Academic bloodsport has been on my mind this week since I have been reading the Charlot/Valeri debate that raged briefly in the pages of Pacific Studies in the late 1980s. It is without at doubt the Ultimate Fighting Championship of debates about Hawai’ian Sacrifice, partially because of the intensity with which it is fought (Valeri, in finest Francophone style, accuses of Charlot of managing to miss “not only the forest, but the trees as well”), partially because of its incredible erudition, and partially because it is, as far as I know, the only major academic debate about Hawai’ian sacrifice to date.
The Charlot/Valeri debate is totally unavailable electronically and so I have no link to it here. However, if you are interested in one academic cutting the work of another into very small pieces I hardily reccomend “Edward Castronova’s smackdown”:http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2006/07/review_of_carne.html#more of “Carnagey’s work on video game violence”:http://www.public.iastate.edu/~vasser/pubs/06CAB.pdf, which features zingers like “the bugbear of statistical significance is loose among poorly-grounded fields, among which one must now, on the basis of their acceptance of this paper, sorrowfully include experimental social psychology.”
Social psychology is, like cognitive science, one of disciplines adjacent to anthropology that I don’t think much of (although I admit this view depends mainly on my ignorance of it) and the endless shallow literature on ‘media effects’ — the playing Half Life 2 will make you want to kill people — drive me nuts because, like Ted, I love playing video games and despite this fact I have not yet killed anyone. Ted sees the problems with this study through the lens of economics and as a result is highly critical of the statistical reasoning in the paper. As an anthropologist I have a different set of concerns.
For instance, the paper is entitled “the effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real-life violence.” The study discovered that people who played violent video games and then watched videos of, for instance, two prisoners in jail stabbing another person. As an anthropologist who values participant observation as a method (and was exposed to quite a lot of real-life violence in the course of his fieldwork) it seems to me that in fact there was no ‘real-life violence’ in the study — there were representations of real-life violence. This ellision of the difference between witnessing violent assault and watching violent assault on TV seems absolutely stunning to anyone who has ever watched a fight in the flesh (much less been swept up in one). Frankly, it commits the cardinal sin that the researchers accuse video game hobbyists of — trivializing violence by equating it with its representation. More interestingly, thought, it speaks to an implicit theory of immersion, reality, and engagement which the researchers had when they conducted the study and which, I suspect, underlies a great deal of the knee-jerk reaction against video games. Only in a world where most American spend hours watching television and eating meat from animals they didn’t kill could Duke Nukem seem more threatening than the mindles violence of American television.
As Ted points out in his rebuttal, it basically turns out that people who play violent video games have a heart rate of 68.5 beats per minute, while those who don’t have a hear rate of 70.5. I think the idea is that the violent viode games are desensitized to watching filmed violence so they stay calmer and have a lower heart beat. However this difference — two beats per minute — seems utterly trivial. Given this fact, we are left with a question: how can we explain the researcher’s belief that “individuals who play violent video games habituate or ‘get used to’ all the violence and eventually become physiologically numb to it” (Carnagey p. 7) if their data does not actually lead to this conclusion?
This is the second point where an anthropologist would approach this paper differently than an economist. Anthropology is based on a belief that perception is under-determined by reality — that the qualia of experience are open to many possible interpretations and do not impose one on all people. We humans use arbitrary and conventional structures of meaning — ‘culture’ — to make sense of them. So while economists are interested in examining the veracity of Carnagey et. al.’s beliefs, anthropologists are interested in ‘motivating’ (as they say in structuralism and method acting) the scientist’s beliefs — that is to say, understanding how they are a particular instantiation of the broader cultural context that produced the scientists in question.
And this, of course, is easy to do. Playing only a little fast and loose, we can see fear and anxiety surrounding new technology not just in reception to computer games, but to video arcades, movie theaters (“are children are ALONE at the MOVIES in the DARK with STRANGERS”), and even (in ancient Greece) to writing, which Greeks (I think it was Plato) thought was going to detroy their cherished skills of memorization.
Of course this last paragraph is hardly an adequate anthropology of the media effects debate, but it does demonstrate the uniqueness — and the pitfalls — of anthropological approaches to phenomena.