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What Research Says About Video Games And Violence In Children

Mar 8, 2018
Originally published on March 8, 2018 8:49 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump has held a series of White House meetings on gun violence, and the focus of today's was video games. Lawmakers, parent advocates and people from video game companies were invited to talk with the president. The press was not allowed in. Trump has been focused on this subject for a while now. Here's what he said a couple weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people's thoughts.

SHAPIRO: The central question at the heart of this White House meeting is, does playing violent video games turn people into real-life shooters? Douglas Gentile has researched this issue. He's a psychology professor at Iowa State University. Thanks for joining us.

DOUGLAS GENTILE: My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: If you could just begin with the conclusion of your research - if every violent video game disappeared tomorrow, would there be fewer mass shootings?

GENTILE: We don't know the answer to that, but that's because aggression is actually very complicated. It's multi-causal. No one single thing causes it. And when we've had a school shooting, we usually ask the wrong question. We ask, what was the cause? And then we point around at different things such as mental health or violent video games or poverty or whatever. And none of them is it. What is it is when you put them all together. And so would it reduce the risk - yes. How much - we don't know.

SHAPIRO: So if we take a step back from mass shootings and say how much does playing violent video games increase real-life violence and aggression, do we have a clear answer to that?

GENTILE: We have a clear answer when we're talking about aggression. So aggression is any behavior - that could be a verbal behavior, a physical behavior or a relational behavior - that is intended to harm someone else. So if you give someone the cold shoulder, that is aggressive. But that's different from violence, which is only physical and extreme such that if successful, it would cause severe bodily damage or death. And the research on media violence and aggression seems pretty clear - that the more children consume media violence, whether that's in video games, TV or movies, they do become more willing to behave aggressively when provoked.

SHAPIRO: You sort of conflated video games, TV, movies there. In a video game, you're pretending to be the shooter. You're interacting with a virtual world. TV or movies is much more passive. Is there an important distinction there, or is violence violence in media no matter whether it's interactive or passive?

GENTILE: We used to think that video games would have a much larger effect than passive media like TV or movies. But the research has not seemed to bear that out. It seems to be about the same size effect, which is somewhat surprising because they are active, and you are being rewarded for it. But basically what we're coming down to is learning. We can learn from all of these different ways. And it seems we don't learn particularly differently from video games than from TV or movies.

SHAPIRO: Some people have offered a theory that videogames can be catharsis, and expressing violent impulses in a virtual world helps people not express those in the real world. Has that been disproven?

GENTILE: That has been disproven. So how do you memorize a phone number? You repeat it. Does seeing it one more time take it out of your brain? That would be the catharsis idea, right?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

GENTILE: But, no, each new time you see it burns it in a little deeper. So in fact, there's no possible way that catharsis can happen, at least not nearly the way people like to talk about it.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the premise of this White House meeting is flawed? I mean, should video games be one focus of this debate over gun violence in America?

GENTILE: I do think it's flawed. I think the problem is that we're seeking a simple solution to a complex problem. And I noticed there are no real aggression researchers at this White House meeting. So we're not even getting the real picture. What we're getting is just a very one-sided and very limited look into only one of the risk factors for aggression.

SHAPIRO: Professor Gentile, thanks very much.

GENTILE: My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: Psychology professor Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.