Violence in Video Games, Part One

Words: 5609 Approximate Reading Time: 40-45 minutes

Way back in the day – long before I started this blog – I’d always been interested in the topic of violence in video games. As someone who grew up with video games, I experienced the evolution of that violence over time. From the cartoonish stuff like having Mario jump on a Goomba’s head to shooting demons into bloody pulps in Doom to the most realistic violence displayed in games like The Last of Us.

And as I grew up with the violence itself, I also grew up with the moral panics surrounding that violence. From blaming games like Doom for the school shooting in Columbine in the late 90’s, to the crusade led by Jack Thompson in the 2000’s, to even the occasional attempt today to blame violent video games for mass shootings. The premise that violence in media breeds literal violence in people has been presented over and over again.

As time went on and games became more ubiquitous, it became harder to take this talking point seriously, for multiple reasons. Obviously, if violent video games did directly lead to real-world violence, then the proliferation of violent games should have been accompanied at some point by a massive spike in violent crime…a thing that never happened. And when that spike continually failed to manifest, the talking point started to fall to the wayside.

Nevertheless I was still interested in the topic from a couple of perspectives. The first was about the real effect of violent media on how we process violence more generally. There has been so much research on the subject, and I think it’s worth exploring in a lot of detail, for reasons I’ll explain below.

I was also interested for a specific reason about how we – as gamers – talk. Talk to each other, talk to non-gamers, talk about these moral crusaders that necessarily frustrate us. Because when I would look to much of the rhetoric surrounding these crusaders, you’d see so much violence that you could almost find yourself wondering if those crusaders were right – maybe video games were making people violent. While I still don’t think that’s the takeaway people should have, it is an understandable takeaway, and I thought it would be useful to address that topic of how gamers talk about violence in the media they consume.

The plan I’d always had for the essays on violence in video games doesn’t really fit in today’s context, though. And so while it was a subject I wanted to do, the exact form it would take just never materialized.

But a recent incident re-sparked my interest in the topic. A few weeks back Bungie sued a member of the Destiny 2 community for a variety of things – the player had violated the game’s rules by using various cheat softwares while playing, the player had sold in-game items from a stolen account, and the player was engaged in harassment of developers at Bungie (including issuing slightly-veiled threats to the studio as a whole or specific employees).

This incident isn’t the first time that Bungie itself has faced this kind of harassment, nor is it the only studio to have faced this kind of harassment.

But I found this to be a useful starting point for talking about violence in video games because of how a certain segment of people responded to these bits of news. How a lot of people (certainly not a majority, it seems, but more than there really should be) found the idea of threatening these people to be negligible or even justified.

So in talking about violence in video games, I think it would be useful to step back and examine two major topics:

  1. What is the effect of violent media (and violent video games specifically) on how we understand and process violence in real-life?
  2. How should we understand the impact of violent rhetoric, specifically that rhetoric coming from people who regularly play video games?

Because both topics are fairly big, I wanted to break them up into separate essays. So I will tackle the actual research on the subject in this essay, and use the next one to talk about the problems of how we talk about this stuff.

Why Bother Researching This Stuff?

Let’s begin with a simple premise. We know that violent video games don’t directly cause people to engage in violent crimes like shootings. A simple analysis of violent crime over the past few decades show that this connection isn’t valid. As I noted before, if it were the case, then we would expect to see a massive (and growing) spike of violent crime over that time period. In fact, if we just use the United State for our reference violent crime overall has dropped pretty sharply since 1990, with small upward bumps here and there – hardly the kind of trend you would expect to see by any stretch of the imagination.

So does that mean we get to dust off our hands and declare the subject thoroughly addressed? Well…no. It’s more complicated than that.

Since moral panics focus so intensely on the most intense violence, we’re missing a whole bunch of stuff going on below that. From the direct actions we cause (i.e. small acts of violence that wouldn’t be serious enough to involve the state), to more indirect actions that we allow (i.e. acts of violence against others that we ignore because we see such violence as justified in some way). We want to be worried about all of that stuff, too.

An obvious rejoinder here is to note that video games aren’t the only violent media in existence. There are plenty of violent movies and television shows and plays and stories throughout human history. One of the oldest stories in existence – Homer’s Iliad – is about as violent as anything you’d encounter in modern video games and movies (with the obvious exception, of course, that it doesn’t visually portray those things).

But here we want to be careful. Firstly, because most people who worry about violence in media don’t necessarily focus solely on video games. So this rejoinder is likely to fall flat. Secondly, because there really is something unique about video games: interaction. While we want to study the effect of violent media on human psychology in general, there is good reason to investigate the special effect that video games and the role of interaction would have on our psychology as well.

