Most people assume that when they read a news account, they are reading a more or less faithful representation of reality. This illusion is quickly shattered when you happen to know the story behind the story.
Case in point. My colleague Daphne Bavelier, in some rather brilliant and groundbreaking research, has discovered that playing action games (computer games that involve rapid real-time response by the player) greatly improves the human brain’s ability to track multiple objects at once and to make rapid and accurate decisions in real time. Research by her and her colleagues has shown that in a very real sense, playing action games over time makes our brains work better (much as physical exercise makes our bodies work better).
It’s important to point out at this juncture, given what will come later, that we’re not talking about violent video games in particular. Some action games happen to have a violent narrative wrapped around them, but Bavelier’s research has shown that the narrative is irrelevant — driving games or games involving only abstract objects will benefit brain development just as much as an action game framed in a violent narrative (like shooting aliens or zombies).
Bavelier gave a talk on her research the other day at a little workshop on Games for Learning at New York University. In a funny moment during the Q&A, an audience member asked the following question: Since girls don’t like violent games as much as boys, how can we get girls to play them? Bavelier, who had already made it very clear that actions games are not the same as violent games, responded with the sardonic (and somewhat exasperated) suggestion that maybe a game could “use, for example, a princess which has a magic wand and whenever she touches something, it turns into a butterfly and sparkles”, which got a big laugh from the audience.
All well and good, until you read the Associated Press article by Karen Matthews that came out the next day. Matthews wrote the article as though Daphne Bavelier had deliberately advocated for violence in video games. The article ended by quoting Bavelier’s response about girls and butterflies as though it were a serious suggestion.
You can judge for yourself by reading the article, which is rather absurdly entitled Violent video games touted as learning tool.
Matthew’s article claims that Bevalier is promoting violent computer games, yet nowhere is there a quote in the article where Bevalier says any such thing (because she never would say such a thing). Rather, quotes by others and misdirection are used to warp the point of the talk.
It’s clear, to anyone who was present at Bavelier’s talk, that Matthews’ article is pure sensationalism — a deliberate misrepresentation designed simply to drum up fears about games (and, I suspect, to sell newspapers).
It’s chilling to realize the nasty and cynical game that Matthews is up to here. How much of the “news” we read is actually garbage like this? How often does useful and important research get obscured by shoddy and dishonest reporting? And how often do we happen to have the background knowledge to know that the news article we are reading is, essentially, fake journalism?