The Anatomy of a Videogame-Scare Story

How weak correlations and scant research were spun up into an argument about how videogames and porn are leading to "the demise of guys."

People playing the game Overkill (Reuters).

If the name Philip Zimbardo rings a bell, you may have read about the famous study he ran called the Stanford Prison Experiment -- a groundbreaking study that showed how assuming a given role could change people's behavior toward others based on the power relationship they shared with them.

Forty-one years later, the former Stanford professor has co-authored an essay arguing that video games and pornography are to blame for what he calls "the demise of guys." The op-ed stokes fears of a testosterone-fueled implosion among young men -- the kind of apocalyptic emergency that threatens the country's future if society doesn't act right now.

The gist of the piece is this: violent and sexualized digital media are addictive. Consuming too much of it, as young Americans are doing, risks turning them into vegetables incapable of negotiating the real world. From this, we can conclude that an entire cohort is slipping down the drain as we speak.

The problem is that the assertions outstrip the evidence and research. The framing and argument are flawed from start to finish. Here, we break those problems down in detail.

Zimbardo and his co-author open with a rhetorical question:

Is the overuse of video games and pervasiveness of online porn causing the demise of guys?

As a psychologist, Zimbardo ought to know better than to prime his readers to accept an affirmative answer in the first sentence without being shown any evidence.

He continues:

Increasingly, researchers say yes, as young men become hooked on arousal, sacrificing their schoolwork and relationships in the pursuit of getting a tech-based buzz.

Curious. Perhaps the research is coming, you think. Wrong. The first study isn't mentioned for another seven paragraphs. When Zimbardo does bring it up, it turns out the experiment was carried out in 1954, was performed on rats, and merely proved the existence of the brain's pleasure center (a major discovery at the time, but hardly the resounding proof that Zimbardo needs for his human addiction thesis).

This isn't to say that video game addiction isn't real. It is, and people who suffer from it don't have it easy. There's also been a great deal of research on compulsive video game usage. But remember that Zimbardo is making a much broader claim about precipitous societal decline, as explained by a very specific type of behavioral disorder. More on that later.

Moving on:

Stories about this degeneration are rampant.

Zimbardo shouldn't have to be reminded that the plural of anecdote is not data. But suppose we give him the benefit of the doubt. What stories will he cite as evidence for his argument about societal erosion?

In 2005, Seungseob Lee, a South Korean man, went into cardiac arrest after playing "StarCraft" for nearly 50 continuous hours. In 2009, MTV's "True Life" highlighted the story of a man named Adam whose wife kicked him out of their home -- they have four kids together -- because he couldn't stop watching porn.

Norwegian mass murder suspect Anders Behring Breivik reported during his trial that he prepared his mind and body for his marksman-focused shooting of 77 people by playing "World of Warcraft" for a year and then "Call of Duty" for 16 hours a day.

A Korean binge-gamer, a reality TV star, and an unapologetic killer. That's three very unusual people out of billions of gamers worldwide. In South Korea alone, there are at least 4.5 million people playing StarCraft, and 9 million players worldwide. The average Call of Duty gamer spends 58 minutes a day playing the military shooter. That's less time than many Americans spend commuting -- certainly less time than many other developed countries spend going to work. The cases that Zimbardo is relying on to illustrate male decline are incredibly extreme -- individuals who live in unique circumstances at the margins of society. Indeed, it was their extraordinary nature that drew media attention in the first place.

Zimbardo moves on to the study about pleasure centers:

Even when given the option to eat when hungry or to stimulate the pleasure center, the rats chose the stimulation until they were physically exhausted and on the brink of death.

But then he jumps immediately to an indictment of human addiction in the very next sentence:

This new kind of human addictive arousal traps users into an expanded present hedonistic time zone.

Was an extra paragraph accidentally edited out? Zimbardo offers no explanation for the supposed link between video games (or pornography) and addiction, much less the leap from rats to humans -- an important point when you're trying to link video games to addiction to humans to human decline. Next paragraph:

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that "regular porn users are more likely to report depression and poor physical health than nonusers are. ... The reason is that porn may start a cycle of isolation. ... Porn may become a substitute for healthy face-to-face interactions, social or sexual."

At last, a promising source. Zimbardo's citing a 2011 paper from a government outlet. But much like a recent study that links heavy Internet users to depression, there's a lot to be suspicious about here. For one thing, it's an associative conclusion, and the researchers don't claim to make a causal inference. They tentatively hypothesize that porn draws people away from society.

That might be more convincing if society weren't actually made up of people. It turns out that lots and lots of people watch porn. In 2006, pornography was a $97 billion industry worldwide -- "more than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple, and Netflix combined."

If pornography actually made people withdraw from society, we should all be living in anarchy right now. The whole argument smacks of the equally silly myths behind masturbation.

Zimbardo then comments on the link between video games and aggression:

Yet research reported in the Annual Review of Public Health suggests a link between violent video games and real-life aggression: Given the opportunity, both adults and children were more aggressive after playing violent games.

Yes, playing video games gets your testosterone going. But so does going to a football game or being stuck in traffic or riding a bike really fast. More apropos: How about going to an action thriller or watching a show about cops?

Young men -- who play video games and use porn the most -- are being digitally rewired in a totally new way that demands constant stimulation. And those delicate, developing brains are being catered to by video games and porn-on-demand, with a click of the mouse, in endless variety.

Again, this is no different from many other activities that re-shape the brain in specific ways. The only difference is the addiction factor -- and even then, the vast majority of gamers and porn watchers seem to be handling the pastimes without going berzerk.

Such new brains are also totally out of sync in traditional school classes, which are analog, static and interactively passive.

This is a strong argument but not against videogames. Time and again, research shows that active learning is superior to sitting in a lecture hall and being droned at for three hours. The rise of tablet computers and digital connectivity is enhancing rather than degrading what's possible in the classroom. If classrooms are analog and static while kids learn better with interactive tools, that says a lot more about the classrooms' problem than about the children.

Guys are also totally out of sync in romantic relationships, which tend to build gradually and subtly, and require interaction, sharing, developing trust and suppression of lust at least until "the time is right."

Guys may be out of sync in relationships, but relationships are complex. It's impossible to single out a particular variable and conclude that this thing must be to blame in any one relationship, let alone for an entire country's relationship patterns. More convincing arguments for relationship dysfunction -- again, at the societal level -- would be evolving trends in labor, gender roles, economics, education, and so forth. Video games and porn? That's small potatoes by comparison.

Zimbardo closes by repeating his warning:

But we are in a national, and perhaps global, Guy Disaster Mode that needs to be noticed and solutions advanced to fix a totally novel phenomenon.

Zimbardo overstates both the novelty and the gravity of the problem. Pornography is a very old art. So is addiction. Video games are somewhat newer, but still date back decades. Given how long these things have been around, you might wonder why we aren't all back to living in caves already.

Two closing thoughts of my own: first, although video game and pornographic addiction is real, these behavioral disorders are much like many others if we define "addiction" to mean unhealthy engagement with a substance or activity to the extent that it interferes with daily life. It's therefore just as outrageous to cry "societal decline!" based solely on an argument about these products as it would be to claim that cigarettes and alcohol were tearing the country's fabric apart. At extreme levels, video games and porn can be very harmful. In moderation, they're relatively uncontroversial -- and that's just common sense.

Lastly, if video games are so harmful, we might expect the same society-destroying effects to be taking place among women. After all, 40 percent of video game players are women. Of the gaming population, adult female gamers far outnumber youth male gamers, 33 percent to 20 percent. If videogames are such a scourge upon the brain, shouldn't we look at both genders?