This is my second “editorial” and is strictly based on opinion. I want to be very clear to start with: I am not a mental health professional and base my opinions solely on observation and my own experience as a lifelong gamer.
The definitive answer, you say?! Bold claim! Surely you don’t have the answer when so many others have tried to find it and failed!
This is a subject I’ve been meaning to come back to for months. I realized after a few articles that my subject matter was wrong. Violence in Video Games is a worthy topic of discussion but whether it’s right or wrong isn’t the issue. You can easily argue that there is never a right way to include violence in a game, but does that actually make it wrong?
Here’s the thing: since most of the debate centers around youth, there are far more accessible offenders than video games for exposing youngsters to violence. Let’s not forget that one of the first card games we teach our kids is called “War” and a “tug of war” is another game common to many a playground. Nothing intrinsically wrong with either, but don’t forget what the actual concept is. Kids are learning about violence at a far earlier developmental stage than the age most are playing video games.
It is important to understand where the complaint gained a foothold. It’s not an isolated complaint but it gained traction in December of 2012 when 20 year old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people in Sandy Hook Elementary School. A terrible event, without question. The concern, speculated the pundits, was that he did it because he played violent video games. That’s a heck of a leap and reminds me of a great line from Breathedge, a 2021 PC game by RedRuins Software:
Be careful, games provoke cruelty, because according to statistics, most criminals played them at least once. All criminals drank water, blinked and used toilet paper, which makes it possible to draw an unequivocal conclusion about your criminal inclinations.
Well said. In other words, the connection is vague at best. According to a 2018 Healthline article (external link), “91% of kids play video games and 90% of video games portray violence.“ Scientific American (external link), also in 2018, offered, “…the meta-analysis reported an effect size of 0.08, which suggests that violent video games account for less than one percent of the variation in aggressive behavior among U.S. teens and pre-teens—if, in fact, there is a cause-and effect relationship between game play and hostile actions.”
Now any statistic is only relevant until you hit that one in a millionth person. Like the lottery, there is a winner, so no matter how insignificant the odds, to one person, it does matter. Adam could be that one person, but that hardly excuses a blanket accusation that violence in video games begets violence in real life.
Finger-point all we want, the fact is, everyone is influenced by different things throughout their lives. We’ve all seen the cartoons or the comic strips where a character rolls down a hill and accumulates more people as the snowball increases in size. That’s the human condition in a nutshell. Or maybe a better example is the movie The Blob. Look at the poster and you’d be convinced the Blob is made up of that dude. But by the time the movie is over, there are so many bodies incorporated into the creature, that you can’t say it was ever one person. I believe that sums up what people are: an amalgamation of all the people and influences in their lives. As life goes on, we accumulate more and more qualities. We all do it; incorporate words, phrases or actions we pick up from those around us. How many times I say “you have to understand…” only to realize that’s my mom’s favorite preamble! I used to tease a former manager for the number of times he said “dude” in a sentence, to the point where I ended up saying it all the damned time! People are constantly putting their marks on those around them and picking up bits of others they encounter. So how is it possible to say video games would be the controlling element in a person’s life? There’s no denying that they have an impact on us, but is it enough to cause us to act violently? Could it control one’s mind and make them commit acts of wonton aggression? If we’re being fair, of course it could, but is it likely? And let’s be very clear that there’s a big difference between getting upset in a game and punching the desk versus getting up and killing people.
On the subject of influence, I have to ask, how many years does it take most people to realize they’ve become their own parents? It takes decades for that to occur and that’s after repeated involvement with the same people throughout ones life. I have a difficult time believing that a video game, even one you play a lot, is likely to have that kind of influence, potentially greater than that of the people you live with..
Having said that, let’s consider some other factors in a persons development. Video games are hardly a person’s first experience with violence (as mentioned above). Warner Brothers has been showing violence to children long before video games were even a part of our collective lives. Worse, there are no consequences, thus one might be led to believe that guns are little more than playthings. In a game, killing someone has a consequence and in single player games, the dead stay dead. (Multiplayer is a different animal.) But ask yourself, how many frying pans have been hit over a head resulting in a massive lump on a cartoon character’s noggin only for them to shake it off and go about their lives? Concussion much? Elmer Fudd actively walks around with a shotgun to hunt Bugs Bunny and frequently shoots Daffy Duck, sometimes in the face. How many times has Daffy had to reposition his bill? Again, the damage to the character is inconsequential. Should these actions be considered funny? I’m not saying they are bad – I love Warner Brothers – but it’s unfair to ignore a point like that when looking at what influences a child’s development. These characters keep living through these events almost as if the guns have no effect. And we can’t even count how many times Wile E. Coyote has hatched some diabolical scheme to murder Roadrunner, only for our speedy friend to turn the tables, killing the Coyote time and again. Or are we to interpret that falling off a cliff or being caught in exploding TNT has no impact on one’s health? Note that the aforementioned Healthline article has this to say about video games:
“More than 90 percent of games rated E10+, Teen, or Mature have some kind of violent imagery, and “that violence is often portrayed as justified, fun, and without negative consequences…”
Take careful note of those last words: “without negative consequences”! Tell that to the shotgun wielding Elmer Fudd. (Watch these 17 times Daffy takes a shotgun to the face in this [external link] YouTube compilation! And special thanks to Richard Brinklow for posting it.) I think those pundits need to reevaluate where the violence is shown to have the least consequence as it certainly does not appear to be in games!
