The heinous events that took place in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012, seemed to shake the country to its core. Whether a parent or not, virtually everyone felt an overwhelming sense of pain and profound sadness at the unspeakable loss that community endured. The President of the United States called it the worst day of his presidency.
The potential influence of violent video games on the behavior of the youth who play them became a focus of attention in the days following the tragedy. In a well-publicized summit, the Vice President of the United States met with business representatives from the gaming industry to develop a plan to better understand any links that may exist between gaming violence and real-life violence. The Centers for Disease Control was empowered to conduct research to shed light on any potential relationship.
What impact did the tragedy and those well-publicized discussions have on the everyday decisions made by moms across the United States as they assess which video games to allow their children to play?
For the past four years, we have tracked families’ behaviors and attitudes concerning all forms of media and technology, including video games. Each year, the study is fielded in late-January through early February. This year the in-field date was about a month and half after the Newtown tragedy. Given all the media attention, we hypothesized there would be significant decreases in the number of moms who allowed their 6- to 12-year-old children to play T- and M-rated video games, which tend to be the most violent.
The 2013 data was surprising. Consistent with previous years, 8 in 10 moms reported being aware of the video game ratings system. Interestingly, half of moms agreed that “violence in video games and other media encourages kids to be violent in real life.” Therefore, it was especially intriguing to find the percentages of moms who allowed their 6- to 12-year-old children to play T- and M-rated video games did not change, wave over wave. The number remained constant from 2012 to 2013.
In light of the incident in Newtown and given their belief that virtual violence encourages real violence, why didn’t they report a behavior change—even if only driven by social desirability? Why did they continue to allow their kids to play industry-identified, age-inappropriate games at the same levels they did prior to the Newtown shooting?
As we have all experienced since that day, violence in our society is a complex issue without an easy answer. Moms recognize this. Newtown called attention to the issue but the investigation did not yield a conclusive cause-and-effect relationship. Also, we know from the many studies we conduct with moms, they believe deeply they know what is right and best for their children. While they acknowledge the video game ratings system is a useful tool, it is not the only criteria they use to determine appropriateness for their child. They are empowered to over-ride those recommendations as they relate to their children. For even the best-intentioned marketers this means that even when provided with guidelines, the ultimate determinants of product usage are consumers themselves (and their moms).