So did you see it? On last night's opening episode of Jo Frost: Extreme Parental Guidance (a title that responsibly portrays the delicate practice of family counselling as some sort of dangerous sport), the straight-talking presenter tackled the problem of violent video games.
Together with Dr Doug Gentile she orchestrated an experiment in which 40 boys were asked to play games for 20 minutes – half played a football sim, the other half "a first-person war game". They then had to view some violent news footage. Throughout, each participant had their heart rate monitored. At the end, the figures showed that the boys who played the violent game retained slower heart rates during the news footage.
"Shockingly, just 20 minutes of violent gameplay was enough to densensitise the boys," says the sonorous voice over.
But are we to draw from this that those boys may suffer long-term desensitisation? Frost's melodramatic reaction to the findings, and the lack of any sort of qualifying analysis, would seem to lead us in that direction. But that would of course represent a massive oversimplification, a confusion of short-term physiological and cognitive effects with long-term psychological impact. I'm no neuroscientist, but with the biological stress response recently engaged, surely it's no surprise that in the few minutes after violent gameplay, test subjects react differently to violent stimuli?
So really, what does this all say about the long-term effects of exposure to violent video games? I would suggest very, very little. That's why, there is absolutely no conclusive data in this area, despite dozens of similar research undertakings around the world, and despite Dr Tanya Byron's exhaustive analysis for the government's Digital Britain report.
Late in the same programme, the boys were interviewed by Dr Gentile who, during the course of each chat, knocked a jar full of pencils on to the floor, in order to test the subjects' capacity for empathy. Of those who played the violent game, only 40% helped to pick up the pencils, half the number of the other group. So should we understand that players of violent video games are less empathetic?
Not necessarily. There are many criteria at play here – the unnatural laboratory conditions; the unspoken expectations and subliminal pressure applied (knowingly or otherwise) by an interviewer looking for a certain response; and, of course, the fact that the boys were being filmed in an adult, school-like environment admitting that they enjoyed playing games like Call of Duty – 18-certificate games. Is it possible that the guilt response outplayed empathy for these boys? Furthermore, the programme seemed to be suggesting that it was just the 20 minutes of supervised play that made the boys less empathetic, yet they were clearly being questioned about previous gaming activities, which included violent games. The parameters of the whole experiment were shrouded in hyperbolic drama.
This methodology, and the conclusions reached, will be hugely familiar to anyone who's been following this sort of research over the past 10 years; the results are unsurprising – and utterly inconclusive. Cognitive neuroscience is a complex field; it is perhaps not something to be prodded and poked at during a piece of reality TV voyeurism masquerading as documentary material.
Here are the factors that must always be taken into consideration. Correlation isn't validation. As Henry T Jenkins has pointed out, video game violence could well be a risk factor with anti-social behaviour, but only ever alongside much more immediate and pressing influences – such as, you know, family life. Also, there's the underlying question of causality – do violent games make people violent, or do they attract people with a propensity for violence?
Finally, the underlying statistical nugget that haunts this whole debate: violent video games have been around for 30 years. If just 20 minutes of exposure is enough to turn normal boys into desensitised monsters, our streets should be filled with violence. They're not. Violent crime has plunged during that period. And of the violence that does take place, how much more would be prevented by restrictions in the sale of alcohol rather than of violent games? Police would scoff at the very question.
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