Now perhaps the issue is that cartoons are slapstick and the games are showing the shooter the very thing he or she is looking for; he may be actively seeking those outcomes. Did the game feed the violent impulse? Presumably, the whole point is that the shooter is actively looking to do harm but then the question is: where did the desire come from? Surely the video game was not the first exposure to real life violence. I’d argue that games do not depict real life and there are far worst sources that are crammed down our throats on a regular basis anyway.
Understand, I’m no news junky, but it’s only fair that we look at other sources of exposure to violence. Sports, for example, creates an us-vs-them mentality by the very nature of the game; two rivals (individuals or teams) go against one another, sometimes violently. Don’t be on the wrong side of a sports fan when talking ill of a given team. The games themselves also have issues: football has been in the news (external link) for the harm that befalls the players and Will Smith even starred in a 2015 movie about brain damage due to playing football called Concussion. Fighter Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear during a boxing match in 1997. In 1994 skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked with a police baton to her knee by an attacker hired by her principle rival’s ex-husband. In Feb of 2014, NFL quarterback Ray Rice punched his girlfriend in the head (possibly in the face; it’s a little hard to make out in the video). (Due to its graphic nature, I opted to remove the link but it can be found online.)
I know, I know: “you don’t like sports, so your throwing stones!” It is true that I am not a sporty guy and wasn’t as a kid either, but I had my share of personal moments with sports. The most horrific that I recall distinctly was in grade school when one kid ran so fast in Red Rover that he plowed into the wall with his head, split his head leaving a bloody, hairy mess on the wall and had to have an ambulance called in. As a kid in 3rd grade, that was horrifying – which is why I never forgot it.
If you ask me, by the logic of the “pundits”, there should be a lot more violent people running amok out there. That’s not to say we’re an event-free nation; we have an inordinate amount of gun violence in this country compared to other countries but is that the fault of video games or legislation around guns? (In 2019, the US ranked #2 globally for gun related deaths!) And I’m not turning this into an anti-gun discussion but realize that games are available globally while many nations limit access to weapons. In other words, from an accessibility point-of-view, sports are far more available than video games. You have to buy a video game and have a system that can play it; by contrast, you can turn on the TV and see the sport or go outside and play it. Both video games and sports have become ubiquitous, but one has been around far longer. And for those who think I’m just cherry picking bad incidents, that was why I said I am not a news junky: I don’t follow the news and every one of the cases I referenced was from memory. The news of those events was everywhere; I couldn’t not hear about them. Who knows how many events I’ve missed just by avoiding the news as I’ve gotten older.
And speaking of the news, that too is far more horrifying, reporting on events around the very areas we live. That is uncensored and on any time a radio or TV is turned on. My own nephew was well under 10 when he asked who we thought we’d go to war with first (Russia or Korea) based on what he heard on the news. He was not a video gaming kid at the time. And during the events of Hurricane Katrina, CNN actually advised people not to watch the news so much because the imagery would disturb them. I recall being in a diner with that on the news at the time; not a video game in sight but a constant barrage of the destruction caused by nature.
Reviewing the Wikipedia (external link) page on the event around Adam Lanza, his favorite game was Super Mario Brothers. If he had attempted to kill people by jumping on their heads from on high, I might be more inclined to agree with the pundits. I’m not making light of a terrible situation; merely trying to draw awareness to the relatively loose connection those pundits placed before us. And it seems mightily suspicious that it was Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, that pointed the finger at video games anyway. He “publicly blamed video games for the shooting, specifically targeting the free online game Kindergarten Killers created by Gary Short.” Mind you, I have been unsuccessful at identifying if Adam owned, played or even heard of Kindergarten Killers, but I find it odd that a gun activist would blame a game instead of taking some ownership that Adam had easy access to guns. Adam was purportedly also a huge fan of Dance Dance Revolution, a non-violent exercise game. Did Wayne think to factor this into the equation? Furthermore, the Guardian (external link) lists other games that he played, including School Shooting and Left for Dead. I can find no indication of a real game by the former title (perhaps due to bad journalism, or a misunderstanding; there was a game called Active Shooter, but I have also been unable to confirm if Adam had played it under either title) but Left for Dead fosters teamwork and helping one another survive a zombie attack. Even playing with people I don’t know, I’ve seen them help one another without question. Certainly not a negative element and not something I would use to illustrate violence in players!
