November 27, 2020

Violence in Video Games: A Link Too Far?

A discussion of violence in video games by Ian Ford

Video games have been around in some form or another since the 1950s and for as long as companies have been making them, they’ve included violence. From the early days of pixelated graphics and low fidelity blips and pings of controversial games like Custer’s Revenge, video games have revelled in destruction and carnage. Hell, if you wander down the video game aisle of your local shopping mall today, your eyes will be assaulted with a vast array of hyper-realistic first-person shooters, grisly role-playing games, and driving games where pedestrian safety is… let’s say unimportant.

The problem is, this level of violence, whilst entertaining millions, has led to a backlash that threatens the video game landscape completely and may see the pastime we love change forever.

Why are people worried about video game violence?

Over the past few decades, violence in society has forced its way to the forefront of national and international news. With mass shootings occurring weekly and stories of crime and mayhem plastered across the tabloids, it is understandable that people look for things to blame. It is in this climate that the link between violent video games and real world violence has come into question. But do the scaremongers’ fears have foundation and is there any relationship between make-believe violence and the violence in actual life? The answer may lie (as it often does) with the scientists.

As video games have exploded (literally and figuratively), researchers have begun studying the effects of gaming violence on players. Their results may surprise you. Despite all the sensationalism and doom-mongering stories out there, there is little to no evidence that those who play violent games are more likely to commit violent crimes in the real world.

Obviously, these results haven’t placated everybody. The President of the United States Donald Trump constantly plays on the notion that games rot young people’s brains. And, in an effort to distract from the genuine problems of poor gun control, he repeatedly ties video game violence to mass shootings and violent crimes.

But he is not alone. Other prominent groups (I’m looking at you The Sun or Fox News if you are American) are quick to float the opinion that violence in video games promotes violence in the real world. They argue that video game violence desensitises people and normalises it in some way. This may seem like common sense… that is until you think about it. The notion falls apart when you realise that millions of people play violent games every day and only a tiny minority end up committing a violent act.

So, what is the answer? Do violent video games make people more violent?

Violence in video games
Zombies, guns, and blood. My normal Saturday morning… in the real world.

Well, unsurprising the answer lies away from the opinions of the popular press and is found in the many studies and reports by academics and researchers.

One 2014 study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture found no evidence of a link between violent crime and gamers who play violent video games. In fact, the report suggests a decrease in violent crime due to the fact that gaming offers a positive outlet for anger that may otherwise lead to criminal activity.

Another study by Scott Cunningham, Benjamin Engelstätter, and Michael R. Ward (of Baylor University, University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt and the University of Texas at Arlington) reinforces the link between video games and a reduction in violence. Their report states:

“It’s just genuinely not the case that video games lead to violent crime. If anything, it’s the opposite: Time spent playing video games reduces the amount of time that young men can get into mischief.”

This study looked at the number of violent crimes committed in the weeks immediately after the release of the 50 best-selling video games from 2005 to 2008 and found that in most cases, levels of violence decreased.

So, video games reduce violence?

It may seem strange to promote gaming as a way to reduce violent crime but by focussing the mind on tasks young people enjoy, it gives little time to embrace other urges, including those that may lead to violence.

Perhaps the most comprehensive study of video game violence and its link to the real world can be found in the 2014 research paper, “Does Media Violence Predict Societal Violence? It Depends on What You Look at and When”. First published in the Journal of Communication, the study looked at the frequency and graphicness of violence in movies between 1920 and 2005 and compared it to things like homicide rates, household income, and policing over the same period. It also looked at the correlation between violent video game sales and the behaviour of young people between 1996 and 2011. After extensive research, the study concluded that there was no real evidence violence in media creates violence in society and blamed a myriad of other factors for perceived increases in crime statistics.

So, is violence in games a bad thing?

Violence in video games
Okay, this one’s a little grim. Way to go Mortal Kombat!

That depends on your point of view. Personally, I see violent games as an avenue to vent frustrations and keep me entertained in a similar way to how horror films provide a much-needed release from stress and negative feelings.

If you don’t enjoy violence, whether that be celluloid or pixellated, then don’t expose yourself to it.

Enjoy violence. That’s a hell of a sentence and it’s important to distinguish between the real and fake varieties. I don’t enjoy real-world violence. In fact, I’m incredibly squeamish and any amount of actual gore will likely see me spew. But god I love shooting people in the head in Call of Duty. I love to see zombies eating people in films. Hell, I love hitting people with my Starfire spell in World of Warcraft. Why? Because it isn’t real. Because I can experience it knowing that nobody is getting hurt. Because I get the satisfaction of beating someone without damaging anything other than their pride. That’s the power of video games and that’s why the link between violence in the real world and gaming is way off the mark. It’s real-world problems, real-world violence, and real-world attitudes that are the problem. Anyway, who wants a game of GTA?

WRITTEN BY Ian Ford

Maths teacher, author, driving instructor, gamer, film buff, comedian, eco warrior, gigolo, prime minister, and fantasist.

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movies, film, video game discussion

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