Moving to the dark side of the screen
Claims linking video games to murders rattle the powerful industry, reports Deborah Cameron.
May 13, 2006
Sydney Morning Herald
By Deborah Cameron
WHEN a leading Japanese brain specialist said playing video games rendered parts of the brain inert, it did not take long for Nintendo to arrive at his door.
The video gaming mammoth did not threaten him with legal action, that's not the way in Japan. But it became the No. 1 donor to his research institute, drew him into a commercial arrangement and made his dream come true by letting him create his own game, Brain Training.
It has sold 4 million copies. It is a hit in Japan and the US and will be released in Australia next month. The game has transformed Professor Ryuta Kawashima from obscure scientist to celebrity in less than five years.
He insists he has not been corrupted by Nintendo: "The donations are happy for us but it doesn't affect anything," he told the Herald.
There are various views: the luckiest day in the career of an innocent; a random alignment of commerce with science; or, the brazen seduction of a critic by the second-biggest video games company in the world. Make no mistake, say sceptics.
"The video game industry is taking the same approach that the tobacco industry took for many years," said Professor Bruce Bartholow of the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the co-author of a soon-to-be-published study suggesting video game violence has "lasting deleterious effects on brain function and behaviour".
"When faced with mounting evidence that their product has harmful effects on users, they spend millions of dollars per year on public relations and lobbying efforts in an attempt to sway public opinion that the research is faulty or that the findings are inconclusive," Bartholow said.
The industry has nurtured experts, romanced a gullible trade press, deluging it with valuable free samples, and targeted children in a way that has unleashed pester power.
Nintendo and Sony, the biggest companies, earned $14 billion last year, and with a dozen or more other global players employ thousands of staff and spend billions, mainly on marketing.
The industry has cultivated influential friends. When the filmmaker George Lucas was named last year's "champion" of the Entertainment Software Association in the US, he joined an A-list of past winners including a former chief executive of Toys 'R' Us and the creator of the most successful game ever, The Sims.
Glamour, excitement and addiction - a word often used by games developers - make a potent combination. Stir in money, rapid change and the rush to lock up new markets and it becomes clearer what is at stake. Keeping the lid on negative news is now an industry obsession.
Others besides Bartholow see parallels with the tobacco lobby's long-term fabrication there was no proof of a connection between smoking and cancer. It was an "open question", tobacco spokesmen would say.
"The video game industry response to research on harmful effects looks very similar to what the tobacco lobby did for many years," said Professor Craig Anderson, a psychologist from Iowa State University, and now enemy of the industry.
For all its pervasiveness and power, the games industry prefers the shadows and does not welcome scrutiny. It has lawyers, advisers and lobbyists to attack research linking games to brain problems or violence. And they diminish commentators, community leaders and parents who question the games' domination of children's lives, or publicise any risks.
It opposes measures to restrict games content, most effectively in the US, where it has deployed free speech arguments in successive court victories. The main US industry body, the Entertainment Software Association, retains litigation lawyers for court battles in California, Illinois, Washington and Missouri. In the Illinois case, decided in December, a judge agreed with pro-industry psychologist, Dr Jeffrey Goldstein, that there was "no solid causal link between violent video game exposure and aggressive thinking and behaviour".
The games lobby is pursuing a $US644,500 ($842,000) order for costs against the Governor of Illinois, saying it wanted to make a point about his ban on violent video games which "everyone knew from the start was unconstitutional". Meanwhile a fifth case, the result of a triple murder in an Alabama police station, is being prepared. The families of three murdered men are suing Sony, Wal-Mart, and two games design companies for $US600 million. They argue that Devin Moore, 18, was acting on what he had learned from Grand Theft Auto, a violent game, and the No. 10 seller in Australia last year.
"The video game industry gave him a cranial menu that popped up in the blink of an eye, in that police station," the victims' lawyer, Jack Thompson, told CBS News. "And that menu offered him the split-second decision to kill the officers, shoot them in the head, flee in a police car, just as the game itself trained them to do."
