White House Calls for Research on Links Between Video Games and Violence

Yesterday, the White House unveiled “Now is the Time: The President’s plan to protect our children and our communities by reducing gun violence.” Super good! I don’t intend to attack the the President, his plan, or even the fact that he calls for more research into any possible relationships between video games and violence. With the trauma of gun violence being so severe in American culture, encouraging research into what many citizens believe to have a causative relationship with violence, i.e. that violent video games lead to violent crime, is the right call. While it is politically unfortunate that the President seemed unable to find a place for video games in his plan than under the section to “End the Freeze on Gun Violence Research,” (page 8), I don’t think that we have much to worry about regarding any lasting effects on public opinion. We know that all good research into the topic, assuming fair distribution and reporting of research results and data, is going to show that video games and their place in society are nothing to be afraid of.

Here is my point; how do we already know that we have nothing to fear? Hasn’t research already shown that violence in video games has a lasting effect on gamers, causing them to be desensitized to violence and therefore less likely to check impulses toward violent behavior? Since video games are more immersive than other forms of media, doesn’t it stand to reason that they affect a greater ability to impact and change the human psyche? Let’s look into why not.

The research which has already been done regarding the effects of violent video games on humans has been done seemingly sporadically, which makes it difficult to look at them en masse, and has come to conflicting conclusions. Doing my own quick digging right now, research into this subject has shown that exposure to and participation in violence in video games leads to a short-term, internal desensitization to violence when exposed to violent images, sounds, and videos. “Short-term” seems to be a period of time never shown to be longer than a year. In fairness, it is more difficult to track long-term effects and any studies looking at such a relationship still needs many more years’ worth of data before any results should be published. What’s more, tracking changes in behavior is significantly more difficult than tracking changes in response, which can explain why there’s virtually no data showing any relationship between video game violence and behavior.

"Chasing the Dream," Economist. August 4, 2005What the research has shown is that desensitization to violence can be caused by video games. This can be problematic if a desensitized subject is confronted by a violent situation. The subject may be less likely to assist a victim in a violent struggle; the subject may also not react quickly enough to protect themselves when confronted by a violent situation. Unfortunately, even these consequences are still proposed hypotheses because of how difficult it is to research phenomenon in real world, random situations. Conflicting hypotheses exist, such as a subject desensitized to violence being more prone to intervening in a violent situation because of reduced fear of personal consequences. Looking at where the research is at, what it has been able to show, and what it has not been able to show makes me welcome further research, as more understanding will certainly help to fix all of the wild and tangent public opinions regarding the matter.

There are numerous reasons for expecting that video games will not have a significantly larger effect on behavioral or thought patterns than other forms of media. I won’t get into any neuroscience or psychology, as I’m not a professional. We need to look to professionals for guidance in such things. I mention sexual crimes in the next paragraph, so certain readers should skip ahead.

Let’s look at The Sims. As a player in The Sims, you get to choose who you are and who you become romantically involved with. You can even play as the Sim who you are romantically pursuing. So, if you are role-playing as a Sim, you are entirely able to force any physical relationship you wish there to be. If you exercise liberties afforded by cheat-codes, it becomes even easier. This being the case, I don’t often see language linking playing games like The Sims to crimes of sexual assault and rape. It would stand to reason that it should, right? Using the same logic as to why violent video games lead to real violence, it should have some effect. In The Sims, the worst that happens if you try something is that you get turned down. Maybe you get slapped in the face or a jilted lover starts a fight, and your relationship with your romantic interest takes a minor hit. So you can try as many times as you want. All you have to do is chat the other Sim up a bit, maybe give them a gift or compliment them, and then you get to kiss them and have sex with them. Is that exacerbating our rape culture? In reality, it is likely not the root cause of any sexual crime in real life. It is more likely symptomatic of any broader cultural problems. Like those cultural problems, it reinforces the behavior it demonstrates, and a broader change is required to correct it. Let’s not blame The Sims for sexual assault, rape, and underreporting of it. Even analyzing The Sims on this level, where we’re assuming that exposure to the in-game behavior leads to out of game behavior, is a thin stretch. One could argue that they don’t include representations of sexual assault and rape in The Sims which differs from the representations of graphical violence in other games, but isn’t that symptomatic of what we as a culture are more tolerant and desensitized to rather than an aversion to manipulating players into committing sexual crimes? I believe it’s somewhat easier to identify why this isn’t totally right because: 1) The Sims has been played by so many people that most of us recognize that it didn’t significantly change our behavior; and 2) It’s easier to cognitively recognize the dissonance between how human relationships work in a game versus how they work in reality than it is to recognize the same dissonance regarding violence.

