Haven’t We Been Here Before? Video Games, Violence, And The Link That Doesn’t Hold Up
An earlier version of this article appeared in Game Informer Magazine issue 301, May 2018. The article has been updated and amended to reflect recent research and events.
Sometimes the worst songs have memorable refrains – but just because you can still hum the song 20 years later doesn’t mean it’s time for a modern cover. The purported links between video game playing and real-life violent acts makes for a popular tune. It always does the uncomfortable task of distracting people from the real debate, and offers a convenient target for channeling the very real despair, frustration, and anger that arises. The only problem? It’s all bogus.
The problem of gun violence, especially as it affects our children, is painful and horrible to contemplate. But setting up the straw man of violent video games to take the fall is the same reckless and manipulative politicking that we’ve seen for decades, targeting at various times everything from comics to music to movies. The exasperated response we gamers must adopt almost feels cliché, and yet recent days have found defenders of the gaming medium having to once again state the clear verdict. Games are not the problem, and making the case that they are distracts from the actual issues.
In the wake of another series of horrific mass shootings, it’s natural to desperately hunt for solutions. As has frequently been the case in these moments of crisis, the question of gun control is the first to arise for many Americans. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from early 2019 found that 69 percent of Americans “want strong or moderate restrictions placed on firearms.” Those are tough numbers to confront if you’re a politician who benefits from money related to the gun industry, or a lobbyist who does the same. Nonetheless, for many politicians, including House minority leader Kevin McCarthy and President Donald Trump, it’s easier to target media – specifically violent video games – rather than consider alternatives.
I’d happily give up my favorite hobby, and even my profession, if I believed that the end result of supporting games was societal violence. But that’s simply not the reality supported either by research or anecdotal observation. Games provide a safe space to socialize, build relationships, vent aggression, focus thought, gain a sense of mastery, and relieve stress for millions of players around the world. Like movie fans, football enthusiasts, or people who read books, it’s a mistake to paint all game players with the same brush, or imply that they all respond identically to playing. In decades as a dedicated gamer, I’ve yet to encounter an individual who channeled their in-game feelings or experience into a real-life encounter. But that’s all personal experience. Surely, there must be some evidence that offers a clearer answer.
Despite fervent efforts, critics have failed to find causal connections between playing video games (violent or otherwise) and actual real-world effects. In January 2018, the University of York published a study involving more than 3,000 participants that found games do not prime players to behave in certain ways, and that higher levels of violence in games do not necessarily increase aggression.
In 2017, the Media Psychology and Technology division of the American Psychological Association released a statement suggesting public officials and news media should avoid stating that criminal offenses were caused by violent media. “Discovering that a young crime perpetrator also happened to play violent video games is no more illustrative than discovering that he or she happened to wear sneakers or used to watch Sesame Street,” the report reads. “This is a classic error: trying to predict something rare, such as a violent crime, by looking at something common, such as playing violent video games or, for that matter, drinking milk.”
An earlier 2015 task force report from the APA suggested a correlational link between violent games and short-term aggressive tendencies, but failed to yield any connection to criminal violence. And even that report was broadly criticized by a group of over 230 researchers for being “misleading and alarming” and citing “inconsistent or weak evidence.”
Since this opinion’s original publication, more evidence has continued to mount. In a study published in the Royal Society Open Science, Przybylski of Oxford University and Weinstein of Cardiff University found “violent video game engagement is not associated with adolescents’ aggressive behavior” in a study of more than 1,000 participants and an equal number of their caregivers.
But let’s leave the evidence aside for a moment, take a closer look at the aggression assertion, and give critics the benefit of the doubt. Have you ever felt angry about a frustrating death in Super Meat Boy? Have you felt your heartbeat and competitive drive rise in the final moments of a close Overwatch match? I’m willing to concede that video games give me an outlet for aggressive impulses, a sensation that is virtually identical to emotions I felt during soccer matches in high school, or when venting to a friend after a hard day at work. After playing some violent or action-packed games, I do feel an aftereffect. I feel refreshed and energized, and happy that I have a hobby that provides an avenue to explore feelings of anger and frustration. Likewise, from my childhood until now, video games have also proven a safe space to explore competition, power, beauty, interpersonal conflict, and the nature of narrative. Are we moved by games to emotions of all kinds? I think so, and it’s one of the things I love about the medium.
To imply that violence we witness in video games has no bearing on our emotions is reductive, and there’s certainly a conversation to be had about the broader cultural context and primacy of violence in our culture and entertainment. But in that same conversation, and in that same notion of fairness, we have ample evidence to tell us that video games are not the easy scapegoat for society’s ills that many would claim.
Are there reasons parents might keep children away from certain video games? Of course! Like virtually any form of entertainment or art, parents make decisions all the time to limit exposure to adult content they feel their kid might not be ready to encounter or process. Much of the video game industry even helps with this decision-making process through content guideline systems like the ESRB.
We don’t know with certainty what causes a person to lash out, but other countries clearly have policies in place that make a difference. Many of those countries have active game scenes, including culturally similar places like South Korea, Iceland, and the United Kingdom, yet nowhere near the rate of gun violence that we see in the United States. Notably, all those nations have more stringent gun-control laws than in the United States (details on South Korea’s, United Kingdom’s, and Iceland’s gun laws). Would similar laws work in our country? The reality is that we simply don’t have as much evidence as we’d like, in part because the NRA’s leadership and politicians that support the organization actively hinder attempts to study gun violence. Instead of supporting that kind of research, or enacting any of the common sense measures that might help curb violence, many partisans are still under the misapprehension that they can target video games, because those lazy basement-dwelling video game players are never going to be an active voting bloc, anyway. Right?
It’s time for a new refrain. It’s time to lay to rest a tired and feckless argument that attempts to scapegoat an entertainment medium rather than confront the real problems at hand. While everyone is entitled to find certain books, movies, or sports distasteful and to choose a different form of entertainment, presuming that entertainment causes real-world violence has been roundly discredited. And that begs the question – when someone claims to find truth in such an apparent misrepresentation, what must we conclude about the speaker?
The views and opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Game Informer