Okay, so let’s say we grant that we should research it. But why should we bother knowing what the research says, unless it really does say that there’s a direct link between video games and violent crime?

The importance of understanding the research in more depth is twofold. Firstly, understanding the effect of violent media on how we process violence in the real world and on our behavior allows us to better understand ourselves and how to counteract the influence. If video games do make us more violent in some way – even if not by causing us to commit real-world violence – we should want to know about that.

Secondly, the temptation among so many gamers is to just assert that video games have no effect on us. Usually this comes from a place of self-defense: if video games do have an effect, then that means I’ve been affected – probably in the bad way. Thus, I’ll need to stop playing video games…but I don’t want to do that! But by falling into this trap, we end up dismissing any and all evidence in favor of the conclusion that allows us to keep playing. And if the evidence does point to an effect, then we’re actually causing more harm by ignoring it.

So it’s by engaging with this evidence in a more honest fashion that we can arm ourselves both against the influence of the games themselves, and against criticism when people attempt to lay problems at the feet of violent games.

What Does the Research Say?

To begin this section, there has been a massive amount of research on the subject of just violent video games on individual psychology and behavior. It would be ridiculous to run through every single book and article ever written, so I wanted to try to provide a summary as best I could.

The very short version is that there is a significant ongoing debate. Arguably the closest to a consensus you could reach is that violent video games do impact how we process our emotions, but the impact is small. Even then, that would be simplifying the debate, because there are certainly plenty of scholars who would argue and studies that show no connection. The consensus I mentioned is merely a sort of midpoint – whether that midpoint is correct is another matter entirely.

It might be useful to break these impacts into specific components.

Violent Behavior

The most obvious thing we’re looking for is the literal effect on how we act. Does playing a first-person shooting game cause us to want to go out and shoot people or things? Does playing a fighting game make us more inclined to punch people?

We obviously want to understand this connection because the direct impact of media violence on our behavior has strong real-world implications. After all, if it turns out that there’s a strong impact, then people are going to get hurt…or even killed.

But the research on this direct effect is mixed, and even where there is an effect it’s not as pronounced as we might fear.

A variety of studies have shown at least some connection between exposure to violent video games and aggression. Studies have found participants who have engaged in more “deviant” or “rebellious” behavior, increased levels of aggression, increased levels of aggression…and, well, increased levels of aggression.

However, that isn’t the only result that psychological science has found. There have also been quite a few studies that have found no link whatsoever. And even a couple of studies that suggested that in some cases exposure to violent video games could decrease aggression.

And then of course there are studies that have shown literal mixed results – some participants show more violent behaviors, while other participants don’t. The implication or direct arguments made from these studies is that it might not be the violence in video games themselves that are causing some participants to be more aggressive. Rather, there is some interaction between the violence and the particular participants (i.e. those participants are already more prone to violent behavior) that then causes them to be more aggressive.

It’s in attempting to wade through the many studies that we run into a problem. Which of these scholars are right? You could easily imagine a group wanting to impose stronger restrictions on video games pointing to the first set of studies as proof that violent video games are a scourge and we need to do something about them. And we can similarly imagine those of us who enjoy video games in general – and violent games among them – using the second set as proof that there’s not really a problem.

Digression: Social Science

This is the point where we start to get into the weeds of social science research more generally. Broadly speaking, to really engage with this stuff we would need to study psychology and experimental methods and statistics and all sorts of subjects to get a firm grasp of the details. Key to all of this would be research design. What are we looking for, how are we going to look for it, and what is possible within the constraints of technology, time, money, and so on.

It’s easy enough for us to imagine all sorts of experiments to try and demonstrate whether or not there is a clear link between violence in games and real-world violence, but the problem is that scholars have much more limited resources than we imagine. Ethics in researching means that there are limits to what you can expose human subjects – and especially children – to, and how you do so. The pressures of research and publication mean it’s hard to spend years upon years of your life following a small group of children just to gather data that might be useful for one or two papers (that’s setting aside the feasibility of keeping all of those participants in the study). Funding issues mean that we can’t just take thousands of people and scan their brains under all sorts of different scenarios to test all these different possibilities.

So research design works within constraints. And so good research relies on a good design. What is the theory we’re trying to test? What experiment will we be conducting? What variables will we be looking for? How will we be controlling for all sorts of random noise? How will we know when we’ve found something – or not found something?

The random noise part is particularly important. A somewhat common response to hear whenever someone would bring up these psychology experiments – usually experiments that might expose children for an hour or so – was that these were all “short term” effects, and not really indicative of the real world, where people would be playing for hours over the course of years.

