I'm very pleased to say we've heard back from the last of the experts we contacted after the Fox News Debacle. We've now spoken to Jerry Weichman, Ph.D who was quoted by John Brandon as warning that games such as Bulletstorm could do serious damage to children, as an example of an expert who was "worried that video game violence may be reaching a fever pitch." And while Weichman explains that he was not misquoted, he certainly has far more moderate views on videogames than someone reading the article may have believed. When calculating the rather odd maths that led to Brandon's "nearly universally" angry experts, we counted Weichman amongst the two who were actually against the game. This was incorrect, as our interview with the clinical psychologist reveals, in which he explains, "there is nothing wrong with the game being produced and sold to the users it is intended for." And we also learn that Dr Weichman is rather partial to a game of Call Of Duty.
We approached Weichman to find out what had led to his statement on Fox News that,
"If a younger kid experiences Bulletstorm's explicit language and violence, the damage could be significant. Violent video games like Bulletstorm have the potential to send the message that violence and insults with sexual innuendos are the way to handle disputes and problems."
Weichman tells us he is firmly of the belief that greater regulation of videogames is necessary, because he wholly believes that minors experiencing violent games can experience serious consequences. As you'll read below, when asked for evidence proving this Dr Weichman was only able to offer non-specific anecdotal claims rather than any peer-reviewed publication of studies. But he's also a gamer himself, who wants to make sure that age ratings are enforced.
Dr Weichman began by clearly explaining his position on the subject.
"My full opinion on games like Bulletstorm is that they should be enjoyed by the users that the game developer intended - mature audiences/adults - and parents need to play an active role in monitoring their child/teen's gaming activities and cannot solely rely on "the system" to effectively filter out negative or possibly harmful influences. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with the game being produced and sold to the users it is intended for."
We asked him if he could offer us evidence to support his claims, especially demonstrating significant damage to young people. He told us,
"My experience as an adolescent psychologist lies the behavioral work I have done with thousands of teens, including many teen gaming addicts. My opinion, as stated in my quote, is that there is potential to do harm, but certainly this is not the outcome for 100 percent of the game's users. And obviously the folks at ESRB agree, since it's rated M for Mature and was not designed for young audiences."
Leaving aside the other debate about offering evidence for "gaming addicts" (something no one has been able to provide RPS on all the occasions we've asked) we then asked whether gaming violence, sexual or otherwise, is as affecting to young people as growing up amongst real-world violence or sexually inappropriate adults.
"No. The real world experience is the most important shaper/affector of all. Video games play a minor role when compared to the influence that parents, family, friends, and environment can play. But for heavy-users and for users who consider the game to be an alternate reality (more common than many think), the potential to serve as an influencing factor certainly exists."
And what about TV, comics, films, books, and so on? Are games specifically more harmful?
"It is likely to be more damaging than violence in books due to the strong visuals - plus my experience with young gamers is that they tend to choose gaming over reading violent books. However, explicit films/TV certainly are right up there with video games in portraying an abundance of violence. However, my opinion is these very realistic first-person shooting games have more potential to lead to the greatest desensitization toward violence than the third-person nature of movies/TV. Similar to Rated R movies, the games are appropriate for a mature audience and should be enjoyed by such. I'm not suggesting the games not be released but instead that the ratings be strongly enforced and that parents need to monitor their children's gaming activities. Ultimately parents bear full responsibility for the content their child is exposed to."
Interested to know if Weichman had any first-hand knowledge of Bulletstorm, we asked him if he'd played the demo at all. Or if he was even specifically aware of the game. We were being slightly presumptuous, having assumed that the psychologist might not be as aware of videogames as you might hope. We were wrong.
"I have not played it but seen videos of its content. As an adult, I enjoy playing first-person shooter games like Halo and Call of Duty and do so in my spare time quite often. But I would certainly not want my child exposed to these games either. Mature content should be reserved for mature or adult users."
In light of his responses, we asked Dr Weichman if he felt he'd been fairly represented by Fox News. He told us the following.
"As is often the case with the media, my complete opinion on Bulletstorm could not be fully conveyed in the short article. Truthfully, I was not misquoted or misrepresented. I do believe that with a young, immature and unsupervised audience, these types of games have the potential to do harm - especially for children who are experiencing extensive pain or violence in their real life.
But I certainly do disagree with the concept that games like this should be banned entirely. I believe it should be available for mature users, just like other media with mature adult content. Retail establishments need to (and I believe many do) take the ratings very seriously. The difficult part is to monitor online downloads or Internet purchases. This is why parents need to be more involved in their child's gaming activities, whether it's playing with them or just checking out what games they are playing.
My work with teens leads me to put the bulk of the responsibility on the parent and I wish that the article had given parents more information or tips on ways they can monitor their child's gaming activities to insure that they are playing games which contain content appropriate for the individual child's maturity level. It's not easy being a parent today when many children are more technologically-advanced than their parents but ultimately the parents cannot just rely on the "system" for their child's safety. They have to educate themselves, stay involved in the content entering their home, and work a little harder to make sure that they are aware of what their kid is doing."
While we clearly take issue with preferring anecdotal experience over published evidence, it's interesting to learn the full, balanced expanse of Weichman's opinion on the matter. Previously, of the contacts Fox News had spoken to, we'd only found people who entirely disagreed with the article, or people clearly unqualified to comment. It's been very helpful to hear from someone educated in the subject who's on the other side of the debate. It also further reveals the opportunity Fox News had for offering an informed version of their story, which was so deliberately rejected.
Fox News have so far not responded to our request for an interview.