These days, almost every topic of debate is an occasion for blinkered tribalism and politicised outrage, but that’s been true for years of one psychological puzzle: do violent video games make people more violent? For cultural conservatives, it’s obvious that they must; for gamers, it’s an article of faith that they don’t.
The research is dizzyingly contradictory. To my mind, the answer is: “Probably, a bit,” though one big study recently found no link between aggression and time spent playing. As Matthew Warren wrote at Research Digest, many studies have been afflicted by what’s called “mischievous reporting”; ask adolescents about their own violent urges and they overstate things for a laugh. It’s a real problem in youth research: in survey after survey, teens claim to be adopted, or transgender, or very short or tall – not because they are, but because they’re teens, and filling out questionnaires is boring unless you make stuff up. In one survey, America’s National Public Radio reports, 253 students claimed to use an artificial limb, but 99% were lying.
The debate highlights another oddity: the unspoken assumption that the only possible reason to object to someone spending hours per day engaged in simulated violence would be the negative knock-on effects. The literature on parenting and the wellbeing of children is pervaded by this idea: that the sole metric for evaluating some parenting technique, or way of spending time as a child, is what it means for one’s future personality. “Helicopter parenting” is bad if it makes for risk-averse grown-ups; daily piano practice from age three is good if it leads to adult virtuosity. The writer Adam Gopnik calls this “the Causal Catastrophe: the belief that the proof of the rightness or wrongness of some way of bringing up children is the kinds of adults it produces”. That sounds sensible, but as Gopnik notes, it’s a terribly incomplete way of looking at life. What about the quality of experience right now? “The reason we don’t want our kids to watch violent movies is not that doing so will turn them into psychos when they grow up,” he writes. “It’s that we don’t want them seeing bloody movies now.”
Maybe spending swathes of your finite lifespan engaged in violent fantasy is just a bad way to spend it, even if it doesn’t make you aggressive. (Whether it’s strategically wise to try to ban your children from doing so is another matter.) If daily piano makes childhood worse, perhaps it’s not worth it. I’m too new a parent for video games to matter yet, but I’ve been shocked at how easy it is to fall into this mindset with a toddler: that the merits of a given playgroup or policy on screen time are all to do with the future, and nothing to do with now. Gopnik quotes Tom Stoppard in The Coast of Utopia: “Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child.”
We’re especially prone to overvaluing the future when it comes to kids, because they have so much ahead of them. But the insight applies to everybody. Judging your experience solely in terms of its future effect is to disregard the present – even though that’s the only time it ever is.
In her book The Importance of Being Little, Erika Christakis argues that our fixation on producing accomplished adults actually undermines children’s in-built capacity to learn.