Technology & Freedom

Does virtual violence lead to the real thing?

Does virtual violence lead to the real thing?

A significant side debate in the current controversy over gun control involves violent video games. They were cited by National Rifle Association executive Wayne LaPierre during his first news conference after the Newtown shooting. Vice President Joe Biden summoned video game industry representatives to address his gun violence task force. President Obama has called for increased funding of research into video game violence.

Newtown murderer Adam Lanza was said to be “obsessed” with such games, with a large inventory of them found among his effects. A particular favorite was “Call of Duty,” which simulates infantry combat in both the World War II and modern eras. An Internet stampede was triggered during the early hours after the shooting when Adam’s brother Ryan was incorrectly identified as the killer, and Ryan’s Facebook page revealed his love for the “Mass Effect” series of science fiction computer games. The stunned creators of this game found themselves condemned online as “child killers.”

Criticism of these games was strong, and sometimes indiscriminate. When LaPierre rattled off a list of objectionable games, he named several that were either years out-of-date or hopelessly obscure, and some that didn’t involve guns at all.

One had the sense he chose his targets based more on their ominous names than their content or relevance. In turn, a storm of ridiculously overheated criticism erupted when the NRA released a “violent video game” shortly after the Newtown killings; but, it turned out to be an entirely bloodless, non-violent simulation of a shooting gallery, peppered with helpful tips on range safety.

David Axelrod, one of President Obama’s top political advisers, responded to an NFL postgame ad for a gun-heavy video game by wondering, “All for curbing weapons of war, but shouldn’t we also quit marketing murder as a game?” (“Weapons of war” was a loaded political term for the guns Obama wants to ban.) This sort of criticism apparently had an effect on the industry, as stocks for video game companies dipped in the weeks following the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre.

Worries about violent videogames are not new. The Columbine killers were fans of the gruesome granddaddy of first-person shooters, “Doom.” Virtually every young spree-killer has been identified as a fan of one violent video game or another, including Lee Boyd Malvo, the younger half of the Beltway Sniper partnership. (An interesting exception was Seung-hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, who reportedly did not have extensive exposure to such games.)

Clinical research inconclusive

In response, it has been observed that these killers are all young men, and young men generally play videogames, most of which include some degree of simulated violence. It’s a stretch to blame a shared hobby for their behavior when nearly everyone in their peer group enjoys the same hobby.

Clinical research on the effects of video game violence remains inconclusive. This is true of all efforts to link media consumption to violent behavior, from movies to comic books. A high-profile long-term study of the psychological effect of game play on young minds conducted by Texas A&M International University found no evidence linking the hobby to violent tendencies. “Violent video games and violent media exposure is not connected to mass shootings,” said Dr. Chris Ferguson, author of the study. He worried that focusing upon such an easy scapegoat would “distract from the real issues, like mental health and gun control.”

The Supreme Court agreed in 2011, when it knocked down a California law against the sale of violent video games on First Amendment grounds. The justices asserted that studies linking video games to violent behavior “have been rejected by every court to consider them,” because they have never offered convincing proof of such a connection.

Some of the studies that purport to show a connection between games and violence focus on physiological indicators of excitement, such as increased heart rate or elevated blood pressure. Since these are similar to the physical manifestation of violent anger, it is asserted that the games are making their players more comfortable with rage.

However, it can also be argued that increased comfort with the symptoms of anger makes people less likely to lose control when they grow upset. At any rate, it’s hardly surprising to discover that a fast-paced interactive entertainment designed to be exciting causes players to exhibit signs of excitement.

The obvious, sometimes gleefully garish nature of these games makes them easy targets for criticism. It meets the “common sense test” of some parents to suppose that an interactive game depicting incredibly brutal combat, with players often explicitly rewarded for creative ultra-violence, would desensitize players to real-world violence.

Some of these game environments are meant to be frightening as well as gory—the popular “Resident Evil” and “Dead Space” series come to mind—but others are pure power fantasies, a term also used to describe spree killings. But the scholarly research simply does not back up the common apprehension about video games as high-tech production lines for soulless killers.

It might be more productive to view the situation in terms of passionate or disturbed people growing obsessed with immersive, emotionally charged forms of entertainment.

In other words, video game immersion is more of a symptom than a cause—and if it weren’t video games, it would be something else. Thirty years ago, a book and subsequent movie entitled “Mazes and Monsters” (starring a very young Tom Hanks) convinced a generation of parents that table-top role-playing games could turn their kids into violent sociopaths. Today’s parents might be relieved to see their kids gathered around a table with books and oddly shaped dice, rather than running through highly detailed simulations of gun combat.

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