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Opinion: The Aggressive Instinct -- How We React To Games

In this Gamasutra opinion piece, Connor Cleary examines the evergreen topic of violence in video games -- citing recent science and critical writing to look at potential benefits and problems alike.

Connor Cleary, Blogger

August 31, 2010

6 Min Read

[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, Connor Cleary examines the evergreen topic of violence in video games -- citing recent science and critical writing to look at potential benefits and problems alike.] You are a man alone in the wilderness with only your carefully-tended fire for company. Your clothes are made of fur and hide, and you have become separated from the rest of your hunting party. It looks like you have to spend the night alone— A twig snaps in the woods behind you. You turn around, baring your teeth, and tense up for a fight. In this particular scenario, the aggressive tendencies of masculine nature are priceless assets. If that happens to be a predator sneaking up behind you, you’re ready to defend yourself; on the other hand, if it happens to be prey, you may have just found dinner. However, in modern civilized culture those very tendencies that used to save our lives have become—for the most part—social liabilities. No matter how much we might want to, we are not allowed to beat our chests and throw feces at a crappy boss. In video games we have a safe and healthy outlet for this aggression. We can transfer everything into the game and just vent—a kind of interactive catharsis. This is perhaps why you’ll often find the most mild-mannered geeks suddenly bright eyed and giddy at the sight of an exploding skull a la Fallout 3, or laughing maniacally while playing GTA and enacting schemes worthy of moustache-twirling villains. It is the purging of everything negative that we suppress in our daily lives. I believe that we now know that we can’t entirely dismiss the influence of our hunter-gatherer past on our current behaviors. Millions of years of evolution cannot be undone by several centuries of civilization and culture. Our “lower” brain is still dominated by emotion and instinct, and it is only by the grace of our pre-frontal cortex that we are able to suppress the negative emotions that naturally occur through the course of our daily lives. Deep down, our instincts are remarkably similar to those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. So, it would be only a slight over-generalization to say that males are—by nature—more aggressive than females, and that females have—by nature—more of a gathering instinct than males. Beyond these in-born tendencies, we also have to consider cultural concepts of what little boys and girls should and shouldn’t do. When boys roughhouse, it is generally considered normal and all but encouraged, meanwhile girls are usually discouraged from such “unladylike behavior.” This is not to say that there aren’t scores of female gamers who enjoy popping off a few thousand rounds a day in some FPS, but there is a reason that these games tend to be dominated by a male audience. So how do those of us on the testosterone-weighted side of the scale deal with our socially unacceptable instincts toward aggression when we are suddenly all-grown-up and roughhousing isn’t cute anymore? Well, some of us are into sports, and some of us play violent video games—I’m pretty sure we all love explosions and action movies, though. angrybaby.jpg Think about it -- what do males do when we win? We raise our clenched fists in victory and grit our teeth, often we shout or growl—cue the Tim Allen sound bite—and if there happens to be other men around we usually exchange celebratory high fives or something equally primitive. This is what the fulfillment of instinct looks like—and it looks the same for the athlete who just won the big game, and the geek who just won the big boss-battle. Our non-gaming loved ones tend to be more than a little disturbed by our hyper-violent games. But this is primarily because there is a fundamental difference in the way we see these violent situations in games. In this hilarious article from GameSpy, author Michael Drucker makes a brilliant comparison: “In the same way you don't actually disappear from the universe when you're hit by a dodge ball, you know that you're not actually killing enemy soldiers in Call Of Duty.” Parents aren’t disturbed when little Timmy violently tackles another player in football, but cringe when he blows up alien monsters. But, according to this article from the New York Times there may actually be legitimate sociological benefits to having video games as a healthy outlet. A labor economist named Lawrence Katz has put forth a tentative theory that video games may be contributing to a steady drop in crime rates. This is in spite of high unemployment numbers and the financial difficulties of our economic recession—factors which have historically produced a rise in crime. So instead of contributing to an increase in violent behavior, as so many vocal game-haters would have you believe, it appears that video games might just do the exact opposite. By allowing us to fulfill our most deep-seated destructive and negative tendencies in a virtual world, we purge ourselves of these urges and are therefore less likely to lose control in real life. To speak further on the old “blame video games for every act of violence” shtick, a special issue of the Review of General Psychology examined various studies regarding video games and sheds some interesting light on the topic. One study confirmed something many of us have always said: people who are going to become hostile or physically violent after playing video games or watching violent movies are people who had serious behavioral issues to begin with. According to researcher Patrick Markey, PhD, "Those who are negatively affected have pre-existing dispositions, which make them susceptible to such violent media." These “pre-existing dispositions” are generally stated as: high neuroticism, low agreeableness, and low conscientiousness. In other words, exactly the kind of people you already knew shouldn’t be playing violent games. On a more positive note, we have Christopher Ferguson, PhD, researcher and guest editor of the special issue, who remarks on the potential benefits of video games for kids. Ferguson writes, "Recent research has shown that as video games have become more popular, children in the United States and Europe are having fewer behavior problems, are less violent and score better on standardized tests. Violent video games have not created the generation of problem youth so often feared."darksiders_war.jpg So there you have it, straight from the desk of Dr. Ferguson, PhD: video games are clearly not some abominable evil that is poisoning the youth and—from the desk of Mr. Katz—they might actually be good for society. We all have sources of frustration in our lives, and whatever those sources may be, we are lucky to have a healthy way to vent. We can slaughter demons instead of breaking dishes, demolish buildings on mars instead of putting holes in our own walls, or go on a virtual vehicular rampage instead of giving in to real-life road rage—even if that jerk totally did cut us off. [Author's Disclaimer: It is nearly impossible to discuss general concepts on topics like gender roles without some kind of generalization -- definitely the case in this article. Nonetheless, I've tried to bring some interesting concepts to the table - feel free to comment on them below.]

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