The cognitive separation caused by the dissonance between in-game and reality is present in other non-violent games. Most of us recognize that success in Sim City or Railroad Tycoon doesn’t mean that we should pursue careers in city management or civil engineering. This shows the dissonance between aptitudes and decisions in a game versus those in real life. If there is anybody reading this who is confused by what I mean by dissonance, you should just think of it as the juxtaposition of the awareness of what is just part of a game and what is reality.

The choices of control and mayhem that gamers are offered and often make in games like The Sims aren’t accused of increasing incidents of psychopathy. With psychopathy, there is a sense that the condition is something that one is born with and that cannot be changed. Still, if someone could show that psychopaths who play The Sims are more likely to act in manipulative and destructive ways in real life, I would worry about people incorrectly believing that The Sims creates criminal psychopaths. A part of me has to believe that, given the low proportion of citizens who commit violent crimes with guns, something to the same effect may be happening regarding video games and gun violence.

Moving on to some light violence, I think back on the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series in which I skated around town without wearing a helmet, leading to graphical depictions of blood at the meeting of my virtual head and the pavement. I had many reactions to this, admittedly ranging from laughter to disgust to indifference, but one reaction I never had was “I should go skate without wearing a helmet.” Did it desensitize me at the time? I remember watching my brother try to do a trick on his bike and fall on his head. I wasn’t shocked—panicked is a much better word. I sort of expected there to be a large pool of blood on the concrete and an enormous chunk out of my brother’s head, and upon seeing none of that I helped my brother up and took him inside to my parents because I was so convinced that there was no way that he could be okay. Even though he and I were still relatively young at the time, we had a conversation consisting mostly of “Thank God for that helmet. Helmets are so important.” And this conversation occurred completely independently of our parents, who thought that we were overreacting.

Let’s take a look at the violent games now. One could argue that since Sid Meier’s Civilization series has been released, we’ve seen a decrease in violent dictatorships in the world. However, I will not argue this, since this article is not the least bit satirical. I do think that it is fair to argue, however, that the Civilization series hasn’t desensitized people to war or genocide, and it certainly doesn’t cause racism. This is despite its inclusion of war as a core game mechanic, the option to burn conquered cities to the ground and rebuild them with your own citizens in your own empire’s image, and the inclusion of various races and cultures complete with their own idiosyncrasies. In fact, on another day, I would argue that Civilization promotes more mature attitudes and opinions on these topics through the education acquired by players from participating with those issues.

Borderlands, Playable Character PromoEven more graphical games like Halo or Borderlands are certainly a gear-shift up from Civilization. You have guns, and you are killing people and things. You click the button or pull the trigger to conquer your foe, and seeing their dead body on the ground is what indicates to you that you’ve done a good job. Do you see what I mean by gear shift? And those games aren’t even the worst. They both sport a caricatured and almost cartoon-esque aesthetic which serves as a foundation for dissonance, separating the game from the real world. We have games which instead are built around aesthetic realism, like Call of Duty and Battlefield. These games seek to emulate real-world situations set either in the past or in a contemporary time. They strive to accurately represent weapons, people, combat, destruction, and killing. What’s more, a part of their core appeal is the ability to take this experience online. In other words, a selling point is the ability to fight with and kill other real people in real time. Oh joy, I might as well be writing the Manifesto for the Unified Rationalist and Religious Pointed Destruction of Violent Video Games. How can we know all of this and still not be concerned? In my mind, there are at least two things at the core of it, which are dissonance and substitution.

