“No one at any major news outlet understands the third variable problem.” This is Erin Robinson, a neuroscience researcher turned independent game developer, explaining why news coverage that ties video games to acts of violence by adolescents is chronically flawed. For us non-statisticians, what she’s saying is: “Just because two events are correlated, one does not necessarily cause the other.”
In her fun and fascinating article, “The Top 10 Weird Children Of Video Games and Neuroscience,” Robinson argues that most media sources that link video games to attention problems and/or violent behavior are going for the sensational headline and not the truth of (or at least the latest research on) the matter.
Take the widespread vandalism and looting in the UK last month: News sources quoted everyone from police constables to pop stars (including former Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher) blaming it, at least in part, on the likes of Grand Theft Auto.
So, too, with coverage of Gevin Prince, a 15-year-old boy from Georgia recently charged with killing his great-grandmother, and injuring his grandmother, with a sword. A typical local newspaper headline read: “Authorities: Video Game Dispute Motive for Great-Grandmother’s Death.” As it turned out, video games had nothing to do with this horrible event. When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution took a closer look, the paper found out that Gevin has a history of mental illness, and his family had attempted repeatedly to get him the care he—and they—obviously needed, as he gradually spiraled out of control.
I don’t consider myself anything like an apologist for video games. Despite the fact that I’ve been playing them for 30-plus years now (or maybe because of it), I’ve got my own ambivalences. But when news sources choose to go the sensational route with these stories, they’re doing more than failing to grasp the third variable problem. Ultimately, they’re lazily and cynically scapegoating a form of entertainment at the expense of addressing an alarming and urgent reality—the truly tragic state of mental health care for children and adolescents in one of the most developed countries in the world.