In the next issue of Greater Good (Spring 2008), I have an essay on new research into video games. My focus is on the mental and physical health impacts of playing the games, but one of the other things I discovered is that video games continue to be something boys play: today around 80 percent of boys play a game on a typical day compared to 20 percent of girls. (It's worth noting that the number of girls playing the games has skyrocketed in recent years, but a big disparity persists.) And many of those boys are playing games rated M ("Mature") for violence or sexual content.
Why? Boys are generally more attracted to violent play than girls and men are disproportionately responsible for the world's violence, a situation that predates video games and mass media–in his book Children at Play (reviewed in the Fall 2007 issue of Greater Good), historian Howard P. Chudacoff describes antebellum boys repurposing sticks as swords and fighting epic battles with each other.
It's tempting to blame testosterone, as many people do. But the relationship between hormones and behavior is tricky: As neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky points out, a great deal of evidence reveals that behavior drives hormonal changes, rather than the other way around. Biology and environment interact to shape behavior, in ways that are difficult for observers to untangle and which encourage bias. (If a man screws up a math problem, it's because he sucks at math; if a woman flubs it, it's because women suck at math. If a woman is violent, it's because she was mistreated; if a man is violent, it's because he's a man.)
Instead, writes Sapolsky in his essay "The Trouble with Testosterone," it might be more accurate to say that hormones have a "permissive effect"–their presence makes certain behaviors possible, but not inevitable.
This suggests that it might be a good idea for parents to keep their boys away from violent video games–and, as I report in my article, there is a great deal of evidence that playing them can indeed trigger aggression. Researchers recommend unequivocally that boys and girls prone to violence or depression should not have easy access to violent games.
But this raises a new problem: Many boys and men really like playing video games, and violence has nothing to do with it. A new study from the Stanford University School of Medicine had 11 men and 11 women play a nonviolent game–and they found that the men had much more activity in the mesocorticolimbic system, which is involved in feelings of reward and addiction.
In short, the play was pleasurable, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Moreover, other research indicates that playing video games can help sharpen certain kinds of intelligence and has become essential for social networking and prestige among boys. And it is very hard to make credible generalizations about video games, given their diversity. Today's games can be innocent, brutal, complicated, simple, educational, or moronic–sometimes all at the same time.
There is one final complication: Playing violent games–as well as reading or watching stories with violence in them (Romeo and Juliet comes to mind)–can teach kids to deal with violent feelings and instill ethical restraints. Boys playing war don't just learn to kill–they also test out ideas of heroism and cooperation. As researcher Cheryl Olson pointed out to me in an interview, not all imaginary violence is the same. Stories can be crafted to reveal the consequences of violence, foster empathy, and raise questions about alternatives to violence–and indeed, some video games penalize, instead of reward, players for taking digital lives.
As the parent of a son and a former boy myself, that makes sense. Boys (and girls, too, but not as much) will probably fantasize about violence–I murdered thousands of human beings, aliens, and monsters in my childhood games–but this will also make it possible for them to imagine peace. In our imaginary worlds, we invent situations and we test how those situations make us feel. There's nothing wrong with that.