Friday, June 15, 2007

Virtual Anxiety

First of all: There is an awesome post at Zuska's site about how she feels about the responses to her blog, even when the comments aren't flaming or judgmental. It is very eloquent, but sad to read for those of us who greatly enjoy her blog and know that what she is doing is really important.

Second, the topic o' the day: another issue related to the complexities of getting everyone in a research group to play well with others.

Some of my research group members were disturbed to find out that another member spends a lot of time playing computer games that simulate extreme violence. I don't know the details of the games, but I suppose I would be disturbed if the violence were a particular sort -- for example, directed against children, kittens, or physical scientists. Most likely it is a fantasy game involving monsters or whatever.

It's not something I understand; I can't handle watching even low levels of violence in mainstream movies, and this severely limits the number of movies I can watch without closing my eyes. But, although I don't think it is a good thing that the student is so interested in virtual violence, I'd need to know more before deciding that this student has a problem that impacts his work in my group. Those who are upset by his descriptions of how many things he's killed and dismembered have asked him not to tell them about this, and I think that is reasonable.

I once worked with someone who made a point of leaving disturbing images on work computers for me to see, and that was a problem. That's not the case with the current situation.

I think about the issue of computer violence often in the context of my daughter's computer activities. I have talked with her at length about what is OK and not OK in terms of internet use, virtual reality, and so on. I am generally aware of her computer activities, but I don't monitor them extremely closely. Mostly she has been obsessed with Club Penguin this year, and that seems quite harmless even if some (actually: all) of the activities seem bizarre to me. However, an older friend recently introduced her to a new internet game, and I was taken aback when my daughter said, casually "You know that new game that I play where the point is to kill everything in sight?". No, I did not know she was playing a game in which the point was to kill everything in sight. She assured me that she knows that this is just a game and that killing real things is wrong, blah blah blah.

Fortunately, she still seems to prefer the happy little penguins, but I don't suppose that will last, and I don't suppose my student would be interested in switching to Club Penguin. I don't think it is possible to kill the penguins, although the fish don't seem to fare as well.


Aaron said...

Video game violence is a topic of great interest to me, probably primarily because I'm an on-and-off avid gamer and greatly enjoy both violent and non-violent games. And yet, my close friends apparently describe me as an extremely calm and reasonable person, and I dislike horror movies of almost all kinds (I'm particularly sensitive to violence or graphic harm that involves children). Because of my interest in gaming, and the enjoyment I derive from it, I often find myself defending gaming in general, and violence of a wide range of sorts in video games (e.g., cartoon violence is just as intelligible to children as realistic violence), to people who are not gamers, or who have children who are exploring the many options in the gaming world.

My understanding of the interaction between a child's mind and violent media (e.g., games) is that there's not a simple pat explanation for what its impact is. Basically, different kinds of people have different kinds of reactions to their consumption of violent media. For some people, it can actually relax them, serving as a virtual outlet for aggressive feelings, etc. For others, it aggravates their aggressive feelings, making them slightly more aggressive, etc. after. And for still others, there's no discernible effect.

I started playing violent video games when I was fairly young (probably unbeknownst to my parents), and would put myself in the neutral or relaxed category of players. The gentleman in your research group who likes to describe his violent exploits may also be in one of these groups, but also just enjoy sharing his "adventures." He could also be in the other group, which is of slightly greater concern. The social solution that you all have worked out, though, seems like the best one to me, since everyone involved knows where the other people stand.

Two studies on violence in video games that I'd recommend have been written up at Ars Technica; they're here and here.

janarius said...

Games are sometimes graphic and violent, but even violence in gaming has its own limits and taste. Killing children, kittens and such are considered bad taste and fortunately quite rare. Of those that portray such depictions are either made by someone outside the gaming industry or is depicted for satire.

You are right that someone who likes to describe scenes of gore should be more considerate. A gamer would most likely talk on how he does it, much like a football player on how he scored. But in his case, he should learn the deeper meaning of gaming or be more media literate. Or find someone outside that shares his gaming interests (sorry for being so vague, but I can't think of anything else)

My general advice for your daughter is that you should look for the ESRB rating which gives rating on video games that are age appropriate. Although internet games don't get ratings due to practical reasons. If she wants to play that violent game, please play it with her, even though you may not want to, she will need parental guidance and a shared experience to talk about or at least adult guidance.

As for the student, he should seriously grow out of it or expand his worldview of video games than his focus on violence and gore.

Ms.PhD said...

See, I have a totally different take on this. I find most styled video game fighting to be very therapeutic so I view it as a healthy, fun activity for the athletically challenged.

Granted, I dislike games like Doom and find them too realistic/pointless to be fun.

But I will always take the happy geeky gamer over the beer can crushing football players anyday, even if that's the opposite of mainstream USA. I wouldn't worry about it at all unless, as aaron pointed out, this person happens to be of the very rare sort who actually has some kind of mental imbalance.

This coming from someone who would rather actually play the game herself than hear someone talk about it.

caguirre said...

I suggest you read the article by Caitlin Flanagan that appeared in this month's The Atlantic. Apparently she does not consider Club Penguin all that harmless...

Anonymous said...

There is no proof whatsoever of a causal relationship between video game violence and actual violence, in children or adults. Ergo, you should have no more concern than you would over someone who reads Stephen King novels or watches action movies. Video games are simply the new media whipping boy for social evils.

Flicka Mawa said...

Just thought I'd say aaron and Ms phd spoke well for me. I am a gamer as well, and although I'm often kind of averse to games where the point is "to kill things," I do enjoy games with violence in them when it is part of an adventure universe. My husband's brother, however, is more the sort where it calms him because it is an outlet.

Does it bother the students in your group because the enthusiasm or tone of voice makes them think he derives an unsettling amount of pleasure from the violence in the games, or is it more that these students are on principle bothered by violent games and thus are not interested in his recounting of his adventure?

anon said...

I don't think video game violence is a problem for grown people. However, talking to lab mates about video games you play at home and describing them at detail tells me that the person might have a problem with maturity (or they just saw a video game for the first time in their life a week ago).

This is coming from a someone who plays a lot of video games outside of labwork. Lately though, I've been putting aside my ultra violent Grand Theft Auto and Doom titles for RPGs.

You'd think that if a person got to grad school, at least they would know enough about human interactions to not talk nonstop about things that their listeners absolutely not care about. Then again, on second thought...

Anonymous said...

To me, the problem seems to reside in the members of your lab group who are worried about the gamer. Those lab group members seems to be overly judgemental.
I know that in the lab where I was a grad student, talking about gaming was very common. It was also made clear that gaming could never occur on lab computers. Gaming is a great way for me to destress. Even as a PI, I still game at home to unwind.