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Last week I said that I wanted to talk about violence in video games. In particular, I wanted to examine the research surrounding whether violence in games impacts us, and how we should talk about violence in media.
Last week’s essay provided a broad summary of the psychological research on the topic. The short answer is that findings are rather mixed. There is potentially some evidence that exposure to violent games increases violent behavior – but there is also evidence that it has no effect at all. There is slightly better evidence that it impacts our “affect” – our emotional and psychological responses to how we feel about violence or how we process violent emotions or how we perceive violence as an acceptable response. But even when we’re talking in the broad terms of “violent games make us more violent,” the effects are generally small.
When I introduced the topic last week, I had mentioned that the impetus for these essays had been a story in the news. The legal team at Bungie had sued a Destiny 2 player for several different things, such as evading bans, copyright infringement, and using cheating software. The lawsuit also spends a fair amount of time covering the player’s harassment of game developers. The player had used his social media account to issue some veiled threats against Bungie studios or specific Bungie employees. While the threats were not a specific cause of action in the lawsuit, they were a primary focus of a lot of coverage about the story: Bungie is suing someone for harassing its devs!
But it wasn’t the lawsuit and news stories themselves that inspired my essay. It was the conversation about the lawsuit.
Specifically, when you went into the comments to these stories or on social media to see what people were saying about this story, you found two responses. One group – composing the vast majority of responders (let’s say 85%, but merely as a rough estimate) – was supportive of Bungie and expressed disdain for someone who would harass developers like that. The other group – composing a much smaller percentage – was basically attempting to dismiss the lawsuit, even going so far as to arguing that it was wrong to take Bungie’s side in this issue.
It was that second response that I was focused on. While I think there’s very good reason to believe that this group is a small minority of overall players, the response itself was still worrying. In almost all of these cases people were effectively justifying harassment. Not criticism, even the non-constructive kind, but actual harassment. A sizable portion of responders were basically suggesting that Bungie was at fault, whether for not making Destiny 2 a good game in their eyes, or just by being a large studio.
I mentioned last week that I had always wanted to do a deep dive on the topic of violence in games, and the focus was not on the “do they cause violence?” question, but on how we talk about that question.
In many older iterations of this discussion – when the moral panics took hold – it was easy to find gamers using incredibly violent and harmful language to attack the instigators of these panics. In the early 2000’s, for example, when the lawyer Jack Thompson had risen to national prominence on his anti-violence crusade, you could go into just about any forum and find people wishing violent death upon him.
Arguably this response reached its worst point with GamerGate (a phenomenon so complex that really the only single source I can provide is the Wikipedia page, and even that is insufficient), when the use of threats and harassment were weaponized to shut out very specific forms of criticism and analysis and discourse about video games. The anger of a lot of gamers was directed at people normally on the margins of gaming culture, as a way of policing what “video games” were and should be: entertainment designed to cater specifically to straight white men.
All of these events share important factors, and the one I have always wanted to look at is how we talk about violence. Or more specifically, how we use violence to talk. Things like threats and harassment, as seen above.
I want to bring this up because even when the threats and attacks aren’t “real” – when the attacker isn’t actually going to “make good” on the threat – they still do harm, both to the target and to the broader community. And of course, it’s not enough to dismiss these threats as “fake,” because a non-zero percentage of people saying these things wind up actually following through…to the point that we should take threats seriously, at least as a social phenomenon.
And so the question I want to look at is…what do we do about this? Ultimately, what I will be doing is providing an argument for why we should very strongly reject the usage of this kind of language, and push back harder against it when we see it – in all cases.
Stopping a Moral Panic
Before diving too deep, I want to lay out an important axiom. This is meant to be a guiding principle for us as we investigate this topic.
These moral panics – people blaming video games for societal ills – suck, and it is in the interest of every video game player if they don’t happen.
I think it’s fair to say that every gamer can agree to that premise. At the absolute minimum, these kinds of panics can lead to the occasional stigmatization of video games for brief periods of time. At the worst, they can lead to unnecessary regulation and more serious stigmatization. Video games, and violent media in general, are an occasional punching bag for a certain subset of political and social actors. Using violent games as a scapegoat for other problems is a common tactic.
The less frequently these panics occur, and especially the harder it is to make a serious argument about these connections, the better off gamers will be in general.
I say all of this because there is something that can be done about these moral panics. It’s not necessarily possible to stop them entirely. But there are certain steps we as individuals can take to make sure that we don’t provide ammunition for those who want to kick off these panics.
The key to a moral panic lies in having a few major figures who have a good narrative to sell. For example, “violent video games lead to real-world violence” is a good narrative. It makes a level of intuitive sense, and it’s a fairly simple story with a fairly simple solution (i.e. “get rid of violent games”). Of course, we know that that simple narrative is wrong, but the narrative being wrong isn’t what matters. What matters is being able to sell it effectively.
