This research shows that profanity is not harmless. Children exposed to profanity in the media think that such language is ‘normal,’ which may reduce their inhibitions about using profanity themselves. And children who use profanity are more likely to aggress against others.
–Brad Bushman (2011) in a Brigham Young University Press Release.
Exposure to profanity in videogames and on TV appears to affect how teens view and use profanity, and makes them more aggressive. These are the key results of a paper by Sarah Coyne (Coyne et al., 2011). The full article is available online, but is summarized here.
While the first part, at least, of this result might seem obvious — that seeing profanity desensitizes, familiarizes, and leads to increased use — it’s nice to have some scientific corroboration.
The more disturbing result, perhaps, is the link between profanity and aggression. It’s a moderate effect, but the link appears similar to the connection between war games and aggression.
Profanity is kind of like a stepping stone. You don’t go to a movie, hear a bad word, and then go shoot somebody. But when youth both hear and then try profanity out for themselves it can start a downward slide toward more aggressive behavior.
— Sarah Coyne (2011) in a Brigham Young University Press Release.
The SimCity game is a wonderful model for urban planning. My class is using it to try to tie together the lessons on the Needs of People and the Themes of Geography.
I gave the small groups the game, two hours, and required them to take notes on why they made the choices they made.
SimCity regional view.
What we did
The game starts at the Region view, where you choose the location of the city. I was enthused to see the groups almost instinctively go for a location with good access to water. Of course almost all the places you can found a city are on a river or ocean, but more than one student specifically mentioned the water access as a reason for their choice.
To have them better think about the region, I also asked the students to think about, and report, on where in the world they thought their city might be, based on the topography and the vegetation. Most proposed the eastern U.S. seaboard.
After choosing a location the students could “terraform” it by raising mountains, making valleys, sculpting beaches and more. Some groups needed to be chivvied to move on, after all, they only had one two hour session to complete the assignment.
Then they got into the heart of the game, Mayor Mode (the terraforming session is called “God Mode”). The urban planning model is based on the land-use zoning strategy used by many, but by no means not all, U.S. cities. You have to mark cells on the city’s grid for residential, commercial or industrial/agricultural use. Then, if you’ve provided utilities and a transportation system “developers” will autonomously start to build houses, businesses and industry in these zones.
The great city of Da Hood. Note the different areas for urban, commercial and industrial development, and the seaport on the river.
Playing on “Easy”, the mayoral advisers would regularly pop up to suggest new amenities, like schools, police stations and parks that would attract more people to the city.
And students had to make choices. One of the first, for example, was about what type of power to provide their city. Coal plants are cheap but dirty, while windmills produce a lot less power so you have to build a lot of them.
A Little Discussion
The game worked remarkably well as part of the curriculum. SimCity is a potentially addictive game, the plea, “I really need to stop,” was heard repeatedly as I was trying to get the last group to come to our discussion. Yet, two hours was enough for students to get the gist of the game and think about its implications for geography. The final cities were not perfect (at least one was designed to be dysfunctional) and most of them were running a serious deficit, but when it came time to present, students were able to flesh out our information on the lessons quite nicely.
The game is also easy enough. The game’s internal model is quite sophisticated, but there’s enough in-game advice, that it took just some initial guidance about the basic premise of zoning, for students unfamiliar with the game to play it effectively. Some students were better prepared at the start than others. Some had played similar games in the past and one student had even read the instruction booklet that came with the game CD, but they were all able to get cities up and running in the allotted time.
We’re a Mac school, but SimCity does not have a version that works with modern macs, so I had to use my old laptop that has Windows. That computer is a Mac that it uses Boot Camp to boot to Windows, and, perhaps for this reason, the first group that tried to use it had it crash on them a few times at the beginning of their game. They gave up and created their city in our sandbox, which turned out great in the end because it gave them more flexibility in the structures they could create and some interesting differences in perspectives from the game based presentations. I’ll post more about that later.
I like the game because it lets the students provide the infrastructure while the game engine/model tests the infrastructure to see it if works and “predicts” development and population. The Needs of People and Themes of Geography contexts were useful ways of getting students into the game but struggling to get the city to work helped fill in a lot of things that students had not thought of previously.