But the reason that psychologists do experiments in those controlled environments is to make sure that they’re comparing the same things. It’s not really going to be possible to get clean data by just asking people who play a wide variety of games about how the “violent” games impact them. For a lot of reasons. Someone who plays Street Fighter – a violent game but one that is pretty bloodless – compared to someone who plays Mortal Kombat – a violent game in the same genre that is much gorier – will likely yield different effects. And yet we can’t control for all those effects in “the real world.” So putting people into an environment where you can more easily keep track of the variables and filter out noise is important. For instance, by having participants play the same game(s) and seeing how they react.

Why do I bring up all this stuff about experiments and research design? For two reasons. One, if we’re going to engage with this research, we want to understand how it works. Both what its limitations are – and why those limitations exist – and what scholars are trying to accomplish. Two, because these kinds of questions are the exact things that actual scholars are dealing with and debating among themselves. Which is why you get so many different results from these studies: scholars are often still trying to figure out how to properly study these things.

That’s why, for example, we have some later studies that suggest that actually the real cause of increased aggression is not the violence itself, but some other factor. In one case, competition, in another case, frustration. These two research articles suggest that when you isolate the violent content from those factors, you remove the negative effects. And if these articles are correct, then it brings the results of many previous papers into new light.

It’s also important to understand the nature of how this research is done because an important element of summarizing research is publishing what are called “meta-analyses.” Meta-analyses are literally studies of studies – a scholar or group of scholars pulls up a bunch of published research on a subject and sees what the collective results are. There have been a lot of meta-analyses on video games and violence, which again have turned out mixed results – some saying that there’s a significant effect, and others saying that they don’t. In fact, I’m only linking two here for the sake of simplicity, but there are plenty more.

But I wanted to bring up these meta-analyses because there are plenty of important problems that go into those as well. The latter of those two analyses – the one that finds no connection – also warns that there’s a fundamental problem: the articles that appear to have better research designs also tend to be the ones that find no effect. So with so many studies, if you include all of them…then you’re going to find some effect, because there will be plenty of “not good” studies included. This goes back to the fundamental research design problem: if we don’t have a good sense of what we’re doing, then we can wind up with bad results. This effect can go in either direction, though, so we want to be careful in therefore deciding that the “direct link” papers are all garbage because that’s the conclusion we want.

Okay, but did we really need to cover all this stuff about research to get to this conclusion?

Well, yeah. Because it’s easy for us – especially when we have no expertise in a field and an interest in a particular outcome – to fixate on studies that support our conclusions and dismiss studies that run counter to those conclusions. If you love video games and play lots of violent games, you have an interest in finding evidence that violent games have no effect on our psychology. And whenever you run into a study that says they do have an effect, then you want to rationalize it away: oh, this person was basically bribed (which does happen…but not every time); this person just has an ax to grind (which does happen…but not every time); the research design was sloppy (which does happen…but not every time); this was just a fluke (which does happen…but not every time).

So to fight that bias in our thinking, we want to do two things. Firstly, we want to try and gather as much evidence as we can, so that we can make sure that if there’s a mix of different results we will capture that mixture. Hence the fact that what I’m showing you is pretty divergent – it reflects a divergence in the actual studies.

Secondly, we want to make sure that we take the studies that oppose our conclusions seriously. If they’re bad, we need a good reason for why they’re bad. It’s not enough to point to little problems here and there unless we can explain why those little problems really matter.

Violent Affect

Alright, so let’s shift from actual violent acts to what is called “affect.” Affect here refers to emotional responses, but I’ll also use it as a shorthand for things like thought processes as well. Basically, everything that goes on under the hood.

Another term you may have heard in this context is “desensitization,” which refers to how after we are repeatedly exposed to some kind of phenomena, our brains start to “get used” to it. As we get used to the stimulus, our brains and bodies respond differently. Something that used to make us excited would over time feel normal and even boring as it happens more and more frequently. And in the context of violence, as we see a lot of violence in games, we start to find violence less shocking or viscerally surprising. We get used to the violence, and our brains and bodies adjust to what we’re seeing.

Why do we care about affect, as opposed to actual violence? For instance, let’s say that it turns out that video games had absolutely no effect on violent behavior whatsoever: would it matter if it still gave us a more violent affect?

The answer is yes. Because the affect in this sense relates to things like empathy, social behavior, cooperation, and a host of related emotions and cognitions. These are important emotional and psychological responses to track and be aware of because of how they impact us personally, and how they impact social and political life.

