Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Not Just Not Bad For You

Via Julian Sanchez, it looks like there's not actually much evidence that playing violent video games leads to violent behavior:
According to a new study by a researcher at Texas A&M International University, studies that see a connection between video games and violent behavior usually suffer from shoddy research techniques. Dr. Christopher Ferguson studied the results of a number of recent studies linking violent video games to aggressive behavior with an eye not just to individual results, but also to overall trends in the studies as a whole.

Wait, but I thought we knew that virtual violence made players nastier and more aggressive!
Ferguson found that the connection between violence and gaming had more to do with publication bias than it did with any actual correlation. In other words, journals were more likely to publish studies that supported the hypothesis that playing violent games made a subject more prone to violent behavior.
I, for one, am not surprised, but this did remind me of an article I read a few days ago about the benefits of playing video games:
Playing video games appears to help surgeons with skills that truly count: how well they operate using a precise technique, a study said Monday.

There was a strong correlation between video game skills and a surgeon's capabilities performing laparoscopic surgery in the study published in the February issue of Archives of Surgery.

It supports previous research that video games can improve "fine motor skills, eye-hand coordination, visual attention, depth perception and computer competency," the study said.

The sample size involved was actually pretty small, but I've got first-hand experience using video games to help students with visual processing or sensory-motor skill disorders. It turns out that experts actually recommend video games for those purposes, and I see no obvious reason why similar sorts of benefits wouldn't be seen more generally.

What's more, one of my girlfriend's pet theories is that computer science offers a medium in which one can be a comfortable, confident learner because mistakes are neither embarrassing nor dangerous; you can always just start over if you screw up, and nobody has to be the wiser. Students are therefore more likely to take risks and push the limits of what they know. They can also look forward to immediate feedback, which is definitely gratifying. My girlfriend typically emphasizes those potential benefits of programming, but I see very similar phenomena with even the fairly primitive computer games I give my students to, say, study for geography quizzes.

None of which is to say that kids ought to be playing Grand Theft Auto at school, but I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that 1) it would be nice to see computers better integrated into the school day and 2) that kids deserve leisure time and there are certainly worse, less-productive ways to spend it than on video games. They could be blogging, for instance.


Rebecca C. Brown said...

I've never believed that video games (or TV, or rock 'n' roll music, or Steven Segal movies) are inherently bad for kids, except that instead of playing video games a child would be better off building a mud castle or playing with Legos or spending her time doing something literally productive.

Even if there's no harm, though, I still question their benefit for youngsters without visual processing or motor skills deficits. You say there's no obvious reason the benefits of video games conferred to kids with these skill disorders wouldn't also translate to kids without those disorders, but until I see data otherwise, I'm not buying it. The most substantive argument I can think of to counter your ideas is that techniques used to teach kids with dyslexia don't work on kids without learning disabilities. Those groups' brains function so differently from one another, and I'd expect a similar divide in teaching kids with and without visual processing disorders.

But I'm not a child developmental psychologist. Fortunately, some of my coworkers are! I'll ask them what they think.

If we can use the merits of video games for kids with learning disabilities to justify more funding for in-class computers, though, I'm all for it. There are so many compelling reasons to put computers in the classroom, not the least of which is the need to train the future employees of a tech-based economy. (Yes, I'm a communist.)

Also, and though this isn't where you're going with this at all, I get so angry at people peddling technology that's supposed to make kids "smarter." That just tans my hide. Fucking Baby Einstein crap. There's no evidence that those things work. What a load of poop.

Paul said...

Why isn't the surgeon evidence "evidence otherwise"?

Aaron said...

There was a book that came out a few months ago that basically made this argument, albeit much more generally and less scientifically.

IMO, the correlation between violent video games and real-life violence is about as plausible as western films leading to disrespect of the Constitution.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

The surgeon evidence is only evidence of increasing fine motor skills in people who already display advanced motor skills. It's also a pre-selected sample of people who were knowingly increasing their skills by playing video games. Whether video games would positively affect average 5- to 18-year-olds remains to be tested in a tidy randomized, pre/post, treatment/non-treatment study (unless it has and I'm just missing it).

Anyway, even if video games could grant Bobby Preteen of Anytown, USA surgeon-like motor skills, is it even necessary? If we're going to spend a lot of money on an educational resource, let's spend it on a resource that will address an actual problem. I don't think there's a limited motor skills epidemic sweeping the nation's schools. Why not hire a bunch of consultants to teach kids how to slam dunk a basketball?

I still contend that a video game intervention wouldn't substantially help kids without pre-existing problems with motor skills. It'd be like giving kindergarteners an intensive lesson to teach them basic English; the ELL kids' results would soar while the native English speakers would improve negligably it at all.

Paul said...

Well, yes, obviously the study's not conclusive. But I think it's suggestive and highly plausible.

And I'm not sure I see where you're getting the "knowingly increasing their skills by playing video games" bit. I gathered they surveyed the surgeons about past video game playing habits.

And of course nobody's saying it's a panacea for anything. But surely I can coax out a grudging admission that many players are likely to gain something, no? Note, after all, that your ELL example neglects the fact that surgeons are presumably a group of people more likely to already have fairly strong sensory-motor skills. The point of the study is that they benefit significantly, too.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Self-reported data?! Oh goodness, those are horrendously unreliable! The major problems with self-reported data about prior behavior are that (a) people (even surgeons) have bad memories, and (b) people will unknowingly fabricate memories to match the expected results of the study. In this case, the surgeons with better laparoscopic surgery skills would unconsciously overestimate their video game use because, no matter how abstractly the survey is presented to its subjects, people have a knack for knowing that the researchers are getting at. Even if those self-reported data were completely accurate, the external validity is highly suspect.

(Please pardon me for not reading the whole article about surgeons. I know it's a blogger no-no, but I am pretending to work today.)

It's also plausible, in my ELL example, that above-average native English speakers would get more out of a lesson in basic English because they're generally more perceptive (and might be better students or have more education-oriented parents or whatever) than average native English speakers and might glean details from the lesson that their ho-hum counterparts. But there doesn't seem to be much evidence of this in my experience, so I'll give up on trying to connect it to video games.

Paul said...

Again, not conclusive, not universal, but both highly suggestive and highly plausible.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Whereas I contend that it's not suggestive. We're at an inpasse.

Paul said...

Anti-video game bias, that's what I say!

Paul said...

CBS has a better (i.e., more detailed) article:


So in addition to the histories provided by the subjects, there was also actually a video game skill test during the course of the study, and video game skill correlated strongly with surgery skill.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

You may have won the internal validity battle, but you've lost the external validity war. Or, at least, you haven't won it yet.

P.S. External validity is a study's applicability to situations outside of that study and a study's replicability factor with different subjects in different conditions. You probably all knew that already. But just in case.

Paul said...

Yes, I'm well aware of the distinction. But people find internally valid studies interesting in large part because they're suggestive of wider, external validity.

And I'm perfectly willing to state for the record that I think future research is likely to demonstrate that video games today are underestimated in terms of 1) their benefits to current players and 2) their potential as educational tools. That's a gamble on my part (albeit, one with no substantial risk to me), but it's also supported by the preliminary data and plausible, easily-imagined causal mechanisms.

Just putting it out there, is all.

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Fair enough. I would have also accepted, "Just saying is all," to which there is no credible retort.

Now I know what it feels like to be Tommaso. All this counter-commenting is making my head spin.