Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Stupid Wagon: All Aboard!

Well, a groundbreaking study about "violent" video games and teenagers has come out. Here's it's stunning conclusion:
Now, a new brain-imaging study from Indiana University—the first of its kind—suggests that playing violent videogames may indeed change the way a person feels and acts. In the study, released Tuesday at the at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, researchers found that teenagers who played a violent video game exhibited increased activity in a part of the brain that governs emotional arousal. The same teens showed decreased activity in the parts of the brain involved in focus, inhibition and concentration.

Wow. That's pretty dramatic for a study that actually contributed absolutely nothing to what we know.

This is just sad, really. Let me walk you through how totally mangled this all has gotten, because the Newsweek article that discusses the study and interviews the study's author is a perfect example of how stupid this debate has become. And just like with Jack Thompson, the way to stop the stupid wagon in its tracks with these people is to be meticulous and accurate.

First off, if you didn't read the article, here's a very important excerpt:
NEWSWEEK: Do you think it could be a permanent change that would last longer than 30 minutes?
Dr. Vincent P. Mathews: We didn’t look at that in this study. We’d like to look at the duration of the effect and potential reversibility.

Oh. So you didn't look at how long this "effect" actually lasts? So how exactly does Newsweek conclude that games "may indeed change the way a person feels and acts"? So is feeling different while you're playing a game actually a problem? Isn't that kind of the point of playing games to start with?

Maybe the connection is here:
NEWSWEEK: Do you think playing violent videogames makes teens more likely to commit violent acts?
Dr. Vincent P. Mathews: That would be the speculation. Our study is looking at brain function. There have been several other psychology studies, dating back to the ‘70s, that have evaluated behavior after exposure to violent media. Adolescents and young adults show increased aggressive behavior.

Oh, so THIS study didn't show any connection, but "other" studies have? Funny, to the best of my knowledge there's no consensus on that. Some studies do show a connection, but others don't.

Well, maybe there's a link here:
NEWSWEEK: Do you think violent TV shows and movies would have the same effect—or is there something unique about the interactive feature of videogames?
Dr. Vincent P. Mathews: ...There may be some differences. It depends on the experience. Maybe it’s easier with a videogame to develop this emotional arousal than with a TV or movie...There was a study published in the past year by John Murray at Kansas State University. He had children watch violent and nonviolent TV shows, and he showed that while watching violent TV there was emotional arousal.

Okay, so again this is someone else's study, and it wasn't violent behavior--it was "emotional arousal."

Let's look at how Dr. Vincent P. Mathews, professor of radiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, conducted this study.
The study randomly assigned 44 physically and psychologically normal 13- to 17-year-old boys and girls (with boys outnumbering girls more than two-to-one) to two groups. One group played a violent war-time videogame for a half hour while the other played a nonviolent, car-chase video game. Researchers then used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the kids’ brains.

44 people? What, were 666 not available? That seems kind of thin in terms of sample size, doesn't it? And they played a game for thirty minutes and conclusions are being drawn?

Hey, wait a minute, Dr. Mathews. Your name sounds familiar. Haven't you ridden the publicity pony before? Here, take a look at this (from 2002):
The brain activity of aggressive adolescents diagnosed with disruptive behavior disorders (DBD) is different from that of other adolescents when both groups viewed violent video games, as demonstrated by the study. Brain function was measured by functional MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans.

"Initial evidence from the study demonstrates that adolescents with disruptive behavior disorders have different frontal lobe activation patterns than teens without the disorder," said principal investigator Vincent P. Mathews, M.D., professor of radiology and chief of neuroradiology at the IU School of Medicine. "In other words, fMRI scans show less brain activity in the frontal lobe while the youths with DBD watch violent video games. The frontal lobe is the area of the brain responsible for decision-making and behavior control, as well as attention and a variety of other cognitive functions."

"This is the first evidence that adolescents with aggressive, disruptive behavior disorders have brain activation patterns that are different from non-aggressive adolescents while watching video games," said William G. Kronenberger, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and a co-investigator on the study.

Disruptive behavior disorders are separated into two behavioral disorders, one characterized by persistent rule breaking and resistance to the limits of authority. The other consists of significant violations of the basic rights of others and includes such actions as destruction of property, theft, truancy, human or animal cruelty and fire-setting. This study does not differentiate between the two.

Wait a minute. So in 2002, you were using fMRI and concluded that teenagers with "disruptive behavior disorder" had different "brain activation patterns" while watching a violent video game than "non-aggressive" teenagers?

Note what Kronenberger, the "co-investigator", seems to be implying. He doesn't seem to have any concern at all for how teenagers without DBD react to violent games or films. It's only the subjects with DBD that are being addressed.

That's without even mentioning that it seems very, very strange to put arsonists and animal abusers into the same group as the kid who gives the finger to the principal.

Wait, there's more:
The researchers also found that among subgroups of the non-aggressive adolescents there were differences in brain function dependent upon the amount of violent media exposure that they reported experiencing on television and in video games during the past year.

"There appears to be a difference in the way the brain responds depending on the amount of past violent media exposure through video games, movies and television," Dr. Mathews explained. "These early findings confirm there is a difference in the brain activation patterns of youths with DBD and those without when exposed to a specific stimulus. There also may be a relationship between violent media exposure and brain activity in normal subjects."

There appears to be? There also may be? These early findings? What happened to the "later" findings? Why don't those seem to be available anywhere?

So this was a big deal in 2002, and it took him four years to perform another study with 44 subjects? And the study consisted of playing a game for half an hour, then having a one-hour MRI? That took four years?

Look, this appears for all the world to be another guy who wants some headlines and wants some "research" funded to reach a pre-determined conclusion. It would have been very easy to have the subjects either come back later in the day for a second MRI (after being instructed not to play video games or watch movies in the meantime), or even come back the next day. Either they did that, and there was zero carryover, or they didn't want to do it because they knew the "effects" don't last.

But that information wouldn't make headlines, would it?

Here's the thing, and I've said it before: one thing that people aren't doing while they're playing video games is committing crimes. They're not punching someone in the face. They're not breaking into someone's house. They're not out driving around town for hours, looking for trouble. People are trying to create this monster in terms of what "violent" video games can do your brain, but the juvenile crime statistics directly contradict what they so desperately want to prove.

I'm not advocating that children should be playing violent video games--I've never said anything even remotely like that. But people trying to turn video games into the Great Satan are discrediting themselves with their methods.

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