While we are experiencing unprecedented levels of realism and personal immersion in games, it still is not enough to completely overcome the dissonance we experience in games. No game has ever been shown to lead to violent behavior. Even in heinous incidents like what happened at Columbine, where the perpetrators had a history of playing violent games like Doom, all that is factually shown is a correlation. Even in that event, it is likely that the direction began with an affection for violence which led to the game, not the other way around. As far as cause and effect relationships, moving from game to behavior, there is one phenomenon which deserves serious attention based on history: suicide.

Before we dig into this at all, I need to mention that in virtually all incidences of suicide mentioned in this paragraph occurred in individuals believed to have been suffering from depression or other psychological condition. Online MMO’s, in particular in the heyday of Everquest, have been the motivation for suicide in players. For whatever reason, the experience was apparently enough in an extremely small proportion of players to overcome the dissonance and flow into the real world with irreversible, violent behavior. This is likely due to the amount of time and personal work invested in the game, in which a cognitive dissonance is created in the mind. This gets into some actual psychology/neuroscience, of which I am not a professional, so take it as you may. The mind knows that it is just a game, and yet it consists of the majority of life. The mind seeks to make sense of such seeming paradoxes, and thus begins to assume that the game is real. So, when death occurs in the game, resulting in the loss of what feels like thousands of hours of real work, there is nothing removing that experience from real life. The only other time this has happened has been with a game called Heavy Rain. This game, released in early 2010, seemed to encroach new ground in terms of the emotional impact it had on players. The traumatic and tragic events in the game led to numerous reports of depression, and was even enough for some depressed people around the world to commit suicide. On one hand, this is a monolithic achievement for the art world. On another, it is exceedingly unsettling. While the power of the game’s impact is often attributed to the medium it occupies, I don’t believe that the power comes from the medium. The power to (emotionally) move exists everywhere in art, regardless of medium.

The medium changes how we experience the art, just as much and yet no more than form and composition. Men and women have committed acts of violence both to themselves and to others because of a sculpture in the street, a painting in a museum, a book on their table, and a song on the radio. With other mediums, we are less likely to believe that what happened was “art happened, therefore action.” Most of us don’t connect experiencing art with actual experience, and are quick to point out the broader problems in the individual that lead to their behavior. While it may make it easier for us to believe that this can more easily occur in games since the medium focuses on the experience it offers, it doesn’t make it any more dangerous than other forms of media. In my mind, the real danger that we should identify from the seeming consequences of Everquest and Heavy Rain is not the danger of what games can do to the human psyche, but is rather the dangers of the specific incidence of addiction to gaming. Relying so much on games as to get so sucked into them as to cause suicide or clinical depression perfectly exemplifies some of the most tragic consequences of gaming addiction. When addiction and legitimate psychological ailments are set aside, games have never shown the potential to cause a complete abandonment of both conscious and unconscious awareness of dissonance between game and reality. And I will point out that graphic violence is not a core part of the equation for either Everquest or Heavy Rain. While these games are associated with excessive feelings of lethargy and sadness which is also shown to occur from real world trauma, the analogue for violence does not exist. PTSD from violent combat, for example, can be triggered by games as it can be triggered by anything else. But no game has ever been shown to cause PTSD.

The other reason not to freak out over violent games ranging from Halo to Call of Duty is a form of substitution. In the mind of a player in these games, it is very rare to reach a state of immersion where the player is thinking that he or she is pointing a gun at another living thing and killing it. Even if moments of that occur, there has never been a documented occurrence where this state is sustained over any period of time. What players are thinking of are things such as “What is the optimum angle for me to maximize my field of view? Where may another player identify as being safe? What is the correct assumption of my opponent’s decisions? What visual indicators are there to alert me to a potential problem?” Even moving cross-hairs over an enemy and pulling the trigger is contextualized more as a test of reaction time and dexterity than even firing a fake gun. If you rewrote every puzzle Portal to represent every player action and puzzle solution as the player shooting and killing an enemy and devouring their soul, the only difference would be aesthetic. The same goes for the gameplay of VVVVVV or Super Hexagon. Games like World of Goo and Little Inferno are having narratives built around the joke that the nonviolent gameplay implies dark and violent outcomes. Even Puzzle Quest, which is basically Bejeweled with an independent, RPG-style character-leveling system and narrative, doesn’t feel any more or less violent than any other game with a more direct representation of combat. In fact, combat in Bejeweled doesn’t even really feel different. It feels like we’re doing the same thing but with a different device. A cynic may say that this actually testifies to the powerful effect violence has on us, no matter how it’s represented. I don’t see any support for what that cynic has to say, though. I don’t see any reason to think that a re-release of Tiny Tower, which is only tweaked by substituting the details of objects in the game to make the game into a violent conquest, is going to be experienced by the player as a device for violence rather than a device for construction.

