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Popzara Interviews: Dr. Carole Lieberman MD,MPH
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Popzara Interviews: Dr. Carole Lieberman MD,MPH

Our in-depth chat with the best-selling author and ‘Media Psychiatrist’ on sensationalist journalism, videogame violence, and accountability.

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Few can boast of a career that includes commentaries on everything from global terrorism to Michael Jackson, from soap opera consulting to social advocacy. But that’s exactly what you’ll find in Dr. Carole Lieberman, MD, MPH, a multiple Emmy Award-winning psychologist and best-selling author, known to millions of radio, television, and internet fans as the “Media Psychiatrist”, a title she’s certainly earned over a long career that’s made her one of the most sought-after personalities in the world of TV, print, and radio journalism.

While her contributions include everything from National Enquire to Encyclopedia Britannic and just about everything in between, it was a comment attributed to her in an article posted on FoxNews.com that brought Dr. Lieberman to us today, which appeared to indicate her supporting a direct correlation between a rise in the number of sexual assaults (rape) and sexually-explicit scenes in videogames. But was that really her professional opinion, or one skillfully cleaved from a larger and more clinical analysis? Dr. Lieberman reached out to Popzara to both clarify and explain her original statement, and we were there to listen.

Thanks for reaching out to us about our previous story regarding the comments made in the Fox News article “Is Bulletstorm the Worst Videogame in the World” (link), in which you were apparently quoted to suggest a direct correlation between videogames and the rise of rapes. I appreciate you forwarding me full text of your responses to the Fox News’ John Brandon, which adds a substantial premise to the one quoted in the article. Here’s the quote in full:

“Video games have increasingly, and more brazenly, connected sex and violence in images, actions and words. This has the psychological impact of doubling the excitement, stimulation and incitement to copycat acts.” Leading into the statement “The increase in rapes can be attributed, in large part, to the playing out of such scenes in video games.”

I think the biggest question on everyone’s mind is whether one can reasonably link an increase in the number of reported rapes, if such a statistic can ever be calculated, to an increase in the availability and consumption of more sexually violent videogames?

I am not claiming that every person who plays Bulletstorm – or any other sexually violent video game – will put down the game and run outside to rape someone. But, I am saying that the more sexually violent video games that someone plays, the more desensitized to sexual violence they become and the more likely they will be to act out on their violent and sexually violent impulses that have been stimulated by the game. Rape is an act of violence, sexual violence. Many games also promote a misogynistic attitude and encourage men to objectify women.

There are thousands of studies, spanning decades, that all point to these same conclusions, leading organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association to issue such warnings.

In fact, six of the nation’s top public health organizations, including the American Medical Association, the Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychological Association, issued a joint statement: “The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behavior, particularly in children. Its effects are measurable and long lasting.”

The impact of playing sexually violent video games, not only depends upon cumulative hours of playing and degree of sexual violence, but also on the psyche of the gamer. For example, lonely latchkey kids or depressed or angry adults are more vulnerable. Playing the game gives a ‘story line’ to the player’s frustrations, which he is unconsciously propelled to carry out in real life – especially since he is rewarded by points and other bells and whistles the more mayhem he carries out in the game.

Violent video games require physical participation, making them more powerful instigators of real life violence than TV shows, movies, or music because you watch or listen to them more passively. And yet, studies of these passive forms of media violence have long shown effects of desensitization and copycat violence, as well.

The real basis for my initial analysis of the Fox News piece, and I imagine many who follow these issues with any real critical thinking, wasn’t so much the apparent attack on the Bulletstorm game, videogames in general, or even your abridged comments. It was the sensationalism of the reporter using a sensitive subject in such a cavalier way.

I cited a similar situation involving – interestingly enough – Fox News, a videogame from publisher EA, and an “author and psychology specialist”, in this case, Cooper Lawrence. In that example Anderson commented on the game Mass Effect, referring to its apparent overt sexuality and violence, claiming “all the research shows that violence has a desensitizing effect”, while attempting to link the game’s content to the devaluation of women.

Only that wasn’t the case, and it was only after enraged videogame fans took to ‘Amazon Bombing’ her book on Amazon.com that Lawrence publicly apologized, saying she had misspoken on the subject. Moreover, she suggests that her comments were based not on first-hand experience but speculation and the opinions of others.

If Cooper Lawrence was asked to appear in a capacity as a “psychology specialist” and was comfortable offering an opinion in that capacity as a supposed expert (as it appears she was), does that speak more to the media’s desire to find pliant and willing sources for what seems to be sensational journalism or to the ‘experts’ desire for self-promotion?

Cooper Lawrence’s comments on video games, and her subsequent retraction and apology, were very unfortunate for her – and for me. Undoubtedly, the gamers who Amazon-bombed my books were hoping for me to retract and apologize, as well. But, unlike Cooper, I have spent approximately 20 years as a clinical researcher in violent media, and an advocate against it – including being Chair of the National Coalition on TV Violence, testifying before Congress several times, and stopping the ‘Schwarzenegger Rocket’. Note that Schwarzenegger, a former action hero, has apparently come around on the issue of media violence, given his support of the California bill regulating the sales of video games to minors.

Does a policing process or sanctioning board exist within your industry to hold intentionally misleading or negligent ‘professional’ opinions accountable? And if not, should there be?

There are licensing boards for psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals. They concern themselves mostly with assuring a high standard of care for the treatment of patients. They do offer statements, however, regarding the dangers of video games (as I quoted above).

Your office issued an official statement that claims your statements were “taken out of context and made to sound more inflammatory than they were meant to be”. Reading them in full context they certainly do seem to have been significantly abridged, almost as if shaped to produce a desired effect. Going one step further, do you think the Fox article intentionally misrepresented your answers?