Just as an example, imagine you see a group of people protesting in the streets. Let’s say that you don’t agree with these protesters. So then you also see that these protesters are being harassed by police officers – perhaps the officers are even physically assaulting the protesters.

In seeing this, if you have a more violent affect you are more likely to see that kind of physical abuse of these protesters as justified. You may personally feel a sense of antipathy toward those protesters that rises to the level of wishing to do harm to them (although we will grant that actually physically assaulting them is something you wouldn’t do), and so your dislike allows you to overlook certain injustices against those protestors. And how much injustice and what kind of injustice you will allow is going to depend in part on your violent affect – the less empathy, the lower your sense of cooperation, the more you just generally see violence as an “acceptable” response, all of that means you are more inclined to see this violence as justified.

So that’s why violent affect matters. But what does the research say?

Here the research seems to lean a bit more towards a firmer conclusion. Playing violent video games seems to be linked with more violent affect in a variety of ways, though exactly how big of a change is not fully clear. But again, the overall consensus in the literature seems to be a small to moderate change.

For examples of what kinds of behaviors we’re talking about, there has been research that links playing violent games to:

There are quite a few results like these across a whole bunch of different studies. And while there are possible problems that could be looked into, we again want to be careful about trying to dismiss these studies out of hand simply because we don’t like them.

That said, there is also some evidence that cuts against these results. In particular, in looking at the “desensitization” idea and how our brains are affected by media violence, studies have been a bit more mixed. There are some studies that have found evidence of desensitization to violent stimuli by measuring bodily responses, or by using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to find evidence of our brains changing how they react to violence. But there are also quite a few newer studies that have also looked at participants with fMRI techniques and found no link between violent games and changes in our brains. And in one case, a study found no link between violent games and a loss of empathy.

So while there’s still some disagreement, even when focusing on the studies that have evidence of a link, many of them haven’t shown massive effects. It’s important to keep in mind that while a result can be statistically significant – meaning that there’s only the very tiniest of possibilities that the result is something you see by pure chance – that result itself can still be small. It might be useful to think about what that small change could mean. Because many of these results are attempts to turn complex psychological phenomena into simple numbers, we need to be aware of what those numbers mean. (As a side note, this can be a problem within social science – there are plenty of scholars who fixate on the numbers without asking what those numbers really mean at their core. I did an essay on this subject a while back in relation to Activision-Blizzard’s Diversity Tool.)

But all of this means that in order to really engage with this research, we’d ultimately need to take even deeper dives into the field of psychology and learn things like research design, statistics, etc.

Takeaways

Okay, so if this is a basic summary of the research, what should we take away from it all? There seems to be a fair possibility that there is a slight link between violent video games and violent behavior, though importantly A) we still don’t enough about that link and whether it’s actually the violence in the games that are the culprit, B) the effect may not be true for everyone, C) the effect appears to be fairly small overall, and D) it’s possible that the effect just isn’t there at all.

We have a decent amount of evidence about the relationship between violent games and violent affect/desensitization, though it’s still a bit up in the air to what extent those results are ultimately accurate. It certainly seems like the data in this area trend a bit more toward the conclusion that violent video games nudge us at least a bit towards emotional and cognitive responses that promote or allow violence.

But in stepping back to look at this, we want to think about how these kinds of effects are not a mark of doom upon each player. That any given gamer has a history with violent games does not mean that they are a violent person – even if every proposed effect were true, that would be a radical oversimplification of the psychological research.

But I think it’s important to remember that our role, as gamers, is not to reject evidence, but to internalize it and ask what we can do about it.

Perhaps the most immediate question we may ask if we are personally invested in the question as gamers is whether playing violent games makes us bad people. The short answer is “no,” but we need to be more careful with how we approach the question.

I think one initial response, the most immediate way that gamers respond to any attempt to link video games and violence, is to worry about what that link says about us individually. I like violent games, but I know that being a violent person is bad. But if there’s a link between video games and violence in any way, surely that means that I am violent, and that would make me bad. I don’t want to be bad, so the solution is that the evidence must be bad.

Or a related thought process: to acknowledge the impact of violent video games on individual psychology is to acknowledge that people can be manipulated. I can be manipulated. And I like to think of myself as a rational and reasonable person, someone who would be able to know when I’m being manipulated and prevent it. So perhaps I’ll grant that there might be a link, but violent games aren’t impacting me.

Both of these responses are driven by self-defense, as I mentioned earlier. We generally recognize what kinds of things are “bad,” and don’t want to possess those traits. But sometimes we solve the problem not by trying to be “good,” but by pretending that the bad things don’t exist. Thus, I can keep playing violent games, because I can either pretend that the research is bad and thus there’s no effect, or by pretending that I am unique and unaffected by everything.