I’ll point out that sustained immersion is different from sustained patterns of thought. For example, Grand Theft Auto players may be prone to thinking that they should chop down that tree in their yard by running their car into it, but they never equate the tree and car in the game (and the damage wrought by their in game actions) to their tree and car in real life. The Grand Theft Auto example perfectly exemplifies the substitution I’m talking about. Players aren’t participating in the violence, but rather solving puzzles which appear to be violent. Gamers aren’t thinking about killing or violence. In fact, it is possible that the dissonance between the simple problem solving the gamer is focusing on and the violent graphical representations of that problem solving are what lead to desensitization toward violence. This explanation would explain why this desensitization is temporary, as the removal of positive reinforcement that solving problems leads to violence allows the reaction to violence to be recalibrated according to the real world.

Let’s suppose that I’m wrong, and that: 1) there is something inherently dangerous about the medium which exists independently of any other medium; 2) the way our minds process violence makes it uniquely vulnerable as opposed to anything else; 3) that violence in games have inherently destructive effects on individuals and society. Then, research will show me the error of my ways, and I’ll gleefully join in as we violently cast out, break, and burn all remnants of violent games. Otherwise, I think research will uncover the complexity of all forces at work here, will help remove unfair negative attitudes toward games in the long run, and will enable the industry to not only make better games, but to make them more responsibly. Because of that, I think that it’s great that the President has included video games in the dialogue about violence, although I certainly grant that the way in which that is presented is unfair. I choose to believe that society will continue to get better in America and across the world, and I hope that plans like President Obama’s bear good fruit and reduce occurrences of tragic violence. I have faith that such progress will be made, just as I have faith that we’ll continue to enjoy and defend the games we love so much.

Below is a video from StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, a show which airs on YouTube through The Nerdist. This episode is called “The Science of Video Games,” and it should start just as Neil deGrasse Tyson asks Will Wright about video game violence. Below that, I have included several more links if you want to learn more about the topic.

Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson – The Science of Video Games

ScienceBlogs: Violent videogames and desensitization

Entertainment Software Association: Games and Violence

The Economist: Chasing the Dream

ProCon.org. Video Games: 22 Charts & Graphs on Video Games & Youth Violence

Penny Arcade. Extra Credits: The Myth of the Gun

Wikipedia: Video Game Controversies

2 thoughts on “White House Calls for Research on Links Between Video Games and Violence

  1. Good article; I hate to nit-pick but there was one thing that irked me. Halo is a piece of art. It is what some people call a sci-fi fantasy. Borderlands is more similar to a farce. While they both have violent elements, they are very different games.

  2. Thanks for the comment! Seriously. It was thoughtful and insightful, and it added to the the conversation. I’ll do my best to pay you the same courtesy.

    Those are valid points, and I’m glad you made that clarification for people. I will point out, however, that both Halo and Borderlands are works of art. Halo is sci-fi and Borderlands is a farce, and those elements bring with them certain narrative structures and literary devices. While these differences are just a small part of what makes the games so wildly different, they were brought up in relation to each other for other reasons. They are both violent, and they both feature feature an intentionally cartoon-like, non-realistic visual aesthetic. You rightly pointed out Halo and Borderlands are vastly different games despite those similarities, and I’m sure that will help others who may be confused. Thanks again. I’m always happy to discuss differences between games, especially since they are often incorrectly understood to be extremely similar due a designation like FPS.

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