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I read an article on the Escapist quoting Fox News about the game Bulletstorm. “‘The increase in rapes can be attributed in large part to the playing out of [sexual] scenes in videogames,” according to psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, MD.

This seems wrong to me on two counts. One, violent crime and rape have been on the decline. Two, there is no study showing any causation between rape and videogaming. Gaming enthusiasts, myself included, took offense and retaliated by giving her books horrid online reviews and emailing her. In another article on Kotaku, she tried to clear up her position “The irony is here are people trying to say video games don’t cause people to be violent, but the ones I’ve seen are very violent. They’re out of control.” She mentions “this has been a particularly violent backlash” but as far as I know only words have been used and opinions expressed. If games teach us to be violent shouldn’t the backlash have been us ambushing her outside her home, rather than harsh words and bad reviews? What do you think about her position on video games causing violence and rape? What do you think about game enthusiasts protesting her comments?

Interesting situation. I don’t know much about Dr. Lieberman, though I looked at her website and read the comments you quoted. It’s very easy to take these things out of context, but I think we can reasonably conclude that she finds this game and others to be repellent. Many colleagues of mine share her view about gaming in general. She’s a media psychiatrist who writes books on splashy, controversial topics and looks for publicity to promote herself. I’m sure all the hostility around her gaming comments will help her sell more books, because, as they say, the only bad publicity is no publicity.

I don’t know much about Bulletstorm myself, but let’s just imagine there was a game with graphic sexual scenes and rape. Of course, any gamer can simply browse the internet to find such content, but for argument’s sake, let’s say the material is integrated into the game for one-stop shopping. Would such a game increase the likelihood that players would actually rape women? To me this is a case of the larger question discussed in an earlier column–do graphically violent video games cause players to be more violent in real life?

I know the gaming community is highly reactive to this issue, and I agree that the research is equivocal to this point. In my earlier column, I cited a meta-analysis that connected violent videogame play to higher levels of aggression Anderson, et.al., Psychological Bulletin, 2010. In spite of these findings, I remain skeptical that violent videogame play, by itself, makes people who are otherwise inclined into criminals and murderers, and I think the same applies to potential rapists. This doesn’t mean that individuals attracted to this sort of behavior due to sociopathy couldn’t use such games to “psych themselves up” before a crime, or that someone on the edge couldn’t be pushed into action from graphically playing out the fantasies through a game. This may well be offset by people whose game play offers a safe way to disperse such fantasies and who might therefore be less likely to hurt others because of gaming.

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I’m not surprised that gamers responded to Dr. Lieberman the way they did. One of the great things about the internet is that people can use it to speak truth to power. I’d like to think she learned a thing or two from the exchange, as I do every time I write a column here and read the reactions. Clearly, angry and disparaging comments do not amount to violence, even if she was frightened by the intense disapprobation. While most gamers are quite capable of angry talk, in my experience, few would resort to action.

Dr. Lieberman isn’t wrong that videogames are incredibly violent. This is often emphasized in public dialogue on the issue because it gets lots of headlines and creates great alarm. However, I believe it’s a red herring to focus on the risk of rape and violence as the primary adverse impact of gaming. It may well divert us from a clear-minded discussion of more widespread problems.

Gaming is attracting vast millions of players and may well have eclipsed other media like TV as the preferred entertainment for many young people. Some of these players spend hours each day playing. I think we would do better to examine the impact of all this on the psychological development and mental health of gamers, especially those who begin playing as young children.

This is a huge worry for parents and educators. I attend regular meetings with both groups, and concerns about the impact of gaming on social development, educational functioning, mood, family life, concentration, and time management, among others are increasing dramatically. Recently, a parent shared a discussion with her child in which she emphasized that videogames are designed by very smart people who know how to get kids interested, totally engrossed, and even addicted to their product because it’s in their interests to do so. She was emphasizing this to help bolster her child against the impulse to play too much at the expense of academics and family time. It’s a different spin on the kind of conversations some parents try to have, and given the propensity of many young people to do just the opposite of what their parents expect, it may not have been terribly effective. Others parents aren’t even having the conversations.

If we can agree that intensive gaming can create or exacerbate mental health problems for some people, then perhaps the industry ought to take a careful look at its products and their impact. Of course it’s about fun and entertainment first, but if the products you make can have adverse effects on intensive users, don’t you have some responsibility? The tobacco and alcohol industries have found the answer to be yes.

Dr. Mark Kline wants to believe it is spring in New England in late February because he can see parts of his crumbling driveway pavement. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to [email protected]. Your identity will remain confidential.

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