Violence has become a popular theme in video games since the 1970’s. The idea of a first person interactive experience that involves shooting, beating, and killing has caused many to be repulsed and question the point behind these games. Violent video games emerged as a hot area of research nearly twenty years after they were first introduced. Scientists and game designers are still trying to fully understand the role of video games as a medium.
There have been many studies attempting to determine the media effects of video games. Media effects are a way of explaining the impact of mass media and media culture on the way an audience will think and act. Video games cannot be treated like other forms of media because they generate a unique player experience compared to watching a movie or reading a news article.
At the core of the violent video games debate, there is an inherent assumption that video games have enough influence change how we behave and teach us to hurt and kill. This has caused a massive generational panic to those who are unfamiliar with video games as a new, rising medium. Society should not focus their time trying to censor violent video games because the resulting media effects have not been properly researched and are not a pressing concern.
First, I would like to try and answer the question: Do video games have media effects? There is no simple way to answer this question; however, I think that it is obvious that video games do not have the power that most media portrays it to have. Extremists believe that violence in video games can turn young adults into psychopathic killers. This is clearly not the case and these people have zero evidence to back up their beliefs. I also do not believe that violent video games have no effect on the way we act because all media has a certain level of influence on all of us. I do not think it is possible to quantify the degree in which violent games can change a person because there has not been enough accurate research to theorize the actual media effects of video games.
Video games and other forms of violent media have been unfairly labeled as the cause of numerous recent school shootings because the government and press have convinced the public that video games have had something to do with the crimes under false assumptions. According to Henry Jenkins, professor at the USC School of Communications and Cinematic Arts, we are “in an era of 24 hour news, the networks already have experts on media violence in their speed dial, ready for them to arrive on the scene and make the same old arguments” (Jenkins). News stations are in a constant race to see who can get the story correct first. Furthermore, most video game players are under 40 years old, and most video game critics are non-game players and over 40. This leads to the spread of biased information that is often aimed to entertain the audience. I am sure that an article on how a video game gave a murderer the mindset to kill would make a much more intriguing story rather than the killer just being mentally unstable.
Accurate research done after these school shootings has proved that the moral fright over violent video games is purposeless. According to 2001 Surgeon General’s Report, “the strongest risk factors for school shootings centered on mental stability and the quality of home life, not media exposure”(Surgeon General’s Report). This is not saying that the school shooters did not play video games because that is probably not the case considering a survey in 2008 showed 97% of teens play video games, but it is saying that video games were not the reason the school shootings occurred (Pew Internet & American Life Project).
Most of the accurate research actually points in the other direction stating that video games do not contribute to youth violence and could possibly reduce it.
Federal crime statistics show that the rate of juvenile violent crime in the United States is at the lowest it has been in the past 30 years. In addition, minors who have been convicted of a crime consume less media before committing their crime than the average person in the general population (FBI Crime Statistics). This proves that there is no factual relationship between violent video games and adolescents performing violent acts because there is not only a downward trend in crime rates, but they are less influenced by media than the average citizen. Researchers have not only been able to disprove the panic of media effects, but as John Micklethwait points out, chief-editor in The Economist, video games could reduce violence in teens, “if games really did make people violent, this tendency might be expected to show up in the figures, given that half of Americans play computer and video games. Perhaps, as some observers have suggested, gaming actually makes people less violent, by acting as a safety valve” (Micklethwait). This was a major argument in sports violence considering many sports began as war games; however, they were argued to be ways to channel one’s anger. I agree with Micklethwait that violence in video games is not a demanding concern because video games have not shown any relationship with youth violence and, similar to the sports violence argument, video games could be a way for adolescents to release bad energy in a safe, nonviolent way.
Many psychologists have developed theories to reason why some people deny that media effects are real even though the hard evidence does not point in their favor. Brad Bushman, Ph.D., a professor of Communication and Psychology at the Ohio State University, outlines many of these theories in an article on why people might deny media effects with the first argument being fallacious reasoning. Fallacious reasoning means that it is difficult to predict extreme events, such as murder, using any risk factor including violent media. His next theory was called cognitive dissonance reduction, or that conflicting thoughts cause psychological discomfort. This meant that people who enjoyed playing video games would never think of enjoying something that might be harmful; therefore, video games could never lead to violence. His last main point was described as the third person effect. The third person effect states that people believe that media has a much stronger affect on others than it does on themselves (Bushman). All of Bushman’s intriguing arguments heavily rely on evidence that connects video game violence to real world violence.
My favorite answer to the question, “I’ve played violent video games for years. Why am I not a killer?” was actually by Bushman himself. He replied, “ My answer is simple. You come from a good, stable home. You have friends. You weren’t bullied in school. You have a healthy brain.” At first this confused me because the rest of his article attempts to link playing video games to violence. I later realized that Bushman does think playing violent video games could be a contributing factor to violent acts, but he doesn’t have any other evidence to prove this. He only has a clear idea of why people might deny any media effects at all. Knowing he did not have the data to back up his theory, Bushman believed that one of the linking factors of video games violence to real world violence could be the short term media effects of an increase in aggression and desensitization of one’s psychological thoughts toward violence.
