Editor's note: Jose's article on video games and their effect on violent behavior is a good starting point for anyone interested in the research fueling the debate. -Brett


On June 7, 2003, 18-year-old Devin Moore shot and killed three police officers. Moore stole the gun of officer Arnold Strickland, fired upon him and two other officers, then proceeded to steal a police cruiser, only to be arrested moments later. At the time of his arrest, Moore said, "Life is like a video game: You got to die sometimes."

Moore claimed that he had been inspired by the game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and many people felt that the makers of the game should be held accountable for influencing this horrible crime. However, did Moore commit the act because he played the game, or was he drawn to the game because of a longstanding attraction to violence? Should games be allowed to depict acts of violence if people can potentially mimic that violence in real life?

 

Video games are a part of everyday life for people of all different ages. In fact, according to the NPD Group, a leading North American market research company, the video game industry generates more income than the movie industry in the United States. Since their conception, video games have become a significant part of popular culture in America. At first, these games were limited by technology. But as technology advanced, so too did the ability to create more advanced games. In the world of modern gaming, players can find themselves in a variety of situations that challenge them mentally as well as emotionally.

That is where many people find a problem with modern gaming. Games create a paradoxical sense of verisimilitude in the player. But even the most realistic games bend the rules of reality to create a compelling narrative, much like films do. It is for this reason that many parents feel outraged to know that some video games contain graphic depictions of violence. They worry that their children are becoming desensitized.

The problem originates with the seemingly random violent crimes committed by teenagers. News of school shootings, stabbings, and other incidents of violence amongst students flooded the media after the mass popularization of video games in the mid-1990s. Parents demanded to know why these teenagers were committing such horrible crimes. When the police examined the lifestyle of the people responsible for these crimes, they found that the perpetrators often shared the same traits.

First, they were all alienated from the people around them. Secondly, they all showed signs of strange behavior before the acts were committed. And finally, these teenagers all played and owned at least one violent game. In a few cases, the people who committed such violent crimes claimed to be inspired by the video games they played. As a result, the media put video game developers under extreme scrutiny, with Florida attorney Jack Thompson as the self-proclaimed spokesperson of outraged parents.

 

Jack Thompson

Thompson argued that violent video games caused an increase in aggressive behavior and thoughts in the individuals who played them. He directed people to a variety of research which allegedly demonstrated his arguments.

One such study attempted to see how players familiar with a violent game would react compared to people unfamiliar with the game, as well as whether those players were susceptible to desensitization. The study found that players familiar with a particular violent game were less likely to react negatively to violence committed on computer-controlled characters onscreen. Players who were not familiar with a game could also enjoy the game when they were reminded that it was just a game and that their actions did not actually affect anyone.

The study noted this as sign of "moral disengagement," yet the study failed to take into account the fundamental way gamers interact with games. Players are not killing actual people. In games such as Grand Theft Auto, the violence committed by the player makes sense in context if the character they are playing is a violent character motivated by self-interest. Many times, when the character presented is "evil," the player often feels disconnected from the character. This is a tool developers use to create meaningful experiences within a game.

Thus, as Henry Jenkins, a professor at USC, points out, much of the research done on subject of video game desensitization and effects on aggression is fundamentally flawed:

…most of [the studies conducted on aggression as a result of playing games] are inconclusive and many have been criticized on methodological grounds. In these studies, media images are removed from any narrative context. Subjects are asked to engage with content that they would not normally consume and may not understand. Finally, the laboratory context is radically different from the environments where games would normally be played. Most studies found a correlation, not a causal relationship, which means the research could simply show that aggressive people like aggressive entertainment. That’s why the vague term “links” is used here.

Jenkins represents the majority of gamers who argue that games do not cause an increase in violent behavior, nor do they desensitize people to violence.

One of the first things children learn is the ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality. Without this ability, bedtime stories and movies would destroy a child’s perception of everyday life. It is this ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality that every gamer utilizes when they play a game. People who commit violent crimes do so because they believe their acts are somehow justified and because their perception of reality is warped. The fact that they play violent video games just demonstrates how popular games are and that violent people gravitate towards violence.

But so do a lot of people who are not violent. The rise of slasher films in the mid-1980s did not come about because people suddenly wanted to go out and commit murder. People are fascinated by violence, but they prefer to observe it in a fantasy setting where the people watching understand that what they are seeing is not reality.