The key to fighting a moral panic lies in the same strategy: having a good narrative. In the case of video games and violence, while the research is murky it isn’t bad. It’s possible to find a thread through the findings that suggest that we need to be more aware of and attentive to the impacts of violent media, rather than get rid of the media generally. There are stories that can be told to help explain how the influence of violent games is not a danger.
And so it may seem weird that I am now talking about “narratives” as though the facts of the debate don’t matter. But we are now in the realm of social and political debate. The facts themselves don’t matter, because “facts” don’t say anything on their own. What matters is the story we tell by putting those facts together.
Because we could look at the same psychology research on the influence of violent media on behavior and affect and tell two fundamentally different stories. We could highlight the studies that find a connection and spin a story about how this violence is a problem. Or we could highlight the studies that haven’t found a connection and focus on the relatively minor results in other studies to spin a story about how violence in media is fine. Same set of facts, two different narratives.
The two narratives in this debate end up being as follows:
Violence in video games is bad and causes players to become bad people, so it should be removed – ideally entirely.
Violence in video games is fine, and we should leave the question of responsible gaming to parents and individuals.
So in thinking about our own actions, it’s important to step back and ask ourselves the following question: what narrative do my actions promote?
Would someone point to my behavior – the way I talk to and treat others – as proof that video games are destructive? Or would they hold up my behavior as proof that there’s nothing wrong with all the violence in games?
And so here’s where that axiom I laid out at the beginning of this section comes into play. Every player hates these moral panics. You reading this right now hate these moral panics. It is in your interest to do whatever you can to prevent them. So it is also in your interest to make sure that your behavior could not possibly be pointed to as an example that video games are a problem.
What Do We Do About It?
Alright, so I’ve laid out how we should think about our behavior. What does that mean? Should we just make sure that we’re nice and non-violent? While the answer is “yes,” there’s more to it than just that.
Let’s start with a basic – though non-exhaustive – list of behaviors to avoid:
- Threats, both in the sense of “non-serious” ones and especially serious ones (i.e. “I will kill you”)
- Using violent imagery or language with regard to another person (i.e. “I hope this person dies in some horrible way that I will now describe”)
- SWATing (summoning police to a person’s house by claiming that there is a threat)
- Doxxing, both in the strict sense (revealing private information people wouldn’t normally have access to) and in the colloquial sense (promoting certain information that is normally publicly available)
- Harassment, including: calling a stranger, ordering a pizza to their house, stalking, taking/sending photos of a person or their residence, etc.
- Victim blaming, meaning to dismiss any bad behaviors by other people on the grounds that the victim “deserved” it (i.e. “if X developer made a better game, maybe people wouldn’t resort to harassing them”)
Again, this list isn’t meant to cover everything, but should give a basic idea of the behaviors that are wrong.
Now, the first rule is for people to not do stuff like this. Don’t threaten, harass, dox, etc. I think that’s going to be fairly uncontroversial. There will be some people who think that these kinds of behaviors are okay, either on some kind of principle (usually the principle being “I don’t like the person I want to threaten or harass”), or on the argument that they’re not being serious. That is, while they may threaten or harass a person, they don’t actually intend on physically attacking the person. So it’s all “harmless.”
I want to examine this second justification in particular. Because the idea of “it’s all in good fun” is a sort of childlike response to the charge that a person is engaging in behavior they shouldn’t. It’s like your sibling holding their hand just in front your face and chanting “I’m not touching you!” Yes, they technically aren’t, but they know that they’re doing something to get a reaction from you. It is still behavior that is bad. So to respond with “I didn’t really mean to threaten this person” or “I never actually said I would attack you” or “Sure I threatened you, but I didn’t actually physically harm you” is to ultimately miss the point. The behavior is still bad, regardless of whether it comes from a genuine desire and intent to follow through or not.
But again, for the most part, people will probably wind up agreeing that these kinds of behaviors are bad.
What’s particularly important is the second rule: to call out other people when they engage in this behavior.
This second rule is not just important, it’s probably more important than the first one. Because the number of people who engage in the most egregious behaviors – the people who threaten and harass, for instance – is small.
But there are a lot more people who enable those egregious actions. Who look the other way.
Sometimes a person ignores a bad action because they don’t like the victim. I might say to myself “I don’t like LGBT+ people, and so when I see this other guy harassing an LGBT+ developer, I’ll ignore it because I don’t like the developer.” This kind of behavior plays out all the time when marginalized communities are the target.
Sometimes a person ignores a bad action because they weren’t the perpetrator. I might say to myself “This other guy threatened this game critic, and sure I think that threats are wrong, but I don’t have to say anything because I wasn’t the guy who issued the threat; it’s not my responsibility.” This kind of behavior happened a lot during the GamerGate fiasco, and is still prevalent in different pockets of the gaming community.
