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Videogames and Violence

Scott Johnson is the Oakland Tribune’s Violence Reporting Fellow, an investigative position funded by the California Endowment. Johnson will be with the Tribune for a full year, reporting on a wide range of issues, including those related to the impacts of violence on the mental health of Oakland residents. You can find more of his writing at
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July 8, 2011
More Diversity = Less Crime?

Richard Florida, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, and the director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto recently penned an interesting article making the case that the nationwide drop in crime statistics over the last several years may be due, at least in part, to an increase in diversity.

Across the board, crime has decreased, from rape to robbery to aggravated assault, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports.  Much of the decrease has been recorded in the 100 biggest American cities, and in particular in those neighborhoods with high concentrations of low-income and minority populations.  This, says Florida, bucks the trend, and is puzzling.

Here’s Florida, writing in the Atlantic:

The key factor, as it turns out, lies in the growing racial, ethnic, and demographic diversity of our cities and metro areas. Our analysis found that the Hispanic share of the population is negatively associated with urban crime. Crime also fell as the percentage of the population that is non-white and the percentage that is gay increased.  And of all the variables in our analysis, the one that is most consistently negatively associated with crime is a place’s percentage of foreign-born residents.  Not only did we find a negative correlation (-.36) between foreign-born share and crime in general, the pattern held across all of the many, various types of crime – from murder and arson to burglary and car theft.

This trend is only partially mirrored in Oakland.  According to the latest police statistics, violent crime is down but murders are way up for the first half of 2011.  And sudden outbursts of violence can change that picture overnight, literally. In one 90-minute period on Thursday night, at least seven and possibly as many as ten people were shot in a 30-block stretch of Oakland.  So far none have died of their wounds, but that many more people are now added to the legions of Oaklanders surviving, some of them just barely, the consequences of gun-related injuries.

Still, as Florida and others point out, there is growing evidence that as both violent and property crime have decreased over the last 30 years, the relationship between crime and “community characteristics” such as race and ethnicity, have also radically decreased or in some cases disappeared. This is hugely interesting and potentially beneficial for Oakland because it’s one of the most racially and ethically diverse cities in the country, according to the latest U.S census data.

According to the 2010 census data, there is an 81 percent chance that two randomly selected people from Oakland would be of a different race or ethnicity.  That’s significantly higher than the national average. As a rule the Bay Area tends to be more diverse on average than much of the rest of the country.  Hayward and San Jose rank similarly to Oakland in the diversity index. Alameda County is the 9th most diverse county in the nation, and the most diverse in California. The others are located in Hawaii, Alaska and New York which, with their huge immigrant and native populations, have always been consistently more diverse than the rest of the country.

Here’s what the authors of a recent report from the Brookings Institution had to say about that trend:

The association between crime and community characteristics—like the proportion of the population that is black, Hispanic, poor, or foreign-born—diminished considerably over time. For example, the strength of the relationship between share of black residents and property crime decreased by half between 1990 and 2008, while the association between the share of Hispanic residents and violent crime all but disappeared.

This makes intuitive sense to some of the people who live and work in those parts of Oakland that have the fiercest reputations for violent and property crime. Lupita, the owner of Lupita’s Restaurant in the Fruitvale, speaks little English like most of her customers, but she said diversity could only help her neighborhood.  “It’s good for business to have different kinds of people,” she said, “Any merchant on this street will tell you the same.”  Her friend Marvin, a Palestinian who works at a jewelry shop next door, echoed the sentiment.

“If you only have Hispanics or African Americans they’re only going to buy one kind of thing,” he said, “The more people you get, the better it is for everyone.”

One problem is that diversity works well when everyone buys into it.  But very often — and this is the case in many parts of Oakland — people grow up relatively segregated by street, block, barrio and large neighborhood, and embracing the idea of radical inclusion may not come very easily. Another Fruitvale merchant who asked to remain anonymous when I spoke with him recently said the more Latino his neighborhood remained, the better, blaming blacks for the crime in his area. And others, like Scilla O, a West Oakland rapper who spends a lot of time at his girlfriend’s tattoo parlor in the Fruitvale, says it is difficult to wean people away from the neighborhoods they grew up in, the blocks they sometimes fought to protect, and the people who live there and look like them.  He says they should try though.