In Japan, the most mature market, the video games trade was worth $US8 billion in 2003 and expected to grow 20 percent a year until 2008, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The US market was expected to hit $US15 billion by 2008 while the Australian trade in 2003 was $US800 million, the OECD says.
In Australia, three-quarters of households have video gaming equipment and the average player is 24, the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia says.
Games technology plays a growing role in education, workplace training and recruitment, including by the Australian Defence Force. On its website downloadable titles such as Operation Allied Shield are used as recruiting tools. Some games are so realistic they are used in military training by Australia.
The US Defence Department has spent $1 billion on games technology that gets soldiers combat ready, suggests research by the Centre for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University.
"It's the fastest way to train troops and the easiest way to save money," said Sergeant Donel Hagelin, a video game instructor, in an media release from the US Army News Service.
To the world's military, games are effective, realistic and communicate ideas that stick. This is simultaneously the industry's biggest selling point and greatest problem. Proven warrior maker? Yes in the military; but an "open question" in the suburbs.
Any connection between video games and aggression, which both Anderson and Bartholow believe is proven, is not the only issue.
There is also "game brain", a phenomenon first recognised in Japanese research, which manifests as a drop in prefrontal lobe activity during any type of video game play.
It so alarmed Kawashima that in 2001 he told The Observer in Britain a subdued prefrontal cortex caused weakness in the neurons, halting brain development. In turn, this affected a child's ability to control anti-social behaviour. His experiments, done by comparing brain scans, involved teenagers playing Nintendo games, The Observer reported. "The importance of this discovery cannot be underestimated," Kawashima told the paper.
Today, with Nintendo as patron, he is not so certain, calling the 2001 results a "guess" and saying more research was needed. "I think we have to do more studies using more scientific methods because I don't think these other studies are science," he told the Herald. "Also I think there is no direct evidence that video games affect the brain."
Neither Kawashima nor Tohoku University, one of Japan's top five unis, would say how much money Nintendo donates to his institute. A Nintendo spokesman says it does not fund academic research and was not involved "in any co-operative project between industry and the academic world." But Kawashima says: "Nintendo gives us a lot of donations but the amount is not too big [compared with] the university. Japanese universities receive a huge amount of donations from companies."
Kawashima had helped supervise the development of software for the Brain Training game but this was "not a case of co-operation", the Nintendo spokesman said.
Kawashima's discoveries about the brain conform to the "use it or lose it" school. Healthy brain activity occurs when people read Shakespeare aloud, do simple arithmetic or write. The brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, goes unhealthily dull during gaming, his research suggests.
Brain Training demands so much interaction from the user that it promotes prefrontal cortex activity, he says. It involves word challenges, calculations, numerical puzzles, reading aloud and writing on the touch-sensitive Nintendo DS screen. It is credited with introducing older people to gaming and is consistently sold out in Tokyo.
Another Japanese scientist, Professor Akira Sakamoto, a psychologist from Ochanomizu University, says there is no debate in Japan about industry money but scientists needed to be more aware.
Sakamoto wrote of links that Japanese research has found between violence and delinquency in The Advances in Applied Developmental Psychology Series. In one Japanese study, participants gave electric shocks to others after they had watched video games of varying levels of violence and reality. Those who watched the most violent games gave the worst shocks, suggesting a lack of empathy.
For the 2002 launch of the Xbox, which budgeted $US500 million for marketing. But Sony highlights the commercial risks. It overpromised on its new game console, the PS3, and delayed the product's launch due to technical and other problems. Merrill Lynch analysts said production costs had soared to $US900 a unit, which Sony could never pass on to customers, who expected to pay less than $US500. So Sony would take an huge loss - and its share price fell.
After 30 years of profits, anxiety is setting in. There is demand for new and more realistic games, technology is developing at uncontrollable costs, new game development costs more than $US10 million, internet and mobile phone downloads are eating the market, and licensing fees from sports leagues and Hollywood are increasing.
Customers, now paying $60 and more for games, seek bargains and pirate copies. Some analysts call it "transformation", but chaos is also fair. In short, margins are being squeezed.
Games companies are seeking new revenue through product placement and in-game advertising. But they must dread a product warning: "Video games may harm your brain."