Last week, the New York Times featured an article entitled “Unlearning Gun Violence”, which discussed the work of an epidemiologist who, after a decade of fighting TB, HIV, and cholera in Africa, returned to a life-threatening epidemic in his hometown of Chicago—violence. He uses the same techniques that worked in Africa, teaching perpetrators and victims of violence to prevent recurrence of this deadly cycle. Such secondary and tertiary prevention is effective—but after the fact. Prevention of future violence can only happen after violence has occurred, identifying those at risk for aggression and victimization.
One day earlier, a research report in Pediatrics detailed the dramatic increase in gun violence in PG-13 movies, tripling over the past 3 decades. Movies that any child can watch (hopefully, but not necessarily with parental guidance) are now more violent than those that are restricted to those 17 or older unless accompanied by an adult. One day later, I was asked to present research in support of a bill in the Massachusetts Senate that would appoint an expert commission to study whether and how video games and other interactive media influence and teach their users.
The video game industry has forged dramatic financial success and transformed our society not only by surpassing movies, television, and other media in sales of entertainment software, but also by leveraging young people’s involvement with these virtual experiences into education. As a society, encouraged by the software manufacturers’ assertions that gameified curricula are the secret to engaging young learners and that “gaming for good” can teach everything from science to citizenship, we have invested billions of dollars in devices and software for our schools. Yet the video gaming industry, which has claimed so much of our attention and resources and which stands to gain even more by proving how well it can teach, sent the former Attorney General of Rhode Island to the hearing to argue against engaging experts in child development, health, and education to evaluate how and what our children, the future of our society, are being taught by their products.
Children are learning all the time. They are constantly building their fund of knowledge about themselves, the world, and how they should behave in it. Movies mirror the world, portraying a variety of human choices and the outcomes of those choices. Video games create virtual environments in which players make choices and are rewarded for making the “right” choices, practicing over and over activities from sports to killing. Both scientific research and common sense support the media industry’s assertions of their products’ potential and power to teach. But in the beginning of school year that saw the largest school district in the country buy iPads for every student then face challenges with students hacking the security measures, when Grand Theft Auto 5 captured nearly 1 billion dollars in its first day of sales, and as we approach the anniversary of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the industry is arguing that we do not need to understand how these games teach our children.
Knowledge is power—the power to make choices, as individuals and as a society, with full understanding of the risks, benefits, and potential outcomes of those choices. If video games teach, they teach calculus and killing. In addition to supporting the secondary and tertiary prevention of helping our fellow citizens to “unlearn” gun violence in America’s most dangerous neighborhoods, perhaps we should consider practicing primary prevention and never teach violence in the first place.