“Oakland is a dying city these days,” he told me recently, “It’s like little Baghdad here, that’s what they call it.”

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Earlier this week the U.S Supreme Court overwhelmingly rejected a California ban on sales of violent video games to young children.  Writing for the 7-2 majority, justice Antonin Scalia compared video games to other forms of expressions such as books, movies or plays, and said however violent the depictions were, video games like Grand Theft Auto were no less deserving of free speech protections than age-old stories like Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

All of which raises the interesting question of how we process violence, as individuals and as society. Is exposure to violence at a young age necessarily bad?  Will it predispose children to pathologies as adults?  Or are children more resilient?  Can violence ever serve as a mechanism for healing?  Is our society’s relationship to violence unhealthy?

Psychologists and mental health experts have long been arguing that young children exposed to inordinately high levels of violence typically react in a variety of unhealthy ways. “There isn’t any question that these kinds of violent videos have a huge impact on children’s brains,” says Susan Brown, a clinician and psychologist in San Diego, “They become more emotionall disregulated, you see aggressive behaviors, less self-control, more bullying, more acting out, more being oppostional. It disregulates them, and children this age already have enough trouble regulating themselves.”

Often, what clinicians see is that children who have had long exposure to violent video games come to believe that the reality on the screen and the reality in their everyday lives are interchangeable, that they are one and the same.  Frequently, kids come to believe that the death and virtual rebirth of an onscreen character is a simulacrum of what can and should happen in real life — that real life death should be followed by real life rebirth.  “The longer you can keep a kid away from these games, the longer you can keep them unexposed, and the older and more developed their brains will become,” says Brown.

But can violence ever serve as a mechanism for healing?  I came across this article recently, in which a reporter discusses how her repeated exposure to violent trauma — in Haiti and New Orleans — led to severe PTSD that threatened to consume her until she faced it head-on by engaging in violent sexual intercourse with a close friend.  This may seem counter-intuitive, but the reporter claims her therapist urged her to seek out this experience as a way to confront her fears and anxieties in a safe context.  The reporter writes:

It’s what I was looking for, of course. But my body—my hard-fighting, adrenaline-drenched body—reacted by exploding into terrible panic. The comforting but debilitating blanket of tension that’d for weeks been wrapped around my chest solidified into a brick. Then the weight of his body, and of the inevitability of my defeat, descended on my ribcage. My worn-out muscles went so taut that they ached. I stopped breathing. But as it became clear that I could endure it, I started to take deeper breaths. And my mind stayed there, stayed present even when it became painful, even when he suddenly smothered me with a pillow, not to asphyxiate me but so that he didn’t break my jaw when he drew his elbow back and slammed his fist into my face. Two, three, four times. My body felt devastated but relieved; I’d lost, but survived. After he climbed off me, he gathered me up in his arms. I broke into a thousand pieces on his chest, sobbing so hard that my ribs felt like they were coming loose.

It seems to me that our society has a shizophrenic relationship to violence.  We peddle it at every corner. And yet we’re shocked and surprised when the long-term effects of exposure to it begin to manifest in children, adolescents and adults. If, as Brown and the majority of other health researchers claim, the experience of playing violent video games is perceived by children as “real” and if the realness of that experience leads to identifable chemical and neurophysical changes in the brain, there is cause for concern.  According to recent studies, combat veterans who have experienced PTSD are more likely to develop significant dementia and brain changes than those who haven’t. Are the same dynamics at work with children who are immersing their unformed brains in similar, albeit virtual, combat environments through video games?

What is the right balance to strike between the imperative for freedom of speech and an increasingly complex and sophisticated technical apparatus that can create virtual worlds that are real enough to cause the kinds of damaging brain changes that can, and often do, cripple humans with lasting psychological wounds?