Looking back, I do think the Fox article had an agenda – that of creating the most sensational controversy over Bulletstorm in time for its release. For my part, I have been saying the same things about violent media for years, so I did not anticipate such a ‘violent’ reaction to my comments, which were not really news. I think that this was due to taking my comments out of context to make them more sensational and provocative towards the gaming community, as well as a change in gamers becoming more aggressive over the years, and more sensitive to people criticizing their behavior. Plus, the Internet has provided a forum for people to express their rage anonymously, notably by Amazon-bombing my books.

More to that, and while I’m hardly one for hidden conspiracies, but the combination of strikingly similar conditions to the Cooper Lawrence debacle has to give you pause; a Fox News report coming just on the heels of a supposed “sexually explicit” game from publisher EA and using a media-savvy “a psychologist and book author” to support the hysteria.

You’ve become one of the most sought-after pundits on the subject of the media’s role in propagating sexual and violence behaviors, especially in children. EA, as evidenced by their willingness to use ‘on-demand controversy’ stunts (such as using paid performers to pretend to be offended Christians) to promote their titles, is certainly no stranger to the art of viral marketing. Could this particular story – and the backlash that followed – not only have been anticipated, but actually planned as part of the game’s marketing?

In order to make a splash with a new product in an already saturated marketplace, video game manufacturers need to do something to get gamers to pick up their heads and buy yet another game. It seems more than coincidental that the Fox News story came out just as Bulletstorm was about to be released. And the well-organized viral reaction to my comments makes it seem like everyone read the memo that EA may well have put out, literally.

But if was another statement you forwarded me that intrigued me more, as I think its most representational of your professional philosophy toward the subject. Here’s the quote in full:

“They [videogames] not only cause people to become more violent, the more a person spends hours playing them, but they also cause anxiety, depression, nightmares, and the sense that it is a ‘mean world’ out there, which then makes players feel justified in being violent in order to protect themselves.”

However, your recent press release now prefaces similar statements with the word “violent” added before your opinion on the subject, such as “studies show that violent toys, TV shows, music, movies, and video games, cumulatively make people more desensitized to violence and more aggressive or violent themselves.”

I’m curious if the appearance of the qualifier word “violent” reflects a change in the way you intend to issue opinions on the subject from now on, and if we can expect to hear less logically equivalent (and some might say provocative) terms like “they cause people” or “they also cause” symptoms like depression and anxiety? Surely, there are many factors that contribute to the physical, biological, and mental imbalance of individuals, whereas blanket statements may only serve to obfuscate their discovery.

If that’s true, would you encourage others in your profession to adopt a similar criteria in which behavioral patterns and their apparent ‘causes’ should be issued to the media?

I have always been referring to violent media causing these psychological problems, not just media in general. But, most video games – or at least the ones in question – are violent.

This certainly isn’t the first time you’ve been asked to offer an opinion about videogames and their connection to violence, particularly those aimed towards children. I was surprised to hear your comments just prior to the release of 1999’s Pokémon: The First Movie in which you claimed that “parents should not let their kids watch Pokémon, Play Pokémon, buy Pokémon cards, have anything whatsoever to do with Pokémon because the message is violence.”

Nintendo’s franchise has shown unusual tenacity as a pop phenomenon, even extending its reach into multiple and successive generations of fans (i.e. parent-to-child). Looking back on the intervening decade-plus years since you first made that statement, would you say history has validated your initial analysis of Pokémon’s potential hazards to those who have played it (and very well may be playing it still)?

Yes, I stand by all my past comments about violent media – including Pokemon. The world has certainly continued to become a more violent place, and I attribute a significant portion of this to the increasing prevalence and absorption in violent media.

I’m sure you’ll agree that the problem with research data is often just who’s doing the research, and what’s being done with the data. To the issue at hand, the most oft-quoted statistical data we have to ascertain the number of reported sexual assaults and rape – at least in the US – is the U.S. Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey; a study whose methodology of data gathering has been criticized for being anything but conclusive.

For example, the official website of RAINN (Rape Abuse & Incest National Network) cites the survey’s findings to make the claim that “sexual assault has fallen by more than 60% in recent years” (link), while Human Rights Watch argues the statistics actually prove an uptick in the number of “reported incidence of reported rape and sexual assault” (link), as high as 25-percent since the last time the survey was conducted in 2007 (note: the survey is conducted every two years).

Same survey, yet two very different interpretations from two like-minded advocacy groups you’d think would be on the same page. A reasonable argument could be made that each group is tailoring the survey’s results to justify their respective missions, with RAINN seemingly taking credit for “the historic gains we’ve made in the last decade”, while Human Rights Watch says the dramatic rise “should serve as a wake-up call that more must be done to address the problem”, while advocating that “authorities should urgently adjust public policies, law enforcement, and provision of support services accordingly.”

Would you agree that different groups often use the results of studies and research to justify their own agendas? More to that, would you say that, in some cases, there have been studies and research specifically created – and tailored – to justify that agenda in advance? If so, what’s your opinion of this?

There have been studies and research specifically created and tailored to justify the agenda of the TV and film producers, as well as the video game manufacturers. These studies have been funded to try to dispute the studies that do show harmful effects of violent media. But, the quality and quantity of the studies that show harmful effects are much greater than the isolated and questionable ones that try to dispute them.

If you or someone you know has been the victim of a sexual assault, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline toll-free at 800-656-HOPE (4673), or visit the RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network) website at www.rainn.org/get-help/national-sexual-assault-hotline.

About the Author: Nathan Evans