Monday, May 19, 2008

GTA does not breed violent men or rapists. Period.

Dr. Christopher J. Ferguson of Texas A&M dispels some of the hysteria over “Grand Theft Auto IV.” Much hand-wringing over this phenomenally popular game centers around its purported misogyny. Some critics indiscriminately lump it into a sort of sexism/violence-against-women/porn/rape stew, and at least impliedly suggest that exposing young males to this and similar games is breeding a generation of rapists-in-waiting.

Dr. Ferguson, who actually knows what he's talking about, debunks these myths. His comments about rape are especially illuminating: ". . . pornography is no more linked to rape than violent games are to violent crimes. Researchers have long known that rape rates have gone down in the U.S. as pornography consumption has increased. Rapists typically consume less pornography and are exposed to it later than non-rapist men."

Among other things, Dr. Ferguson notes:

First, violent video games do not cause violent behavior. There are no good data at all to suggest that they do. GTA might be brutal, and perhaps offensive to some, but it is not going to spawn a horde of little would-be murderers. In fact, as the consumption of violent video games in our society has skyrocketed, violent crimes, including those among youths, have plummeted to low levels not seen since the 1960s. We can be sure that violent video games are not sparking a youth violence epidemic because there is no youth violence epidemic.

In my own research, I have found that family violence exposure as a child and the individual’s innate (probably genetic) personality are related to violent criminal behaviors, but that violent video game exposure is not. A recent Secret Service report found that school shooters, far from being soaked in violent video games, had relatively low interest in such games. For example, the recent Virginia Tech shooter was not a violent game player.

Second, equating video games with pornography is a pointless comparison. It ignores that video games have evolved to include distinct artistic elements. GTA has itself been compared to “The Sopranos” in regard to its story line, quality and violent content. If you like (or allow your kids to watch) “The Sopranos,” you’ll probably be content with GTA (likewise if you don’t like one, you may not like the other). For the record, however, pornography is no more linked to rape than violent games are to violent crimes. Researchers have long known that rape rates have gone down in the U.S. as pornography consumption has increased. Rapists typically consume less pornography and are exposed to it later than non-rapist men.

Third, we need to give the current generation of youths more credit. Today’s youths are healthier in most respects than any other group of youths since the 1960s. Today’s youths are less likely to engage in violent crime, use drugs or alcohol, get pregnant, commit suicide or drop out of school than were youths of previous generations. The major health concern for today’s youths is obesity, which is on the rise; otherwise, the youths of today are doing well.

Last, the current hysteria over violent video games is merely part of a long historical pattern of society blaming media for problems real or imagined. Media, from novels to comic books, to music such as jazz, rock and rap, to television and movies to “Harry Potter” and “Dungeons and Dragons” have inflamed public turmoil over behavioral crises that never came to pass. Even translating the Bible into English set off waves of hysteria back in the 1500s. Such moral panics are popular as they deflect blame for our own behavior or the behavior of our children onto “straw men” that we can revile for providing the violent and sexual media that we crave. Ultimately, we have responsibility for ourselves and for our children. If things don’t go the way we want, let us look not to the media but inward, to ourselves.