—by Lars Pearson

(This "letter to the editor" examines an Iowa State University study on video games, which received a large amount of headlines and media attention upon its release in 2013. This essay looks at the methodology behind the study and how we should view teenagers and their video game consumption.)

When Indiana University professor Alfred Kinsey researched the prevalence of homosexuality, his study included an abnormally high rate of convicts and male prostitutes, which caused him to declare that 10% of all men were gay. Whatever one’s feelings on gays and gay rights (quick disclosure: I’m for both), we now recognize that Kinsey had some crackpot notions about methodology, and demonstrates the perils of sampling a rarefied group.

Regrettably, the ghost of Kinsey loomed large in a study on video games released in 2013 by Iowa State professors Matt DeLisi, Craig Anderson and Douglas Gentile. In this, a correlation was found between video game consumption and real-life violence among juveniles, but it’s telling that the study-sample consisted of 227 juvenile offenders in Western Pennsylvania who averaged "nearly nine serious acts of violence" each.

Let’s first agree that 227 is a pitifully small number when weighed against the 16.3 million high schoolers tabulated in the 2010 census, let alone all teens and children. As Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2013), small sample sizes can produce extreme and misleading results. Entertainingly, Kahneman notes a study showing that one set of rural Republican counties had the highest kidney cancer rates while another had the lowest, because small sample sizes warped the results. Likewise, Gentile’s sampling of 430 students in a 2012 study isn’t desperately convincing either.

Correlation is not, as it happens, the same as causation. Yes, of course, those 227 offenders probably did experience a lot of violent video games… but millions of teenagers do that repeatedly, with no ill effects. We might similarly imagine those 227 offenders enjoyed wearing Nikes, but nobody would claim that one’s choice of footwear can increase the risk of becoming a psychopath. The one only leads to the other if you hunt for it.

We have a long, sordid history in America of searching for a bogeyman in our entertainment, then blaming our problems on it. In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham (author of Seduction of the Innocent, a book exposed as having laughable methods once Wertham’s papers became public) testified before Congress that comic books were corrupting our youth. The 1980s saw Dungeons and Dragons blamed for a host of evils. Video games and movies became fashionable fall guys in the last decade or two. Since then, DeLisi and company have carved out a nice little niche for themselves as makers of studies on this topic – Anderson has been banging his war drum since at least 1986, seemingly tone-deaf as a massive surge in video game consumption has accompanied juvenile violence plummeting to its lowest levels in about 40 years.

The "bogeyman" approach, if seductive, dangerously distracts us from curtailing the more palpable causes of violence – eyeballing a teenager’s video games with suspicion, after all, is much easier than addressing mental illness, terrible parenting, gun proliferation, etc. And it actively harms perfectly healthy teens who don’t fit conventional molds, but are regarded as the lunatics of tomorrow.

It was revealing, actually, when DeLisi publicly stated: "If you have a kid who is antisocial, who is a little bit vulnerable to influence, giving them something that allows them to escape into themselves for a long period of time isn’t a healthy thing." This is code, ladies and gentlemen, for saying that introverted kids cannot be allowed to be introverted, regardless of how much escapism soothes them from real-world strife.

To better love and nurture our teens, we should stop treating them with such paranoia. Let’s begin by acknowledging the confirmation bias within the ISU study. As Kinsey, Wertham and these ISU professors demonstrate, the words might have changed over the decades, but the song has remained the same.

Lars Pearson is publisher and editor-in-chief of Mad Norwegian Press, a Hugo Award-winning science-fiction publisher based in Des Moines. For three years, he was an editor on industry magazines such as InQuest: The Gaming Magazine and Wizard: The Guide to Comics.

[NOTE: The DeLisi quote is sourced from the ISU press release on the study, http://www.news.iastate.edu/news/2013/03/26/violentvideogames]