In NFL post-game: an ad for shoot 'em up video game. All for curbing weapons of war. But shouldn't we also quit marketing murder as a game?— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) December 17, 2012
In the wake of another tragic school shooting, the restriction of simulated killing is a tempting solution. It seems all the more urgent, given that the preponderance of good scientific research shows that violent video games do cause some vulnerable children to lash out at their fellow schoolmates. Censorship through age restrictions is a hollow hope. We live in a world where nearly all information is within reach of the determined. We cannot punish and shroud our way to peace. If anything, the increase in social video games — even violent social games — may prove to be more impactful than censorship.
Yes, Video Games Do Cause Some Violence
As an avid gamer, I get defensive about studies suggesting I am somehow more violent because of my hobbies. The video game-violence link was more tenuous when I was pretending to be a pixelated plumber jumping on dinosaurs. Since then, I’ve played games as a mobster killing cops. The more I played, the more violent scenarios I would involuntary imagine in everyday situations. For those individuals who could callously hurt others, it seems obvious that spending one’s days in isolated, simulated violence, sparks ideas that turn into tragic action.
I also cannot deny that the most compelling evidence shows that violent video games do cause violence. In the most comprehensive review of evidence (massive meta-analysis) to date [PDF], Iowa State Professor Craig A. Anderson and his colleagues found that their “results suggest that violent video games increase aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and aggressive behaviors and decrease empathic feelings and prosocial behaviors.”
Most experimental studies show that compared to other types of media, violent sports games [PDF], or violent movies [PDF], pretending to hurt people increases aggressive feelings, which is a reliable precursor to real-world violence.
Perhaps the best evidence shows that exposure to violent media predicts students’ verbal and physical aggression against their classmates, even controlling for parental involvement and aggressive tendencies [PDF]. So-called “hostile attribution bias” finds that “when bumped in the hallway, aggressive children are more likely to assume that it was due to hostile intent rather than being an accident.” The longer students are exposed to violence, the more likely they are to threaten, kick, and shove their peers.
A great way to understand how credible research is, is to look at its criticism. Anderson’s work was attacked for exaggerating the impact of video game aggression [PDF], but not for the link itself. In response, Anderson admitted that rigorous scientific research, generally, finds small effect sizes, but that exposure to violent media was similar to other less-contentious risk factors, including “poverty, substance abuse, and low IQ.”
Violence begets violence, a timeless truth that is just as true in the 21st century.
Attacking Video Games Won’t Help
For all the stupendous academic research on the psychological impact of violent media, we forgot to apply that same intellectual prowess to public policy. As it stands, age restrictions are the gold standard, but it’s hard to see how they can be effective. The Federal Trade Commission has praised the video game industry for its enforcing of sales to minors, yet 20 percent of secret shoppers were still able to purchase M-rated video games at Walmart (compared to 53 percent of shoppers at Barnes & Noble who bought an R-rated movie). And those who are on the path to murder likely have no ethical qualms with simply stealing what they can’t purchase.
Moreover, violent children often come from broken homes or parents who can’t enforce strict moral standards.
Thus, the small fraction of young people who commit violence are the ones most likely to slip through (inherent) cracks in the law.
Video Games Might Be The Answer
“A lot of parents, when the kids are playing Doom or Quake, or whatever, thought the kids were being overly aggressive,” said Will Wright, designer of SimCity, one of the most successful franchises in video game history. “But, in fact, if you look at those games, what these kids were doing were playing with teams and they were being amazingly cooperative.”
A growing volume of research on cooperative violent game play suggests that team-based activities may be beneficial. “You’re still being very aggressive, you’re still killing people in the game — but when you cooperate, that overrides any of the negative effects of the extreme aggression,” explains researcher John Velez, a graduate student in communication at Ohio State.
Whereas solitary killing was once the default mode of most games, the Internet has made them increasingly social. More importantly, it connects shy and socially awkward teens who are most vulnerable to committing acts of terrible violence (though it can also isolate them, as some large-scale research suggests).
Ultimately, it takes a community to stop violence. In a large meta-study of firearm violence prevention policies, researchers found that community-based interventions were the most effective solution, including gun buybacks and gun restrictions.
The real solution will likely come from more connection, more involvement when parents are overwhelmed, and more mental health resources for the troubled. Or, in the words of President Obama, “We come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.”
Note: A number of tech leaders are taking a stand on comprehensive gun reform. We will observing a moment of silence with them this Friday at 9:30am. Learn more about how you can get involved at here.