Our abiding fear of the new

Even though these claims have been disproven in many studies on the subject, 2015 saw the return of anti-games arguments and/or unsubstantiated claims about the negative effects of games and game violence on the human psyche. In this article, I want to argue that fear of the new often causes such claims, looking especially at previous controversies related to computer games to show that histoire se répète.

Computer games and controversy

Connie Veugen

In 2015, computer games were once again the subject of controversy. In the book (Man) Disconnected: How technology has sabotaged what it means to be male, authors Nikita D. Coulombe and Philip Zimbardo (known for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment) name excessive gaming as one of the causes for the poor performance of boys in school, putting them at a disadvantage compared to girls. Immediately gamers and game researchers reacted to point out that the assumption that gamers only consist of pubescent and adolescent males has long since been disproven. Already in 2008 a survey amongst the Dutch population showed that in the age groups 13-19 and 20-34 the number of males playing computer games compared to the number of females playing did not differ that much: 97% male vs 88% for the 13-19 category and 89% male vs 81% female for the 20-34 category (Hautvast, et al., 2008). Others, for instance Andrew Przybylski, pointed out that comprehensive research has shown that games hardly have any effect (1%) on boys or girls (BBC Radio 4, 2015). In addition, if excessive use of technology affects boys negatively, one wonders why the excessive use of social media by girls apparently does not have the same effect. Then there was the claim by psychologist Martine Delfos, saying that ISIS executioners have to be gamers as only years of gaming can desensitized a person to such a degree that they have lost all sense of empathy (Kamerman & Speiring, 2015). This unsubstantiated claim is so ridiculous that it does not even deserve a counterargument (see, however, the next example). Finally, there was the American Psychological Association who released a new policy statement on computer games in which they had to acknowledge that violent crimes cannot be linked to violent video games. That this conclusion did not sit well with the association was shown by their new claim that violent video games do provoke milder acts of aggression. As this claim was again unfounded, the reaction from the academic community was not only critical but also put the association's research integrity in question.

Of course, this is not the first time a new medium has been seen as the root of all evil. All media that we now consider part of our daily lives: radio, film, comics, and television have caused controversy. In fact, the very fact that the medium is new implies that it first has to be accepted. This fear of the new or neophobia is an acknowledged anxiety disorder. In a mild form, it refers to the fear of innovation, i.e. the unwillingness to try new things, to break with established habits. People (but also animals), especially at a certain age, are afraid or reluctant to try new things. Such fears often manifest themselves on a larger scale when a new invention seems to threaten long held habits or believes. Usually such a fear of the new literally dies out, because the people who do not embrace or understand the new situation eventually pass away. People have to grow used to the new, until then there will be adversaries who will try their hardest to oppose it often using quite irrational arguments. This is not exclusive to media, we have seen this with the invention of the bicycle, of the washing machine, of the microwave, etc., amenities most of us would not want to do without now.