Perhaps there are other variables to consider. Adam supposedly had some developmental issues and was diagnosed with Asperger’s by age 13 and with OCD by age 14. Kids are often cruel, and I would not be surprised to learn that Adam had difficulty finding his place with such challenges. His mother is said to have been an avid gun collector which might have been a questionable choice with a child who was struggling to fit in. This does not make video games the cause any more than it means people with OCD or Asperger’s are rounding up guns to go on a shooting spree. That’s akin to the Breathedge model that those people also drank water, blinked and used toilet paper. In fairness, let me be clear: I am no expert! I am speaking just from my own interest in gaming and my own absence of violent tendencies.
Yes, there is violence in video games, and it is often unnecessary and could be avoided. I am on record for saying I felt Grand Theft Auto was over the top. Ever hear of Postal? Slightly funny game, but horribly violent and racist at that. Completely unnecessary for a video game. There are plenty of games that probably should be banned but to say they turn people to violence is a gross misunderstanding of reality. And in the interest of gun aficionados, I don’t think banning games or guns is necessarily the answer; both have their place, but people need to be educated on both, and in the case of games, it might be an education on when it’s appropriate to play certain ones, just like where guns need a suitable instructor who teaches the rights and wrongs of gun use. Sure, that’s why games have a rating system, but also like guns, they need to be accurately evaluated.
I truly believe that people are like The Blob or the human snowball. When the ball finally stops and falls apart, it’s easy to point to the thing that catches your eye and say, “that’s what made the ball”, but the truth is, it’s a mix of many things. I am a mix of my mom and dad, my sister, my nieces and nephews, my best friend, my wife, my manager, my work colleagues, Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk, The Doctor, Sherlock Holmes, Captain Shepard and Captain Sheridan…the list goes on, pulling as much from reality as from the hobbies we enjoy. We are all a combination of the things that have touched us in life. Adam was no less a mix of many things. Do violent video games influence us? Almost certainly. But do they drive us to commit acts of violence? I genuinely doubt it, but we will never know for sure because every individual is different. What we can say is that sometimes, game developers think they are being funny and end up on the wrong side of the joke. They hurt the overall reputation of the gaming industry by thinking freedom of expression trumps social responsibility, but that still doesn’t create violent people. Games are not a Siren Song, hypnotizing people to commit violent actions.
In the final analysis, the only thing we can say definitively is that there are too many ingredients in the mix of our lives to identify any one thing that brought about a violent action. The definitive answer is: we just don’t know. What I do know is that violence is never the answer. ML
Very thought-provoking article, ML. Thank you very much.
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There will always be violence of some form in every aspect of life because we as humans are programmed for violence and it takes effort and time to learn and live without violence. Violence is a tool in our wondrous human toolbox and much like a screwdriver, it has its purpose and it has unintentional uses. Think pencil and John Wick.
Like you have mentioned, people will always find the easiest thing to blame. It could be Rock music, think Elvis and his era, The invention of the Television, Video Games, Religion. In the end it doesn’t matter what you pick, it’s all the same with a different mask on. If someone does something that others dont like, they will blame the first thing that person doesn’t like and twist it to associate that negative thing to that person doing the thing that one person doesn’t like. Modern day examples without going into detail are politics and COVID and its vaccine. I refrain from delving into these examples as they are intensely hot and sensitive topics.
Video game developers simply develop a product that they think will sell. Some video games are violent by nature and some allow you to build massive factories with not an ounce of violence in sight. Some games can be violent by design but reward the player by NOT being violent at all and you get more rewards for the less violent acts you do throughout the game.
I would much prefer to storm the Normandy beach “killing” pixels then having to do it in real life. Imagine all of those families forever changed by an actual human being removed from this planet. Children losing parents, Grandparents losing children. It’s truly heartbreaking.
We will always have our scapegoats, humans love them. Video games will always be one of those scapegoats and argue all we want, it will never be removed from the “go-to” scapegoat list.
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Violence in video games, movies and TV shows can indeed serve that purpose. It may always be necessary to some degree and so I learn to never be too judgmental about it.
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I figured you’d have some good thoughts to add to this and glad to see you enjoyed reading it. It was a challenging one to write and the whole (brief) series made me realize how futile a line of questioning this really is. As you say, humans love scapegoats and finger pointing. If it weren’t video games, it would have been something else. Glad to see you haven’t stopped reading our site. Welcome back! ML
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