So what is the difference between long term and short term media effects? A study in 2002, headed by Joanne D. Altman, examined the relationship between playing violent video games and sensitivity to aggressive acts. The study conducted two experiments. In the first experiment, college students were randomly assigned to play more or less violent video games. Afterwards, they each read a series of criminal vignettes and assigned prison sentences to violent criminals. The second experiment was the same except the students were told to come back an hour later to assign prison sentences to compare the immediate vs. prolonged effects. The results of the experiment showed that only the male’s sensitivity to acts of violence decreased after playing the video games and women’s sensitivity to acts of violence increased over time after playing video games; however, that is not the conclusion I made from reading about this experiment. I think the method for testing sensitivity was imprecise because there was not enough repetition and specificity, and overall, this only proves that we do not understand the media effects of video games or know if they even exist at all (Altman).
One of the major ways that research on mass media effects is flawed is the inconsistent method of defining and measuring aggression. It is difficult to decipher if the majority of the studies are even testing the same phenomenon. It is clear to me that not all researchers agree with the experiments that attempt to correlate violent video games with an increase aggressive behavior. For example, a researcher named C.J. Ferguson, who published a paper proving evidence of bias in video game violence effects literature, argued that “most of the research employs unvalidated ad-hoc measures of ‘aggression’, which may result not only in skewed results for meta-analyses, but also in a measurement bias of affect - that is, that some other intense responses may be counted as ‘aggressive’ which may or may not reflect actual aggression” (Ferguson). Ferguson is not confident with any of the available connecting violent video games to aggression because all video games have such a unique experience that could potentially target fake or real aggression. The research has simply not been done properly yet.
Ferguson is not the only researcher to deny the aggression studies on violent video games. In a paper published on PBS called “Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked”, Henry Jenkins argues that “the research could simply show that aggressive people like aggressive entertainment” (Jenkins). Jenkins' point is that people who are more aggressive after playing violent video games could have pre-existing aggression tendencies that are triggered by the game, rather than the aggression spurring from playing the game. This is another significant possibility that could refute many violent video games studies. Furthermore, studies use different violent games to measure for increase in aggression levels making any general statements about correlation between the two very challenging and fallacious. A paper written by Kyle Kontour on violent video games research gives an example of a game that is meant to target aggression called America’s Army, which is a combat FPS made by the U.S. Army as a recruitment tool and to train their troops. This game was made to bring out aggressive qualities in the players because aggression is one of the characteristics that is necessary to be successful on the battlefield (Kontour).
Violent video games studies also fail to account for the media effects in a social setting where games are often played. For instance, people may get more attached to a game when they are playing against a friend. I am an extremely competitive person, and my experiences of playing FIFA with a group of friends can get very heated, very quickly. My aggressive behavior when playing with friends does not correspond to real anger; however, it is quite the contrary, more of a friendly competitive banter. In addition, violent video games studies believe it is reasonable to equate their studies in the lab to a social setting (Kontour). There are almost too many variables to give definitive proof that playing violent video games leads to any sort of change in behavior. (My theory from doing all of this research is that gaming and winning does not lead to violence, but gaming and losing does).
This brings me to my last question. Is violence in video games a problem that society should be focusing on? Video game violence is an incredibly interesting case study because it has the power to teach, which can be misconstrued in different ways. Both pro-videogamers and video game critics agree that video games have this power, but obviously disagree on the inspiration and influence of this power. For example, while critics might say that Grand Theft Auto players become more violent after playing the game, a video games advocate might argue that reckless driving leads to accidents, and the hard work and long hours it takes to complete the game shows that you are rewarded when you really stick with things. What is important to note is that these are all assumptions, and as explained by David Thomas in his paper about teaching with video games, the one thing we can never do is assume learning (Thomas). Therefore, I do not think society should be wasting its time and resources by devoting its attention to the media effects of video games, thinking that it will solve our problem of school shootings and reduce crime overall. The risk of identifying the wrong problem could potentially divert society from central issues such as poverty, education, and equality.
I still believe there should continue to be research in this area, but not to the extent it is now. I think it is important for future experiments to take into account the variables of playing a game, the effects of the game, and the game itself. New research should attempt to answer questions with more specificity such as: 1) What is the difference in behavioral effects of a game where there are short moments of gruesome violence as in Alien Isolation compared to Call of Duty where you shoot and kill thousands of people at a lower intensity? 2) Does the diegetic world of the game or the non-diegetic socio-cultural elements have greater impact on a player’s behavior? In combination with a new direction of research, if the public begins to understand that media violence is a risk factor rather than a cause for real world violence, then society can dedicate its time to more prevalent real world issues.
Bushman. B. Why do people deny violent media effects?
Deselms, J. L., & Altman, J. D. (2003). Immediate and prolonged effects of videogame violence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33(8), 1553-1563. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2003.tb01962.x
Ferguson, C. J. (2007a). Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature: A meta-analytic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior 12, 470-482.
Jenkins, H. (2004). Reality bytes: Eight myths about video games debunked. Retrieved November 30 2008, from ‘The Video Game Revolution’, http://www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths.html
Jenkins, H. A Few Thoughts on Media Violence http://henryjenkins.org/2007/04/a_few_thoughts_on_media_violen.html
Kontour, K. (2009). Revisiting violent videogames research: Game studies perspectives on aggression, violence, immersion, interaction, and textual analysis. Digital Culture & Education, 1, 6-30.
No correlation between game violence and real-world violence, says new study. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/229452/No_correlation_between_game_violence_and_realworld_violence_says_new_study.php
Chasing the Dream. (2005, April 4). The Economist.
Do Violent Video Games Contribute to Youth Violence? - Violent Video Games - ProCon.org.