Why Both Sides of the Video Games & Violence Debate are Full of Shit
Ah, yes. The old “Do video games cause violence” debate. A debate so loaded with biased hyperbole on both sides that I feel like I’m at a used car dealership. And for obvious reason: for the “yes” side, it provides a handy scapegoat to avoid addressing the more complicated issues that cause violence; while the “no” side simply tries to defend their favourite hobby at all costs.
It’s a debate that I imagine most of us are numb to by now after being engulfed in op-eds supporting either side — all of which are conspicuously corroborated by some kind of enigmatic but apparently definitive scientific study on the matter.
Which makes sense — when Kotaku’s Jason Schreier tried to get to the bottom of the various studies on the link between violence and video games, he found that there were many empirical studies that concluded there was a causal link between violence and video games, but there were also many which concluded to the contrary or were inconclusive.
Which leaves us with this nonsense:
The fact that anyone can find a legitimate scientific study to support their position in an issue this politically charged is problematic, and it makes it hard to gauge the impartiality of anyone advocating policy changes for either side. Hell, even our status as a game design blog compromises the impartiality of this article.
Breaking through the Hyperbole
Let’s dive into the hyperbole on both sides. I think the “no” side might best be embodied by this meme format:
This format became popular in the wake of the media’s anti-video game rhetoric which followed the shootings in El Paso and Dayton earlier this month. It captures a few key points of the “no” argument:
Not all video games are violent.
Many players prefer to play games non-violently if given the option.
People on the “yes” side are often emotionally invested in their position, sometimes to the point of irrationality.
Gamers are like cats — curious, harmless, and occasionally possessed by the sudden urge to stay up all night just dicking around.
The other main rebuttal presented by the “no” side is to suggest another cause, often poor gun control, as the true culprit for violence. I suggest reading this article by IGN’s Dan Stapleton if you want to go further down that rabbit hole.
Then of course, there’s this argument:
While obviously satirical, it makes a valid point that ascribing violent behaviors to a singular cause is ridiculous. People have been violent for countless reasons for thousands of years, and — contrary to popular belief—video games have been around for a little less than that.
This does not excuse video games as a possible causality, but suggesting that the emergence of video games in the past half-century is going to create some kind of violent epidemic in the next generation is speculation at best.
The Case Against Video Games
In the same way the earlier screaming woman/confused cat meme format showcased the positive non-violent side of video games, it is just as easy to cherry pick examples of excessive violence in video games to showcase the contrary.
WARNING: The video below contains graphic content.
This unlisted video was uploaded to The White House YouTube channel of all places, and much like the screaming woman/confused cat memes, it kind of sums up the “yes” side perfectly:
Video games can be egregiously violent.
Typically the “yes” side are non-gamers, hence why much of the footage in this video was taken from various let’s play channels, presumably after a quick YouTube search of “violent video games”.
Unlike other mediums, players are often directly implicated in the acts of violence.
Implicating players in this way is why players can become prone to violent behaviors.
Video games are still a relatively new medium and I agree with the “yes” side’s insistence on studying and monitoring their effects on players, especially as games grow more and more visceral and immersive with realistic graphics and virtual reality systems. But determining any given individual’s capacity for violence and aggression would need to be measured by dozens of factors (upbringing, social status, etc.), which is what makes gauging the behavioral effects of video games so difficult. Do they have an effect? Without a doubt. Making someone stare at a loading screen for hours will have an effect on them, but enough about Grand Theft Auto Online. Media impacts all of us in a myriad of different ways, and video games are not the only perpetrators when it comes to violence on screen.
But since there are an estimated 2.5 billion gamers globally now and that the world hasn’t devolved into The Hunger Games quite yet, I think I can also safely say that sometimes the effects of video games do not inspire violence in its players.
For that matter, what do we mean when we discuss violence? There are many kinds of violence, some more sinister than others. Do video games provoke violent behavior in terms of mouthing off to a loved one? Do they provoke people to become physically or emotionally abusive? Violence appears in many forms, and “video games cause violence” is a weak look at best when it comes to deciphering the kinds of violence supposedly being enacted.
The Strange Reality
So yeah, we don’t really know anything about the relationship between video games and violence, hence why all of the hyperbole being thrown around is utter bullshit. But what we do know about is the relationship between video games and money. And that relationship is that video games make a ton of money. Like… all of the money. Skip to 1:38 in the video below to get an idea.
And this is why all the talk about regulating or banning video games is nonsense — it’s too big of an economic force to throw a wrench in*.
*I would think anyway. Any policymaker with half a brain wouldn’t do it, but then again, not all policymakers have half a brain.
None of this absolves game designers and developers of being conscientious of the violent and other graphic content they put into their games. It’s important not to get lost in the hyperbole of it all and remember that the games you make will have an effect your players in some way, so try to make it a positive one.
For further discussion of violence and video games, listen to Episode 11 of The Panic Mode Podcast — Violence in Game Design.