old habit of playing good guys versus bad guys. Over and over again the conversation is black and white, right and wrong. We pick sides and entrench ourselves, preparing to wage war against the enemy.

On the one side are media experts. You know who we are. We're the finger-wagging grannies who try to save you from yourselves. We have Ph.D's and we're not afraid to use them. Despite our intelligence, education, and years spent in our laboratories, we're hopelessly na? about the "real world."

On the other side is the pro-gaming faction. Gamers play Halo or GTA:SA five hours a day and are not more aggressive because of it. Anyone who says otherwise is a damned idiot who deserves a good smack.

Are people who are interested in video games really these extremist characters - these laughable caricatures? I don't think so. I think it's time we took off our white hats and black hats and admit that we're all complex, real people and that there's plenty of middle ground to stand on, for those of us who are interested.

Let me tell you a story that illustrates my point. I recently returned from participating in the National Summit on Video Games, Youth and Public Policy. I went there to work with people from a variety of backgrounds to have an open discussion about video games, and to work towards something positive. I wish there had been more people there representing diverse viewpoints, but I understand that to many the Summit was seen as a gathering of "enemies." Despite how these issues tend to polarize, what I experienced at the Summit was generally a productive dialogue and a respectful atmosphere. At the Summit, eleven media experts took great pains to carefully craft a statement about violent video games that we all felt was clear and accurate. Unfortunately, in an early draft of a press release, that statement was presented as follows:

Before adjourning, the summit's academic, medical and health experts and organizations agreed to a joint statement regarding the devastating effects of video games on children and youth. The statement read: "Behavioral science research demonstrates that playing violent video games can increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior in children and youth."

The problem with the press release was not the quote, but the word "devastating" that preceded it. Those who had signed on to the statement had not agreed on the characterization "devastating" and I seriously doubt they would have had they been asked. You can see what an opportunity this was to polarize all over again. Media experts appear to be extremists. Gamers can respond with "I told you so," and "we knew they were the enemy." Since then a new press release came out calling the word "devastating" a mistake and removing it, but some damage had been done.

Gamepolitics.com carried an article discussing the "devastating" wording. Another discussion about the Summit, also on gamepolitics.com, carried the following observation about the media experts who attended the Summit: "find someone from the real world, not an ivory tower, to talk about the true effects games have on real life, which - besides a little wasted time - is not much." Other comments characterized the experts as yes men, idiots, and agenda seekers.

It is true that Zeus and the eternal universe have granted me the power to wear a name tag that reads "expert." This does not mean, by the way, that I am not a real person or someone who cannot understand the real world. I am a regular human being. I have a real son and daughter and two real dogs. I like to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 and to sit at my desk laughing at Strongbad and Ask a Ninja. And yes, I have played video games, I have become engrossed in video games, and I allow my son to play video games. (My daughter is only two, so she prefers to stand on the kitchen table, or go through the garbage can in her free time.)

I also happen to be a smart and capable human being who has extensive experience and training understanding human psychology broadly, and the media and social interactions specifically. That knowledge, experience and understanding all tell me that people learn through exposure to media. They can learn positive, negative or neutral lessons, but they do learn lessons from media. Time spent with media is not empty, wasted time, but time that is full of experiences and learning. When a child sees a man in Vice City punch a woman dressed like a hooker, and the woman says "I like it rough," the child learns something from that experience. What he learns, I think, is not likely to make the world a better place.

Because my entire experience in life helps me understand this, do I think video games should be banned? No. Do I think video games and gamers are evil? No. I think no one knows a child like that child's parent, and I think it would be beneficial for parents to sit down with their kids, watch what they watch, play what they play, and open a conversation about it with them. Tell them your values and ask them about theirs. Be part of their world.

I have talked to teen gamers about video games many times. I am writing this editorial in the hopes that gamers will read it. If I really were a "yes man" (or yes woman in my case!) or if I really disrespected the (artificially created) "other side," I wouldn't bother. But I don't think you are the enemy, and I don't think I am either. Let's stop playing this game in black and white. The technology is available for a three-dimensional, multicolored gaming experience, so let's have one!

- Karen E. Dill

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