Headline-hungry Keith Vaz grabs the spotlight with some ill-informed nonsense about video games

This is to blame for all war
This is to blame for all war

Has Keith Vaz ever read a book? If he has, then I call for all books to be banned. Especially books with annoying bits in. Because, assuming that he has read a book (a reasonable but by no means concrete assumption) then we have at least one data point for a correlation between book-reading and being incredibly annoying.

I should explain. The MP for Leicester East and self-satisfied chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee has decided to grab himself some easy headlines – a favourite trick of his – by calling for “closer scrutiny of aggressive first-person shooter video games”. (Only first-person, mind: third-person over-the-shoulder shooters like Space Marine or Gears of War are fine.) He did it in an Early Day Motion, after it was revealed that Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian neo-Nazi killer, said that he used it for “training” ahead of his shooting spree on Utoya island. He previously tried to blame the Malmo shootings on Counter-Strike.

All this reveals, once again, is how woefully ignorant (or wilfully disregarding) of evidence, and even basic reasoning, our political discourse is. My toddler colleague Dan Knowles has been going on about it with regards to the Government’s economic policies for the last couple of days. But it’s equally if not more visible on hot-button moral-panic topics like drugs, or, of course, violence in video games.

I don’t want to state baldly that there is no link between violent computer games and aggressive behaviour.  A 2001 meta-analysis in the journal Psychological Science found that “exposure to violent video games increases physiological arousal and aggression-related thoughts and feelings [and] decreases prosocial behavior”, although more recent studies say otherwise. One, a 2010 meta-analysis in the Review of General Psychology, said that “the negative effects of violent games have been exaggerated by some elements of the scientific community, fitting with past cycles of media-focused moral panics”, and the positive effects, such as improved spacial awareness and social networking, have been ignored. Another, from 2007, found that the old scientific bugbear of publication bias – a tendency not to publish the studies which didn’t find what you were looking for – may have been behind the earlier links. “Once corrected for publication bias, studies of video game violence provided no support for the hypothesis that violent video game playing is associated with higher aggression,” it said. But I may be too eagerly looking for the studies that support my own beliefs, in classic confirmation-bias style, so I’ll just say that there may be a link, although if it’s this controversial and hard to pin down then it’s probably small.

My trouble is, actually, not so much with Vaz. He’s a symptom, a smug, publicity-seeking, irksome little symptom, of a wider problem. The gaming site Gamasutra captures it quite neatly, saying: “No one at any major news outlet understands the third-variable problem”. To that we might add: no one in a position of political power understands, or is willing to demonstrate understanding of, the third-variable problem. Gamasutra’s example is of ice cream sales and deaths by drowning. If you plot incidence of the two on a graph, you’ll notice they go up and down together fairly closely. So clearly ice cream causes drowning. Unless witnessing a drowning makes people more likely to buy ice cream? Um.

Obviously what’s actually going on is that in sunny weather, more people buy ice cream, and more people go swimming. More people going swimming means more people drowning. The two variables, ice-cream sales and deaths by drowning, go up and down not because they’re related to each other, but because they’re related to a third variable, warm weather.

But people like Keith Vaz, and various other hyperventilating commentators, don’t think in these terms. They see anecdotes like Breivik playing Call of Duty, or Peter Mangs and Counter-Strike, or the Columbine killers and Doom, and they think (or say, at least): they played the games, then they shot the kids; therefore, they shot the kids because of the games. This is even before we get to the data: are spree-killers actually any more likely to have played violent computer games than the rest of us? I don’t know. But if they are, then it’s easy to point to possible third variables. Most obviously, maybe people who enjoy real-life violence are also more likely to enjoy simulations of it.

Last week saw the release of The Geek Manifesto, by The Times’s former science editor Mark Henderson. It’s about why we need more geeks in public life: how our legal-and-humanities-degrees-dominated political discourse is devastating for policy. Debates over things like the MMR vaccine and GM foods are dominated not by informed discussion but fearmongering, based not on data but prejudice or panic. The same with the debate on drugs – in 2009, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, David Nutt, was sacked for saying something straightforwardly true, that the drug ecstasy is less dangerous than horse-riding. To Mark’s excellent list of topics that need the calming voice of the nation’s geeks – I’ve just got the book, and plan to write more about it when I have a chance to do more than skim it – I would like to add video games. Whatever the reality of the link between video games and violence, more the shrill-voiced legions of Keith Vazes get to set the agenda, the less likely we are to end making the right decision about what to do about it.

• Further reading: Vaughan Bell’s fascinating Slate article, “Don’t touch that dial: a history of media technology scares


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