The assignment seemed almost too simple for a bunch of University of Maryland students. Researchers showed them images from a pair of over-the-top video games, one an "extreme" golf outing with strippers as caddies, the other a blood-and-entrails affair. Then, they were asked if what they had seen could be harmful.
The answer, by and large, was no.
Professor Melanie Killen, flanked by researchers Alaina Brenick, left, and Alexandra Henning, studies stereotypes and images in video games. Killen's study suggests that many young adults are oblivious to games' impact on players.
(Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
A study by Maryland Prof. Melanie Killen suggests that many young adults are oblivious to the impact of raunch and gore rendered in ever-crisper detail by the current crop of video games. And the more hours they play, the less sensitive they are to the potential consequences.
In the busy field of research on the harmful effects of video games, Killen's work breaks new ground by peering inside the heads of the players, asking students what they think about the games, rather than simply observing their behavior after playing.
"The game doesn't make people violent -- it's just a game," said one subject, a 19-year-old woman, in a confidential interview with Killen's research team. "If they're violent, it's something wrong with them."
Killen's study also is unusual in focusing on stereotypes in video games: women as sex toys, men as muscle-bound killing machines. This topic, in her view, has been neglected in previous research because its effects are comparatively subtle.
The study has been presented at three professional conferences and will be submitted for publication this month.
"Stereotyping very easily leads to discrimination and prejudice," Killen said. "So you start thinking of all women as wanting to be strippers, or you start thinking of all men as violent."
Several years of research on video-game violence have documented a link to impulsive behavior, shortened attention span and low-level aggression in general. More frequent play leads to greater problems. Adolescents and young adults are seen as especially vulnerable because they are less likely to recognize the source of these impulses.
Much was made of the fact that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the 1999 Columbine High School shooters, were obsessive players of the video game Doom. But researchers say the more likely consequences are simple acts of delinquency, such as starting a fight, breaking a window or skipping a class.
Killen is studying how young gamers tell right from wrong at a time when the traditional demarcation between good and evil in the games themselves seems to be breaking down. The trend is for the player to be cast as villain. Consider the Grand Theft Auto franchise, which rewards players for stealing cars and running down prostitutes.
"Things that we would never allow on television, and probably not even in the movies, we have them in video games," said Killen, a psychology professor who trained at the University of California at Berkeley and previously taught at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
Killen's research comes at a time when the visceral impact of video games is greater than ever. In past decades, the bullets looked like blips and the blood and guts like something rendered on an Etch A Sketch. Today, the graphics are of nearly photographic quality, said Craig Anderson, an Iowa State University psychology professor who is among the top scholars studying video-game violence.
"Not only are they more technologically sophisticated, they're more personal," Anderson said. "Now you're killing aliens one-on-one, and they bleed, and they explode and their heads explode."