But regardless of the path we take, it’s a bad argument. In truth, we’re engaging in a thought process that is fundamentally impossible to prove. What kind of person would you be if you never played a violent video game in the first place? To answer that, it’s not enough to look at some similar person, but to literally go into a different timeline and compare two versions of yourself. We can’t do that. That’s why so many of the tools for social science research exist – to help get as close as we can to that idea.

Again, it’s more worthwhile to think of what we can do about all of this.

So let’s take violent affect and desensitization. If it’s the case that playing violent video games makes us less empathetic, less cooperative, more prone to justifying violence in our own lives or in the lives of others, then the answer is to address that newfound bias in ourselves. To work to make ourselves more empathetic, more cooperative, more skeptical about how violence is used. Engaging in tasks that could help cultivate things like empathy – seeing these things as skills that we practice and develop – is important for overcoming the influences of the violence in games and other media.

And of course it requires stepping back and examining our own thoughts and actions – in these cases, when it comes to violence. If we are so angry that we want to hit somebody (even if we wouldn’t actually do so), why do we have that emotional response? Is that response really appropriate for this situation? If we see violence done to somebody else, we want to stop and ask if that violence is truly justified, or if we’re ignoring the harm being imposed because it fits a narrative.

A useful example here would be the treatment of criminals, such as in prisons. So many forms of media train us to think of people in prisons as horrible people, and as such any harm visited upon them as justified – they’re “bad people,” and so they deserve “bad things” in return. Whether it’s physical abuse from other inmates or guards, rotten food, isolation, or anything similar, it’s easy to look the other way. If they didn’t want those bad things to happen, then they shouldn’t have committed a crime in the first place.

But that response is so engrained in us because of media. Because when you try to imagine someone in prison, you imagine the worst kinds of people, because those are the kinds of people usually portrayed in media. You imagine a “villain.” And yet, the actual research on the subject of prisons and punishment and reform all point to how none of this abuse is actually effective – the only thing it’s really good at doing is getting former prisoners to commit more crimes once they’re released.

I use this simply as a way of examining how our own thought processes really are influenced by the media we consume, and why fighting that bias is important. Because even if we – individually – don’t go out and assault or shoot people, the behaviors that we allow and the policies that we support can end up having real and serious effects on others. Even when we don’t go out and commit violence, we may wind up allowing violence that shouldn’t happen.

Yet on a more positive note, that all of this violence has some effect on us should not lead us to the conclusion that people who play violent games are bad people, or violent people. There will, of course, be members of the community that are bad and/or violent. In the next essay I’ll be talking about how the community as a whole should deal with that problem. But for now an important takeaway of everything we know is that we can fight back against those effects. The first step requires understanding what’s going on inside our brains, and a commitment to not ignoring those effects.

Concluding Remarks

As I mentioned at the top of this essay, I’ve long been interested in the topic of violence in games. Stemming from a whole host of things – my own history with violent media and my current consumption of it, my experiences growing up seeing the political rhetoric against video games, my later studies of politics and ethical philosophy – I really wanted to try and bring all these kinds of topics together into a coherent whole, at least as best I could.

Ultimately, if any of us wished to really dive into the science of this, we’d need to become psychologists. We’d need to study all sorts of varied topics, engage in real criticism of the limits of given studies while really struggling with the problem of how we study these questions. It’s a lot of work, and no one is wrong for refusing that call. That’s part of why we have so many experts in different fields – they can focus on the research part, and we can read it.

And even what I have here is limited. While I have training in some of the subjects, I importantly don’t have training in the most relevant fields – things like psychology and the methods for proper psychology experimentation. Even this essay can only scratch the surface of the debate. There is still more reading that needs to be done.

But I thought this essay would be useful because the one thing I really wanted to show is that the “violence in video games” discussion is not as simple as people would like.

People hoping to get rid of those games entirely, or regulate them more heavily, or blame them for societal ills, all of them are oversimplifying any potential causal connection between violent games and real-world violence.

But those of us who enjoy these games cannot simply pick and choose the results we like or pretend that such an influence doesn’t exist at all.

So instead it’s important to really dive into the subject and grapple with the effects of these studies. Because a fairly basic psychological principle is that we’re affected by our environment. The experiences we have shape our thought processes, our emotional responses, and our behavior. It may not be in a perfectly determined manner, but it happens. And so a simple logical extension is that playing violent games probably has some effect on us. So sitting down, figuring out what that effect is, and then asking what we do about it, is much more useful in a lot of ways.

If for no other reason than it gives us a better way to talk about these subjects whenever the next moral panic occurs.

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