One of those things was people’s need for safety. In our post-game discussion, safety from crime and from nature came up as additional needs of people we had not discussed. Successful cities in the game need police stations, and students had apparently been thinking hard about the array of natural disasters they could rain down on their cities when the assignment was over.
The Taj Mahal, soccer fields and a skate-park (of which some of us were inordinately proud) met the needs of citizens for recreation and understanding.
Finally, students presented their cities while Ms. Ann DeVore from the Deargorn Heights Montessori Center was observing the classroom. Ann is an enthusiastic user of SimCity. Her middle school uses it the initial part of the Future City competition, which is something I’d very much like to get my group involved in as soon as I can wrangle some technical advisers.
So now I want to use video games in the classroom. My head of school is politely opposed. I argued it would be useful for integrating our work on the themes of geography and needs of people. She allowed me to pick up a copy of SimCity if I could come up with some sort of evidence that it actually works. Quantitative evidence. You’ll be hearing more about that in a later post.
However, while I was shopping I also picked up a cheap copy of Civilization IV because while it also goes into city building, it does so from a more regional perspective. I’d played older versions of the Civilization games before (a long time ago in a galaxy far away) so I was somewhat favorably familiar with how it works.
Unfortunately, the fourth version is too sophisticated. There are so many variables to deal with that it would be difficult to use on the relatively short time-scale that I want students to spend on this. Whereas before, founding a city on a river gave very obvious benefits (a bonus in the productivity of the land around the river), there are so many different types of land surfaces and changes that can be done to them that the advantages of the river, while still there are much less obvious.
On the plus side, if students find the game enjoyable, succeeding will take a lot of historical research and understanding the geography of cities. It would also take a lot of time, not necessarily wasted time, but a lot of time nonetheless.
During our last immersion, one of my students brought in the computer game, Spore. Although the game subtly indicates that it’s your progeny that gains evolutionary advances, the fact that you get to choose what you want (extra horns, poison sacks), and the fact that you can see yourself (or do I mean your creature) evolve on the screen, really smacks of Lamarckism. While it’s appealing to think, like Lamark, that you can pass on traits gained during your lifetime to your kids, despite some fascinating new research, that’s just not how evolution works.
Evolution is not directed by the organism but by their environment. In a population of organisms of any particular species there is going to be some variability due to simple, random genetic mutation. Some lucky members of the species might have a mutation that makes their muscles better at burning oxygen during sprints, making them able to run faster to get away from the lions. So they survive and pass their genes on, with their genetic mutation. Of course, if lions become extinct (disease maybe) then this trait may no longer be beneficial and something else, like maybe intelligence, would be selected for.
The game can capture your interest, however, so I’ve asked the student who brought in the game to come up with a presentation explaining why it would be useful to have the game in the classroom. I am, after all, not instinctively opposed to using computer games in class. I’m really curious to see what this game looks like from the student’s point of view.
I tend to like violent games, the same reason that I’ve worked as a war correspondent, the same reason I wrote a book about a war. I’m interested in violence.
That said, there are some games that have interesting stuff to say about violence and some games that just treat it mindlessly. And, you know both can be fun. But the ones that really affect me are the ones that actually try to address the subject. – Tom Bissell on On The Media.
In particular, he highlights “Far Cry 2”:
There’s a game called Far Cry 2 that takes place in a contemporary African civil war. It’s extremely beautiful.
And yet, it is just the most unrelentingly savage game I think I’ve ever played.
Most games that are violent give you the gun, push you in the direction of the bad guys and say hey, go kill all those guys, they’re bad. You’ll be rewarded. Good job.
Far Cry 2 does something really confounding. Going through the game, quote, “getting better at killing,” the game kind of introduces slowly that you’re actually not helping things, that, in fact, you’re kind of the problem.
Everything you’re doing is just making this conflict worse. So by the end of the game you’re just a wreck. You’re progressing through the game because that’s what the game’s asked you to do, but it’s also throwing all of this stuff back at you that’s actually shaming you a little bit for being participant in this virtual slaughter. And I love that about it. – Tom Bissell on On The Media.
Is he reading too much into violent video games trying to justify his own habits? Perhaps, but he does have a point.
