Do violent games create violent players?
Before discussions over the Big Bang theory or what side of the roll toilet paper should be on, there arose a debate that has seen no sign of diminishing. The debate has academics scratching their heads, psychopaths grinning in a corner and ordinary citizens running for cover.
The debate? Whether or not violent video games have the ability to trigger an impulse in a player’s mind causing him or her to go on a violent, and often deadly, rampage.
Recently a number of media reports have emerged detailing senseless massacres and school attacks. The press and other interested observers were very quick to point out that the attackers were video game players.
The fact that they were video game players is a safe bet and the figures will always serve to substantiate the statement.
Microsoft has sold 67.2-million Xbox360 units, Sony’s has sold 63.9 million PlayStation 3 units, while Nintendo’s Wii has managed to pull ahead with 96.56 million units.
While most of the reports do not include detail on what type of gamers they were, for the sake of fairness, the sales figures of handheld consoles are: Nintendo DS at 152.05 million, Game Boy Advance at 81.51 million and Sony’s PlayStation Portable at 71.4 million.
Since the late 90’s and up until June 2012, a whopping 532.62-million gaming units have been sold to all sorts of people. That equates to one gaming console for roughly every 13 people on Earth. This does not even take into account the number of computer games sold every year – although the industry is said to be worth $16.2 billion in revenue for 2010. Just the top five selling PC games of all time have collectively raked up 37-million units sold.
Bearing that in mind, founder and Editor-in-Chief of World of Psychology, John M. Grohol (PSYD) wrote that an in-depth study in 2008 found that 47.7% of the 5 000 young adults surveyed showed signs of a diagnosable mental disorder. He also notes that “one in five was also found to meet the criteria for a personality disorder, a more chronic condition that often interferes with the person’s ability to interact in a healthy manner with others at school, work, or in relationships.”
America’s National Institute on Media and the Family also revealed in 2001 that roughly 79% of America’s youth play video games.
Statistically speaking it is not that surprising to learn that a gaming mass-shooter went on a rampage because there has to be at least one young adult gamer with a diagnosable mental disorder in every 65 people – specifically, if you take into account there are five consoles for every 65 people, with one in five showing signs of a personality disorder. Assuming 79% of the people surveyed play video games, that is 3950 gamers – of which 790 might have been diagnosed with a mental disorder.
While the violent games might not have been the cause of their psychotic condition, is it fair to assume that the games acted as a catalyst to their behaviour? It is not an improbable scenario as the odds are stacked in favour of people with psychotic tendencies and a loss of reality that can result in violence.
Contributing Writer for How Stuff Works, Julia Layton, wrote an extensive paper on the connection between violent video games and violent behaviour and noted that violent games can start to affect children at a very young age.
“People don’t just watch video games; they interact with them. The games are also repetitive and based on a rewards system. Repetition and rewards are primary components of classical conditioning, a proven psychological concept in which behavioural learning takes place as a result of rewarding (or punishing) particular behaviours. Also, since the brains of children and teens are still developing, they would, in theory, be even more susceptible to this type of ‘training’,” she wrote.
Several criminal cases have also been opened against video game developers and publishers by the relatives of the victims of violence – perpetrated by people who reportedly played violent video games. All these cases have been thrown out of court for lack of evidence.
“Small test groups and lack of long-term studies casts a shadow on the body of evidence against violent video games. Many people believe video games offer no more exposure to violence than television shows featuring murder, not to mention movies that graphically depict serial killers and war,” Layton added.
While the debate might never be settled until such time as a long-term, conclusive study has been performed, there are scholars that firmly believe that there is a genuine link between violent games and violent behaviour.
Famed television psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw said that there is definitely a link in the way children behave after playing violent video games. “If you shoot somebody in one of these games, you don’t go to jail, you don’t get penalized in some way — you get extra points! But (in real life) they do use more aggressive language, they do use more aggressive images, they have less ability to control their anger and they externalize things in these violent ways. It’s absolutely not good,” he wrote on his blog.
But South African-based online gaming magazine Gamecca‘s editor Walt Pretorius disagrees. “Certain individuals may claim being influenced by games, much like Charles Manson claimed to have been influenced by a Beatles song. In terms of a wide-spread epidemic of violence resulting from playing video games, no, I do not see that at all,” he said. As far as research, he also does not believe that the two are connected – and needs to be viewed on a case-by-case scenario. “There is no causal link between the two, not in terms of research conducted thus far. That said, a link is not impossible, on a case-by-case basis.”
There are many conflicting reports and studies on the behavioural patterns of children and young adults who play violent video games, but the one thing that also sprung up is that often comes down to parenting and understanding the separation of reality and a created world.
While it is of the utmost importance that parents make sure their children play age-appropriate games, they can teach their children the difference between wrong and right from an early age – as well as explaining that actions in a video game should never be replicated in real life, as it is a fictitious world and will have real-world consequences. “The biggest concern is the effect that these games have on younger players. To this end, the responsibility lies with parents; they need to educate themselves about the games, need to pay attention to age ratings and need to have frank discussions with their children about it,” Pretorius added.
Most of the mass-killers who went on violent rampages had some sort of psychological break and it is the difficult task of friends and family to identify someone who might be on the verge of acting out this breakdown. While it is not always possible, the actions of a few cannot be blamed on a billion-dollar industry that – for the most part - actively tries to protect its consumers through various regulatory bodies.
The argument of whether playing violent video games will cause a person to go on a violent shooting spree is not about to go away, but there might exist a number of relevant factors that could contribute towards it – the least of which is the video game’s influence.
“There is a false perception created by mainstream news media and lazy reporting, rather than being a phenomenon; video games have become the new bogey-man. The number of people playing video games is massive, so it it quite likely that some unhinged individuals prone to violence would be playing them too,” Pretorius concludes.
Charlie Fripp – Consumer Tech editor