Seemingly settled video-game debate reopened

Thursday, March 8, 2018

NEW YORK -- In the wake of the Florida school shooting, President Donald Trump is reviving an old debate over whether violent video games can trigger violent behavior. There's just one problem: Roughly two decades of research has repeatedly failed to uncover any such link.

Trump plans to meet today with representatives from the video game industry. Trump's recent public comments referencing the "vicious" level of game and movie violence in the context of school safety show he is eager to explore the issue.

The Entertainment Software Association, the biggest video game trade group, said Monday it will attend the meeting at the White House. A full list of attendees hasn't been released. Here's a look at the issues the meeting may address.

What does the research show?

Some studies have shown a connection between gaming and emotional arousal, although there's no evidence this heightened emotional state leads to physical violence.

In 2006, a small study by Indiana University found teenagers who played violent video games showed higher levels of emotional arousal, but less activity in the parts of the brain associated with the ability to plan, control and direct thoughts and behavior.

The study assigned 44 adolescents to play either a violent or nonviolent but "equally fun and exciting" video game for half an hour. Researchers measured their brain function immediately after playing. The group playing the nonviolent game showed more activity in the prefrontal parts of the brain, which are involved in inhibition, concentration and self-control. They also showed less activity in the area involved in emotional arousal.

But if those changes have any impact on real-world behavior, researchers haven't yet detected it.

Patrick Markey, a psychology professor at Villanova University who focuses on video games, found in his research men who commit severe acts of violence actually play violent video games less than the average male. About 20 percent were interested in violent video games, compared with 70 percent of the general population, he explained in his 2017 book "Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games Is Wrong."

Another study by Markey and his colleagues showed violence tends to dip when a new violent movie or video game comes out, possibility because people are at home playing the game or in theaters watching the movie.

"Everything kind of suggests no link, or if anything, it goes in the opposite direction," Markey said in an interview.

Has the White House addressed this before?

In 2013, after the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, Vice President Joe Biden held three days of wide-ranging talks on gun violence prevention including a meeting with video game industry executives. At the meeting, the Entertainment Software Association gave a statement similar to the one it issued on Monday.

"Like all Americans, we are deeply concerned about the level of gun violence in the United States," the organization said Monday. "Video games are plainly not the issue: entertainment is distributed and consumed globally, but the U.S. has an exponentially higher level of gun violence than any other nation."

After the 2013 meetings wrapped, the White House called on research on the effect of media and video games on gun violence, but nothing substantial came out of the effort.

In 2011, the Supreme Court rejected a California law banning the sale of violent video games to children. The decision claimed video games, like other media, are protected by the First Amendment.

In the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the government can't regulate depictions of violence, which he said were age-old, anyway: "Grimm's Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed."

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