And whatever the reasoning is for why a person looks the other way in the face of abuse, the effect is the same.
Firstly, the abused person gets harmed. The effect may depend on the type of abuse. Whether it’s threats that shut down a person’s ability to speak. Or people getting killed because of a SWAT call. Or people leaving game development because they can’t handle the constant abuse. It’s easy to think of all this stuff as “just words,” but the words do have a real impact. It’s easy to pretend that we can handle this stuff and brush it off, but usually we do it from a place of privilege – namely, the privilege of the person who has never gone through the abuse in the first place.
Secondly, people around the abused person start to bow out. If, for example, a female developer gets abused and winds up leaving game development, then other women will see that example and also choose to leave (or be less inclined to get involved). When one person is shouted down, it causes other people to shut up. People who otherwise might have valuable things to add to video games.
As a quick note, it is the case that for almost all of those engaging in this kind of harassment, all of this is the point. Many of the people engaging in this abuse – especially when it is abuse against marginalized groups – are doing it because they want the members of those groups to either shut up or leave. And the people who often enable that behavior want the same outcome.
And it is the case that doing all of that helps sell the narrative that video games are harmful to society. Because by wrapping up one’s identity in being a gamer, making your cause to promote what you think video games should be, and then using all of that to attack others, you wind up reinforcing the idea that that’s what video games are about. Video games are about attacking and threatening and harassing. Video games are about being violent towards others. You become a poster child for the kind of people who want to take your video games away from you.
Whether this behavior is caused by video games or merely a coincidence turns out to be irrelevant. Because remember, in the world of society and politics, what matters is the narrative. The association of so many people with such bad behavior is something that is simple to grasp, and that’s all that really matters.
Which is why it is so important to not just stamp out this behavior in ourselves, but also in others.
It is easy to focus on and point out the ethical reasons why people shouldn’t threaten and harass people. I did a bit of that a few paragraphs ago, but the problem with that argument is that it winds up being directed at people who fundamentally don’t care. Again, the reason that so much vitriol gets targeted against marginalized groups who talk about inclusion or better representation or the usage of stereotypes is that the people slinging that vitriol want the people in those groups to just be silent. Any harm is good, because it deters people from talking about these things.
So the answer does not really lie in appealing to peoples’ “better natures.” It’s important to have those kinds of arguments at the ready. Sometimes people engage in bad behavior out of ignorance, and are willing to learn and be corrected.
Instead, the focus I have made here is to appeal to self-interest. This kind of behavior makes us all look bad. Which is why silence isn’t enough. Silence here becomes a form of complicity – not calling out bad behavior when we see it (especially when it’s being directed at people we don’t normally agree with) is wrong, because we get to benefit from the bad behaviors of others. Even if we try to say that it’s not our responsibility, other people see that silence and judge us for it.
So if we really want people to stop blaming video games for various social ills, then gamers need to become the kind of people that are absurd to blame.
I find the study of violence in video games and its impact on us fascinating as someone who plays these games. I very much want to understand how my brain is being influenced, with the ultimate intent that I can gain a greater sense of control over it. If my thoughts and behaviors are being impacted by the media I consume, then I don’t want to reject that impact and pretend it doesn’t exist. I want to know what to do about it.
I find the way we talk about violence in media and video games in general fascinating because it relates to topics I have been literally studying for over a decade. I’ve used this essay to talk about video game culture specifically, but these problems are universal. The same issues play out across a multitude of different venues, and they often have the same cause and the same solutions. Video games may be unique as a medium, but the cultures surrounding video games are comprised of groups of human beings, and those groups aren’t unique.
And while I started these essays by talking about violence in games, it has stretched into a discussion about how we talk not just about the “video games lead to real-world violence” crowd, but also other forms of social criticism. So many of the same problems exist in the reaction to those discussions. There is a fundamental worry that if those criticisms are right – if video games do rely upon harmful stereotypes or simplifications of gender roles or fail to have substantive representations of marginalized groups – then that must mean that not only are the games we like bad, but we are bad as well. And so the urge is to reject the criticisms and attack the critics. Because if even one criticism gets through, then it’s all lost and games as a medium need to be destroyed.
It’s this simplistic understanding of the consequence of these discussions that leads to the problem of discourse that I am pointing out here. Rather than really bothering to listen to and understand the research on these subjects and the criticisms being made, we reject it all in favor of a story that allows us to consume everything without thought.
It is why I ultimately wanted to write these essays. Why I’ve wanted to write them for years…well over a decade. Because a large swath of video game culture is enamored with this sort of intellectual laziness that is genuinely harmful. It is hard and time-consuming to grapple with all of the complications of society and media and psychology and human nature and so on. But it is something that we still need to do.