Video games tend to have a bad press

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Video games have entered the mainstream along with other formerly geeky things such as fantasy novels, acceptability of watching science fiction and knowing what a ‘Sith’ is. But still, video games are the runt of the litter when it comes to popular culture. Television can be seen as a way to change the attitudes of societies (e.g. Carrie Come Home), films, even those involving zombies (Dawn of the Dead), can be seen as artistic, political and philosophical statements, and even sufficiently trendy graffiti is sometimes seen as art. But videogames? Although there is a long running and incredibly tedious debate over whether videogames can be considered ‘Art’, at best they are thought as second rate, childish entertainment.  Partially this is because they are seen mainly as the preserve of males who live in their mum’s basement, going without sunshine for weeks on end, but also because they apparently trigger violent murder sprees.

The NRA recently blamed video games for the Sandy Hook school shootings in America, and it is known that the shooter played Call of Duty 4, a video game set in a very near future, with soldiers using weapons identical in some cases to those used by modern forces. Whilst some pointed out that the NRA’s aversion to video games might have something to do with its desire to divert attention from the fact that the ready availability of automatic weapons throughout much of America is probably related in some way to school shootings, video games are now often seen as triggering violent behaviour. Anders Breivik apparently ‘trained’ for hours on end on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and World of Warcraft before committing his atrocities, and the perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre were reportedly keen players of games such as Doom.

In addition, a number of studies appear to claim that playing violent video games appears to cause psychological damage. In one example, University students were asked to play twenty minutes of either a ‘peaceful’ or ‘violent’ video game for twenty minutes each day for three days; they were then asked to suggest endings to a story. It was found that people who had played the violent games suggested more aggressive and harmful endings to such stories.  Teachers have suggested that young children playing video games not only reduces their interpersonal skills and leads to sleep deprivation, but also leads them to play out extremely graphic scenes from such games in the playground. Another survey showed that parents blamed video games for a rise in aggressive, rude and un-cooperative behaviour.

It all seems pretty bad for such violent video games, doesn’t it? Maybe we should do as Keith Vaz, a Labour MP, has suggested, and introduce stringent legislation to combat such violent games – including banning some outright. Not giving them a high age rating, not putting warning stickers on the disc cases, but simply not allowing them to be brought, sold or imported into the country. And maybe the NRA in America has a point when it says:

“There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people. Through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse…and then they have the nerve to call it “entertainment.” But is that what it really is? Isn’t fantasizing about killing people as away to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?”

Not really.

Firstly, the state of research on the effect of such violent video games is complex and undecided, with different studies producing mutually contradictory responses; almost unavoidable in this area. Who decides what is a ‘violent’ video game? SimCity 4 allows one to rain down meteors upon a city, the Tropico series allows one to eliminate protestors against one’s government, but these could hardly be called ‘violent’ games. And what exactly is an ‘aggressive’ response? In an extremely entertaining piece on, of all places, the Guardian, a blog pointed out many of the flaws common in these surveys – parents saying that their children were becoming ‘ruder and more aggressive’ since they started playing video games may actually have simply been seeing their kids change as they enter adolescence, which often leads to a decrease in respect for parents regardless of whether the child in question owns a games console.

Perhaps more to the point, children should not be playing violent video games, which are rated 18 for a reason. Research ‘showing’ that children playing such games become more aggressive and less well behaved is confusing correlation with causation. Children with little parental supervision, playing games their parents know little about and have less interest in will in all likelihood become less well behaved. Not because of video games per se, but simply because letting your children play such games (unsupervised and without boundaries) is potentially a symptom of the poor parenting that will lead to behavioural problems later on. [1]

But what about adults? What about Anders Brevik using Call of Duty to ‘train’ for his massacre? What about those University students who felt more aggressive about life after playing violent games? Here, it gets more complicated, but the answer is surely not to ban video games. Firstly, Breivik’s claim that he ‘trained’ using a computer game is not to be trusted, given that there are questions regarding how sane he actually is. More importantly, banning violent games should logically lead to the banning of ultra-violent films which glorify violence, books which present war and crime as glamorous and the right course of action, and music videos which imply that shooting others, and being shot yourself, is worthy of respect.  It should never be forgotten that the vast majority of those who play such games, watch such films, read such books and listen to such music are well adjusted members of society who never commit crime. From a practical point of view, a ban would be almost impossible to enforce in this age of the internet, where material can be easily accessed from anywhere in the world by anyone with even minor knowledge of computers. Nor will a ban deter maniacs plotting their own atrocities. It seems unlikely that either Anders Brevik, seeing a monolithic far-left conspiracy to ‘Islamify’ Europe, or Adam Lanza, acting on impulses that will probably never be known, would have been much deterred by a ban on violent games.

In conclusion, violent video games may be in poor taste, but to use them as any sort of valid explanation for anti-social behaviour and mass murders is simply denying the facts; and an attempt to perhaps divert attention from much larger and more complex problems onto the nearest convenient scapegoat.

Article by James Wilson. Edited by Ben Mackay.


[1] By this, I don’t mean that ANY parent who lets their child play such games unsupervised is a poor parent; simply that allowing a child to play such games excessively is potentially a symptom of a parenting style that could, later on, result in problems.