So we’ve all heard all of the typical nonsense trying oh-so-desperately to link violent video game to actual real-life violence. It’s so laughably absurd it’s not worth getting into again (for earlier reference, see: Violent Video Games Linked to…Stupid.) Typically this type of shoddy journalism, and by that I mean complete inability to synthesize information gleaned from a study, is best used to determine whether or not the author has an ax to grind, or you know, has read farther than the first paragraph of a study’s abstract summary. This time, however, the Daily Beast has gone to a whole other level by signing off on this racism angle. But I’ll let them do the honors:
But put down that controller, now there’s something new to wring your hands about. A study out of Ohio State University suggests playing certain games can make you (more) racist.
According to the study, whites who played violent video games with a black avatar were not only generally more aggressive than when they play with a white avatar, but they also came away from the game with negative stereotypes, including the belief that blacks are more violent people.
Well that does sound pretty alarming. I’m sure the study methodology is rock solid. Let’s take a look.
In the experiment, 126 white students (60% males) were asked to play the game Saints Row 2 with a randomly assigned avatar for 20 minutes. The clothing and build were consistent, but the white avatar was given a conservative haircut while the black avatar was given cornrows and an inner city dialect.
Whites who played violent video games with a black avatar were not only generally more aggressive, but they also came away from the game with negative stereotypes
OK, not so much rock solid as rocky. There are several problems with the study. Problem number one is there’s no baseline before the students played the games. In other words how racist were they before they started playing Saints Row 2? Without a baseline reading of how racist the subjects were before playing the game, this study isn’t saying much of anything. Not only hasn’t it proved causation (ie video games make you racist), it’s barely a correlation (ie. people who play video games have higher instances of racism). Not really seeing how this is supposed to transform your average every day citizen to a card-carrying member of the KKK. I wish The Daily Beast and the study stopped there. Unfortunately, they continued:
The researchers then asked each player questions that measured their attitudes about blacks and found the players with black avatars had stronger negative perceptions. For instance, they more often agreed with statements like, ‘‘It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if Blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as Whites.”
At the risk of repeating myself, we still don’t know whether any of the subjects harbored any racial animus before sitting down and playing the game. So any negative perceptions associated with blacks could have extant beforehand. I could create a study that tried to link slowness of sloths to violent video games. But if I never tracked how slow sloths moved before I somehow got them to play videogames, what did I prove exactly? Wouldn’t a simpler solution be that sloths are called that for a reason? This Occam’s Razor type of thinking never seems to occur to the author of this article. That brings us to another issue with the study.
Wouldn’t it have been nice if they tried to control for other types of violent and racist media that the subjects consumed? Chances are if you if you like those types of video games, My Little Pony might not be your most DVR’d television show. Better yet, how much they consumed those sources of media versus the video games they played. I mean if a subject’s favorite news source is the National Review and their favorite movie is Birth of a Nation, playing Saints Row 2 with cornrowed Shaquan as their avatar is the very least of their problems.
Problem number three is the chicken and egg situation that pervades the entire study. Only in this case we know what came first. Racism, much like violence has existed several millennia before the advent of video games; violent or otherwise. So any study that purports to show a causative link between a video games and racism, when racism existed first would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. The thing that these studies, craptacular as they are, can never seem to get around are real world statistics. OK, let’s assume for the moment that video games cause violence and racism. There’s just one small problem, both violence and racism are on the decline. According to FBI stats, pretty much every category of violent crime is on the decline. The murder rate in 2012 was similar to the levels in 1950’s. 2012 would be the year that the best-selling games were titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops, Halo 4 and Assassins Creed. And according to a Harvard and Tufts study, *racism has declined precipitously since the 1950’s. So if video games are the scourge that they’re made out to be, they sure are doing a crappy job at increasing levels of both violence and racism.
Turns out you an learn a lot more from a study’s methodology than its results. Especially when the author of the study has been making a career out of how damaging violent video game are. According to the author, in addition to making you racist, they also make you more violent and decrease self-control. Jesus is there any negative effect in the world that violent video games aren’t responsible for? I fully expect Dr. Bushman here to establish a link between video games and cancer any day now.
So take a flawed study, throw in your typical media sophistication with understanding said study, the author of the article stating that it’s not really about the games, and the co-author of the study saying it’s actually more about media in general perpetuating negative stereotypes about black people, and what to we have? Take it away Daily Beast:
This study seems to be less about games and more about the people who make and play them. The basic idea is that when you have a black man (a stereotyped figure) acting out a stereotypical behavior (jailed, committing violent actions), it reinforces stereotypes in people who already have a proclivity to believe them.
Sweet Fancy Moses! If you’re saying they already had these biases, then the video games can’t be making them racist (as the title blatantly says) because you know…linear time. And since there was never even an attempt to access what racist attitudes they hand beforehand or the extent of said attitudes, you also can’t say that the Saints’ Row 2 made their racist attitudes worse. They aren’t being exposed to the stereotypes in the game. They’re acting out the stereotypes while playing as black characters in the game. And while it’s possible that does reinforce the negative feelings towards black people. That’s still a far cry from the video game making someone racist. Or making someone more racist than they would be in the absence of video games. Of course, the co-author of the study said as much in his conclusion:
“Usually, taking the perspective of a minority person is seen as a good thing, as a way to evoke empathy,” Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University said in the study’s release. “But if white people are fed a media diet that shows blacks as violent, they don’t have a realistic view of black people.”
Or to boil it all down quite incorrectly, as the Daily Beast is prone to do:
In other words, racists: keep playing your games. Just pick the white guy.
*What the study actually showed was that black people see racism against blacks as having diminished and white people seeing racism against blacks as non-existent. In fact the only racism that white people do perceive is reverse racism. But that’s a post for another day.