When my students were telling me about Call Of Duty:Modern Warfare 2, one of the first things we talked about was the infamous airport mission. The player is an undercover agent with a terrorist organization and has to participate in shooting civilians in an attack on an airport. Jesse Stern, the scriptwriter for the video game says the mission was intended to be provocative:
People want to know. As terrifying as it is, you want to know. And there’s a part of you that wants to know what it’s like to be there because this is a human experience. These are human beings who perpetrate these acts, so you don’t really want to turn a blind eye to it. You want to take it apart and figure out how that happened and what, if anything, can be done to prevent it. Ultimately, our intention was to put you as close as possible to atrocity. As for the effect it has on you, that’s not for us to determine. Hopefully, it does have an emotional impact and it seems to have riled up a lot of people in interesting ways. Some of them good. Some of them bad.
– Jesse Stern in Gaudiosi, 2009.
There is a difference between vicariously becoming a participant in violence when a novelist lets us see the world through the eyes of a killer, and actually having to pull the virtual trigger yourself, but it seems as much one of degree as anything else. While I’ve seen some initial evidence that violent video games are bad, I’m not familiar at all with the evidence that violent novels are also bad.
Perhaps, however, when we start treating video games, particularly violent ones, in as pedantic a way as literature is sometimes treated, maybe they’ll lose some of their appeal. Or maybe, they’ll just become more educational experiences. Stern again:
When we tested the level, it was interesting. …people would get angry or sad or disgusted and immediately wonder what the Hell was going on here. And then after a few moments of having that experience, they would remember that they were in a video game and they would let go. Every single person in testing opened fire on the crowd, which is human nature. It feels so real but at the same time it’s a video game and the response to it has been fascinating. I never really knew you could elicit such a deep feeling from a video game, but it has.
However, in girls, sleep duration was not related to any of the weight-related variables with the exception of less sleep on weekends being related to BMI. – Lytle, Pasch and Farbaksh, 2010.
The USDA has a nice page that touches on the research that’s looking for specific links between sleep deprivation and weight. Their take is that kids don’t get out enough because increased opportunities for indoor entertainment don’t require much activity and disrupt sleep cycles. They suggest that fat cells themselves may respond to changing circadian rhythms.
Abnormal sleep/wake patterns may change circadian clocks that normally allow cells to anticipate variations in the outside environment, such as changing levels of nutrients (glucose, fatty acids and triglycerides) and hormones such as insulin. – Flores, 2007.
“It’s going to be a constant question for us as a society and for the military whether or not, as they become more game-like, that creates an effect that makes it easier to kill people in a way that you might not want to make it easier to kill people.” – Clive Thompson on On The Media (2010)
On The Media had one of the most though provoking pieces this weekend that I have ever heard. It was based on the video footage of the tragic killing of two Reuters journalists in Baghdad, and the wounding of two small children in a van that came to rescue the injured, by a US helicopter gunship. The program dealt with the tragedy itself, the question of war crimes and the propriety of Wikileaks in publishing the video.
They also addressed the marked similarities between the video footage and scenes in modern video games. What was most interesting was that the interviewee, Clive Thompson, argued not that video games were becoming too much like war and desensitizing players, but that war is becoming too much like video games.
It’s been generally acknowledged that the further away the person is, the less you can see them, the more they’re just a blip on the screen, the easier it is to pull the trigger. – Clive Thompson on On The Media (2010)
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
– A.E. Housman
Three themes converged on the playing field today; poetry, competitive sports and video war games. We’d used Alfred Houseman’s “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” for a lesson on OULIPO yesterday because it’s short and one of my small groups had presented a week ago so we were all familiar with the poem. We’d been trying post-games discussions after frizbee (and soccer) to learn sportsmanship. We’d been having issues with video games and the definition of the word “duty“. I’ve long suspected (and would love to find a study that looks into this) that video game players are more likely to give up when the odds are against them because they are so used to just restarting the game (or respawning).
Today at the end of our post game discussion, I recited Epitaph to highlight the strength of character shown by some of the players who put up a great comeback despite part of their team stopping playing. It was a serendipitous convergence of three themes we’ve been dealing with this entire cycle (if not the whole year). It was a moment when I really appreciated being able to be so engaged with all parts of the curriculum.