Tag Archives: computer games

On Computer Games

There is a wonderful row that has opened up between Baroness Susan Greenfield, the respected academic and neuroscientist, and other members of the British medical establishment over our old friend, the damaging effects of computer games and social media.

I have a dog in this fight, because the Boy is a near-obsessive computer game player who has been selected by one of the big game producers to test a new, extremely high profile game. Both he and his sister are, like almost all of their age group, heavy users of social media.

Greenfield has suggested, inter alia, that the adolescent brain can be harmed by the above. Social media can affect social interaction, empathy and personal identity. It can also be a trigger for autism or autistic-like traits.

Computer games, used to excess, can lead to a shorter attention span and aggression.

Scientists at University College, London and the University of Oxford have attacked her claims as “not based on a fair scientific appraisal of the evidence” in BMJ, which I take to be what they now call the British Medical Journal. They have called on her to publish them in the appropriate academic media so they can be assessed by a proper peer review process.

Her claims are misleading and not supported by the bulk of the research. They are “potentially stigmatising to people with autism”.

It is hardly appropriate for someone like me to intervene in such a scholarly dispute, except that one of the points the scientists make immediately occurs to me. Autism tends to emerge or be diagnosed at the pre-school stage, before sufferers are exposed to social media.

Plus, we have here what looks like the usual confusion between correlation and causation. Because adolescent A plays violent video games and then commits a violent act, it does not mean one “causes” the other. Unless you can prove that a sufficiently high proportion of offenders play such games as to be statistically relevant, and that non-players have a significantly lower inclination to commit such acts. Which, as far as I know, has never been done.

Both my children seem well balanced, high achievers. Both are doing well academically. Both appear to enjoy social networks that I could not have dreamt of at their age, mainly, I suspect, because of the ease of making contact with the like-minded through social media. Though again, correlation does not mean causation.


On Parental Guidance

A group of head teachers has said that parents who allow their children to play computer games that are deemed inappropriate for their age will be reported to police for neglect and child abuse.

This means that theoretically, I could be separated from my 16 year old son because I choose to treat him like the near-adult he so plainly is. He is old enough to marry, to join the Army and vote in a referendum that decided the fate of his country, had we been living in Scotland.

A turn of Call of Duty, though, and he becomes a potential juvenile delinquent, while we are failed parents.

How on earth did we get here? One of the themes of this blog has always been the number of unelected, often uniformed busybodies who can increasingly determine what we do, what we choose to consume and in which parts of our common space we may congregate.

I have no idea how genuine the latest threat is – it does seem like one of those stories designed purely to provoke a reaction from the Daily Mail. Nor do I expect the Boy to be marched into protective custody at any time soon.

We have always taken a liberal approach to the sort of TV, films, books and games our children are allowed to access. This is partly because we are aware of our relative inability to exercise much control over this. Also, we believe that exposure to more grown-up material is more likely to act as a maturing influence. There are, plainly, no-go areas, but these are ones into which neither of our children seem to want to go.

We have taken a bit of criticism for this, from educators and other parents who take a different view. That is our decision as parents, and ours alone to take. They seem to have turned out well enough. I blench at the sort of carnage the Boy wreaks on demons, zombies and enemy infantrymen on the computer screen, but he has shown no sign so far of repeating it on passers-by.

What we have here, if this absurd restriction on our ability to decide what is best for our own offspring ever takes hold, is another case where the freedoms of the responsible majority must be curtailed because of the behaviour of a feckless minority. Cf sugar and fatty foods, drink, etc, etc.

The only saving grace is that nothing will ever come of it. I assume.

Moral Panics, Causation And Correlation

“One of the most recurrent types of moral panic in Britain since the war has been associated with the emergence of various forms of youth culture whose behaviour is deviant or delinquent.” Stanley Cohen, sociologist, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 1972.

Up to four teenage boys have apparently killed themselves after playing the admittedly violent computer game Call of Duty.

Each death is a tragedy. The game is not rated for players of that age, which means they are not legally allowed to buy it. There is, as far as I know, no law that can forbid them from playing it in their own homes. The usual parties have attempted to whip up the usual moral panic. Our youth is in danger from these vile games, etc, etc. Anders Breivik played Call of Duty. Clearly there is a connection.

On a personal note, the Boy plays Call of Duty. And Grand Theft Auto, Zombie Apocalypse, Beat You Grannie to Death With a Bicycle Chain, Mass Slaughter For Beginners, 101 Awful Thing To Do With Kittens – I made some of those up. You get the picture.

He is, as far as we can tell, perfectly normal and well balanced. Not overly violent – he does not appear to have been in a serious fight at school, that we know of. His school reports suggest he is an engaging, popular, normal teenager. He just likes beating zombies to death with bicycle chains.

Except, not really. Not in real life. Before we get sucked into one of those moral panics and lose all sense of proportion, consider four factors.

One, we have here our old friend, correlation and causation. Just because event B follows event A, it does not mean that A causes B. You have to prove a link before proposing or taking action to break that link. The history of teenagers displaying wildly aberrant social behaviour of whatever kind, who have also played violent computer games, suggests other things badly wrong with their lives as well.

Meanwhile, the majority of teenagers play violent computer games but do not display wildly aberrant social behaviour. Correlation and causation.

Second, I make the choice to allow my son to play games that are deemed by others unsuitable for his age because that is one of the free choices I have as a parent. Our children have also been allowed to watch films and TV programmes that others might regard as unsuitable for their ages – Game of Thrones, for a start, or the Lord of The Rings films before their ages had reached double figures.

We have taken that choice, regarded by many as too liberal, I am sure, after consideration of their characters and how they react to those stimuli. It is our choice, and we retain the right to change our minds if we consider it to be the wrong one in the light of later events. It is called freedom to choose.

Third, this is another example of that tension between allowing freedom for the majority and risking damage to a vulnerable minority. Cf alcohol, porn, junk food and gambling. Generally, I err on the side of individual freedom rather than banning something because that minority might abuse it.

Fourth, these moral panics seem to follow an advance in technology which society has difficulty adjusting to, which suggests there may be plenty more to come. Porn and the Internet, obviously. The arrival of affordably video cassette players and so-called “video nasties”, whereby films that some might disapprove of could be bought for individual consumption rather than accessed only through heavily regulated TV networks.

My only regret is that I sometimes wish he did not spend quite so much time beheading zombies. That is down to my failings as a parent, then, in not having the energy to stop him and make him do something else.