Good Works

Do Video Games Spark Violence?

WMU criminologist's studies suggest they don't
encore-magazine-good-works-wmu-criminologist-march-2018
Criminologist and WMU researcher Whitney DeCamp, who studies whether playing video games is linked with future violent behavior, is an avid fan of Nintendo games.

© 2018 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

When Whitney DeCamp, director of the Kercher Center for Social Research at Western Michigan University, would tell people he studies criminology, he would typically be met with responses like “You teach people how to collect evidence?” or “You do forensic psychology?”

The answer: Neither one.

“Nobody understands what that (criminology) is,” he says. “So I stopped telling people I study criminology. I just say sociology.”

After that, he gets this reaction: “Oh, that’s nice.”

But the work that DeCamp, 33, does is certainly more than just “nice.” DeCamp studies the nature of crime and what causes it. His most recent research projects
examined whether playing violent video games might be a factor that prompts violent behavior.

The short answer: It doesn’t seem to. But more on that later.

DeCamp, an associate professor of sociology, admits he sort of stumbled onto his profession. Growing up in Chanceford Township, in York County, Pennsylvania, along the Susquehanna River — “the middle of nowhere,” he says — DeCamp was home-schooled and graduated from high school a year early. His planned course of action: find a job and figure out his next move. Six months later, the then-17-year-old

DeCamp remained unemployed and still unclear about his future.

“I realized I quickly needed to change course,” he says. “This was not working.”

No occupation had yet caught his interest, so DeCamp grabbed a college catalog and flipped it open. Criminal justice popped out at him. Becoming a police officer would work, he thought. Perhaps influenced by the numerous “fictionalized versions” of policing on television shows, DeCamp says, he deemed it compatible with his personality.

“Which, in retrospect, was a terrible decision,” he says, laughing.

As a student at York College of Penn-sylvania, DeCamp worked on the college’s all-student security force. This job, plus an internship, led DeCamp to realize that becoming a police officer would not suit him well.

“I was horribly out of shape and would not have worked out at all in that field, but it led me down the path to where I am now, so I don’t have any regrets,” he says.

DeCamp completed a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and continued in this field but on a different path: academia. He went on to earn a master’s degree in administration of justice at Shippensburg University, in Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. in criminology at the University of Delaware. Then he faced another decision: Teach criminology or research it? He chose both.

He says a job that fits his personality “needs to be some teaching, some research and some service. So I was lucky enough to get this job here — and it’s the right balance.”

DeCamp’s interest in exploring the impact of playing violent video games was another thing he sort of stumbled on. He attended a discussion on propensity score matching led by criminology and criminal justice professor Ray Paternoster, who taught at the University of Maryland until his death last year.

Propensity score matching is a statistical technique that aims to reduce or eliminate selection bias in research and thus create a random-like experiment by matching participants in a study group with participants in a control group who have similar propensity scores. (Selection bias in this case is the bias introduced when some children choose to play violent video games and others do not, and that choice is the result of different personalities rather than random selection.)

This methodology intrigued DeCamp and he wanted to use it. At the time, he had been following news stories about violence and video games, especially stories regarding state-level legislation to block sales of the games to minors.

“I think at some point I just put two and two together and realized that the method I wanted to use for something would be a great fit for this topic,” DeCamp says.

In all, DeCamp has conducted five studies on video games, mostly sampling eighth- and 11th-graders in surveys conducted by the Center for Drug and Health Studies at the University of Delaware. Three of DeCamp’s studies specifically looked at whether there’s a relationship between playing violent video games and engaging in violent behavior.

“This research seems to show that there’s not really a relationship there,” DeCamp says.

Other predictors of violent behavior were much stronger in the model than playing violent video games, DeCamp says. These predictors include whether a child comes from a safe home and whether they have experienced violence in their home.

“If you saw violence in your home, that’s another thing that tends to be related to violence,” he says. “Just the nature of the relationship with your parents is another big factor. People who have close, positive relationships with their parents are a lot less likely to engage in violence — regardless of whether they play video games or not.”

Criminologists study the social bond theory, he says. Four principal elements comprise this theory, including attachment.

“One of the key components is parental attachment,” DeCamp says, “and it’s not because your parents can necessarily communicate a lesson to you per se. It’s because, if you’re going to commit an act of violence, one of the things you might consider is: What will my parents think?”

Perhaps not on a conscious level, he says, but a child doesn’t want to disappoint his or her parents. “It impacts their judgment in some way,” DeCamp says.

DeCamp currently has a study in progress that takes a further look at parental influences on whether a child plays violent games.

“I’m also working on a few other studies not related to games that also examine deviance and victimization,” he says.

If someone wants to know why a person commits a crime, DeCamp says, he can’t speak about a specific individual, but he can speak in generalities.

“It comes from upbringing, relationships with their parents, (and) what peers they’re around,” DeCamp says. “Those are the kinds of things we look at when determining what causes crime.”

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It's about your parents

"Just the nature of the relationship with your parents is another big factor. People who have close, positive relationships with their parents are a lot less likely to engage in violence – regardless of whether they play video games or not."

– Whitney DeCamp, director of the Kercher Center for Social Research at Western Michigan University