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Games Beyond Entertainment: Dissecting The 'Evidence' Behind California's Game Law

Games Beyond Entertainment: Dissecting The 'Evidence' Behind California's Game Law

May 19, 2011 | By Dennis Scimeca

When California State Senator Leland Yee proposed his law banning the sale of violent video games to minors, he cited considerable scientific research in defense of his proposition that such games do harm to children.

At the Gamasutra-attended Games Beyond Entertainment conference in Boston, Dr. Paul Ballas challenged whether the results of these research studies validate Senator Yee's argument, as well as the legitimacy of these studies as valid scientific data.

Ballas was a signator on one of the amicus briefs filed against the California law, which were cited by the Supreme Court Justices during the oral arguments heard in November of 2010. He's a psychiatrist who practices in Philadelphia, and deals largely with evaluating children for for psychiatric illness.

Ballas does some consulting work for the video game industry, but has no standing financial ties to the industry.

"If California had decided to ban all video games being played or rented by minors, and they just said 'Our voters desire it, this is something we feel strongly about,' I guess maybe I would write a strongly-worded op-ed to the New York Times or the LA Times, and that would be the extent of my involvement," Ballas said. "But they specifically said that they had psychiatric research [to validate the law]. Psychiatry, unfortunately, has a very long history of being co-opted by political forces to further their own end, and I was concerned that this might be a case of that."

"The difficulty when you make a law based on harm, based on research, is that I believe you have the responsibility to prove that that law will alleviate an aforementioned harm," he continued. “For example, cigarettes cause harm, so let's ban kids from smoking cigarettes, and that will reduce the rate of cancer. Something like that sort of research has to occur, or else you don't really know what you're doing, and I have a problem with using science halfway. You have to either use science appropriately, or not at all."

Ballas dissected three primary studies used by Yee to support his law. The first was published in the Journal of Adolescence by D. Gentile in 2004. It was a study of 607 eighth and ninth grade students, with a mean age of 14, who completed anonymous surveys about the types of video games they preferred, how violent the games were (though the survey did not provide any definition of "violent"), how often the students played the games, the students' hostility levels, how often they had argued with teachers during the past year, their average grades, and whether they had been in a physical fight in the past year. This was all self-reported data, with no corroboration at all.

"I've worked with 14-year-olds long enough to know that if you give them a long list of questions, and they're bored, and there's no downside to making up stuff, they'll just make up stuff," Ballas said. “What's fascinating is that there's stuff that [the study authors] could have absolutely double-checked, like grades. But they didn't do that. They didn't send requests for report cards in this study.”

“I have never, in my few years practicing child psychiatry, asked 'How often have you argued with teachers over the past year?'” Ballas said. “First of all, they have no idea. Second of all, it's a meaningless statement, because I have no idea if they have a horrible teacher or not. I have no idea what the circumstances around those arguments are, so I never ask, because it's not a good measure. I've never heard of a researcher using this as a measure for hostility.”

“Kids and adults are also very poor historians about things that take a long period of time,” Ballas said. “They're not very good at saying 'How long did you sleep last night?' or 'How long did you play video games?' or 'How long were you are school?' You'd be amazed at how bad people are at reporting that stuff accurately. It's very well recognized [by researchers].”

The second piece of evidence was a book published by C. Anderson in 2004 called “Violent Video Game Effect.” It was based on a study of 130 college students, all of whom were over 18. Considering this is offered as evidence to prove the harm done to children by violent video games, this study is problematic without proceeding any further with an analysis of its results. It's not about kids.

Ballas also questions the primary data measured in the study. Anderson's book argues that based on an increase in blood pressure after playing violent video games, that they are harmful to children. “Blood pressure goes up when you do lots of different things,” Ballas said. Musicians, for example, often report a rise in blood pressure whenever they perform. “It doesn't mean that they should stop performing, it just means that they were excited to do that activity.”

The third article was published by Jeanne Funk in 2004. It was a study of 150 fourth and fifth grade children that, according to Ballas, did use reasonable measures to study levels of empathy post-exposure to violent video games. The authors stated at the end of the study, however, that the relationships identified between the source of violence exposure and indicators of desensitization did not necessarily translate into causality. The authors further noted that children with lower empathy scores, and pro-violence attitudes, may simply have just been drawn to violent video games. The study also had a small sample size with no control group for pertinent variables like deviant peer influence and family violence.

In his brief, Yee says that science “confirms that violent video games are harmful to minors.” The evidence that Yee presented in defense of his law does not appear convincing when applied to Ballas's criticism, but the question may become academic as the finding of the Court is set to be announced imminently.

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