Another argument made against games is that they teach children how to become killers. This stems from the military’s use of interactive virtual reality to train soldiers. This training allows the military to test a soldier’s ability to react to stress on the battlefield. Opponents of video games argue that children who are exposed to military simulation games, such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, are being trained to think like soldiers themselves.

It is this very argument that a recent episode of Penn and Teller: Bull Sh*t attempted to tackle. On the show, magicians Penn Jillette and Teller discuss popularly held beliefs and take apart the arguments supporting those beliefs by examining research and consulting with scientists and other experts. In the episode, Penn and Teller talk to nine-year-old Harrison Nicks. Harrison is allowed to play violent video games by his parents, who have faith in their child’s ability to differentiate between video games and reality. He plays first-person shooters, games that simulate war and combat situations. Harrison is an attentive and hardworking student at school, is not socially alienated, and does not, despite all those hours of gaming, know how to fire a weapon, nor does he have any desire to do so.

So to debunk the theory that war games teach children how to become desensitized killing machines, his parents agree to allow Harrison to take a trip to a gun range, where, under heavy supervision, he will fire a military grade 5.56 millimeter M16 assault rifle, the child’s choice of gun in Modern Warfare. Harrison is given the gun, points it down range, and pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. The National Guard officer present informs Harrison that the gun’s safety is still on. Harrison stares at the gun fruitlessly, finally asking the officer to remove the safety. The officer does, and again the child aims the rifle down range to the target set up for him. He pulls the trigger once, firing a three shot burst and getting hit in the shoulder by the butt of the rifle; he was not prepared for the gun’s recoil. Down range the target is completely untouched. When the officer asks Harrison if he would like to make another attempt, he refuses. Minutes later Harrison is seen in the arms of his mother, weeping while he informers her that he never wises to fire a gun again.

Harrison was not turned into a killing machine by video games. The reason military programs that implement virtual reality to train their soldiers are effective is because the military spends a great deal of time preparing a soldier’s mind for wartime situations. Games do not simulate actual warfare any more than action movies do. In fact, since the rise of violent video games, the number of violent crimes committed by people under the age of 21 has gone down.

So it is clear that video games are not training children to become killers, but do games have any other harmful effects? One study attempted to see if language in video games was affecting players. Dr. James D. Ivory examined the games that sold the most in one year. Of these games, he and his colleagues discovered that games that contained the most profanity were rated M for mature and were intended for adult gamers. "Generally, profanity was found in about one in five games and appeared primarily in games rated for teenagers of above," Ivory wrote in his findings. "Games containing profanity, however, tended to contain it frequently. Profanity was not found to be related to games’ sales or platforms."

The most important part to note is that profanity was not found to be related to game sales. During the year the study took place, the highest grossing video game was not a violent and profane shooter. It was Wii Sports, a game that uses a motion controller to allow players to simulate sports such as bowling and baseball. Games that contain the most profanity are regulated by retailers and cannot be purchased by anyone under 18.

If games are not responsible for these acts of violence, how does one explain this rise of violence seemingly by video games? Dr. Maria Cole, a sociology professor at Stony Brook University, argues that such violence is a result of the progressive educational movement. In her Sociology 105 class, she discusses that such acts of violence are the result of conduct disorder. Conduct disorder results from parents who raise their children so permissively that they end up developing sociopathic behavior. These people are morally underdeveloped because the adults in their lives withheld elementary moral instruction in order to allow them more freedom of expression. The result is a young person who believes his actions have no consequences.

Do these people play video games? Of course they do. But they also watch movies and television. The simple act of doing something does not mean that the action caused a person to become violent.

When students decide that they are justified in picking up a weapon and hurting another human being, something is very wrong. But one cannot blame violent entertainment just because it is convenient. Saying that a video game caused a person to brutally kill another human being is an insult to the creative process that goes into making a game.

Game developers do not create games because they want people to get hurt or killed. They want their players to experience something that will move them and cause them to react. It is the same reaction that a person gets when they are engaged in a novel. Thus, it is the responsibility of the parents to ensure that their children are capable of understanding the difference between fantasy and reality, and that they understand that actions have consequences.