It isn’t often that my emotional wellbeing is overtaken by stress, the phenomenon that occurs when the mind and stomach recoil in tandem in response to harmful thoughts and situations that seemingly go beyond our ability to deal with them (like being overdue on rent or dumped by a gruff pistol salesman via a grammatically lawless text message). Like everyone else, I can feel the roots of stress spiraling around my perception, of course, but it rarely burrows deep enough into my psychological soil to grow into anything wearisome or problematic. My (un)remarkable secret: solid relationships, copious squat thrusts (booty poppin’ exercises), unrestricted writing (voluptuous creative freedom), and videogames – all of which are emotional and physical mediums I use to reflect on, ponder, purge, and temporarily forget the thoughts and events that pester me.
Out of all of these “Operation: Punch Stress in the Junk” routines, videogames have had my back the longest. I began as a spectator, watching my brother Tarzan-swing over crocodiles and sand traps in Pitfall, and save an insecure princess from a roid-raged King Koopa in Super Mario World. It was around the age of six or seven that I equipped a controller with an optimistic smirk and became a gleeful participant. The first game I fell in love with at that time but was forbidden to play (because it was my older brother’s) – Final Fantasy II. I went from being as illiterate as a broiled bacon burger to exceptional in reading comprehension within the period of a semester, just so I could dunk my head in and drown under that game’s undulating narrative. Videogames were my first true form of constructive escapism – a virtual landscape that welcomed unlimited experimentation and offered instant feedback for my efforts — and the amount of violence in the games I experienced was, as I vividly recall, never an issue for my family. For the rest of society, however, the worst was and still is always assumed when it comes to the influence violence in games is purported to have over our children and young adults.
Blame the Game, Mommy
“Games are responsible for child obesity; games transformed our son Donny into a caped, antisocial binge drinker; games are the reason my son fakes comas and drools in his sleep” – I’ve heard parents, since the early 90’s until late last week, make every conceivable claim of why videogames are an invention with less worth than solar powered left-handed scissors, but none are as severe as the declaration that games program children into violent little scallywags, students training through virtual reality to become the lowest, saltiest dregs of society’s filth riddled underbelly.
And parents aren’t necessarily wrong in making such assumptions. Politicians and the media frame the issue with such absolute disdain that it seems obvious, despite inconclusive research, that videogames are the undisputed champion of all of society’s woes. It’s a tactic of political scapegoating (to avoid the issues of class inequality, declining civil liberties, and gun control, perhaps?) that reveals its pattern whenever a national tragedy grips our collective sympathy: a school shooting fragments our hearts and drains what little confidence we have left in the human condition, and the government (or political figures who claim to speak for it), unwilling to upset its political and corporate interests, offers a simple, promising cause – videogame violence. It’s pure genius, from the standpoint of political self-preservation and subterfuge, but it doesn’t align with over two decades of research committed to discovering causation and correlation between gaming violence and violent behavior.
The Dirty Difficulty of Testing for Violence
To this frigid day, aggregated research on game violence transferring into the real world is inconclusive and ambiguous. As you can imagine, testing for violence isn’t as simple as having a child play a game that focuses on the zombie apocalypse for an hour, handing him a sledgehammer and a shotgun in a bunker full of his costumed peers, and asking, “Do ya feel like bludgeoning the other kids? Huh? Possibly, yes? Pretend they’re zombies.” That would be barbarically unethical.
But like all things controversial, the methods by which these studies were performed are often called into question. The age of the participants being examined (most were not children, but college-age), the ineffective measurements for determining aggression ( I wrote the words “exploding uppercut” in my essay section, so that makes me more aggressive than someone who wrote “purple kiss explosion”), and the methodological flexibility some researchers are allowed when calculating their findings so that the conclusion matches the expectation of the advocacy group that funded them: these are three problems that arguably render some conclusions, whether supportive or disagreeable of the “Games Cause Violence” hypothesis, utterly insincere.
Self-Interpreting the Ambiguity
Personally, through my years of solving virtual mysteries, choking out genocidal warmongers, and collaborating with other players who share my adoration for gaming, I’ve never experienced or witnessed any actual aggression or violence that was a product of violence from a game, no matter how bloody or gratuitous or depraved the on-screen action might have been. But I have seen and experienced aggression, not violence, as a response to competition (which any online gamer who has dealt with cheapskates and trash talkers can attest to), a game’s unfair difficulty, and the disappointingly poor quality of a game that was hyped to be everything but pure garbage(I’m waving my fist at you, Aliens: Colonial Marines).
If you view competitive videogames through the same scope that you use to watch competitive sports, then you have a good idea of the level of aggression that steams between rival teams battling for the title of champion: teammates generally treat one another with respect while performing altruistic tasks that are beneficial to the entire group; and when threatened to be outperformed by members of an opposing team, outsiders who are essentially faceless until the competition is over, their objective is to utilize collective talents and resources for domination.
This principle might apply to competitive gaming. In franchises like Call of Duty, players can create, recruit for, and join a clan, a company of militaristic avatars whose desire to win is only outmatched by their incomprehensible vulgarity (“Wait, what the hell did you call me? You take that back, DicVanDemonDog989!”). To some, identity and self-esteem seem to be directly linked to the competition and the outcome of a match. The closer the score and the lower the points needed for victory, the tighter the camaraderie within a team becomes, the more each team aggresses in tone of voice and vulgarness at their antagonists, and the more desperate their actions are in-game. Of course, on almost all occasions, this exchange of trash talk is all in good fun, a type of short-term aggression that is more cathartic than potentially violent, and is rarely ever a real world problem. (Though, it would never surprise me if someone flew 1,200 miles to suplex a guy for calling him a dirty variation of the word “pansy” over the internet.)
Don’t Just Fantasize – Desensitize
Though it’s unclear if violent games beget violent behavior, they do seem capable of desensitization, decreasing our emotional responses to car chases, balletic gun duels, and Bruce Willis in a tank top – you know, images usually associated with violence in docudramas, Hollywood blockbusters, and frenzied action games. The research goes a little bit like this: A swanky test subject who usually doesn’t care to watch Bruce Willis ramp a car off of a toll booth into a helicopter is shown videos and images of Bruce Willis ramping a car off of a toll booth into a helicopter (or this scene’s equivalent). Because this subject is usually not exposed to violence, his heart rate increases, his sweat glands dilate, and he is disgusted and overtaken by discomfort, fear, and anxiety.
According to Douglas A. Gentile, director of the media research lab of Iowa State University, when a gamer undergoes this same type of test after playing a violent game, but with the fictional images of violence replaced by a real-life video of violence, his heart rate is far lower than someone who didn’t play a violent game prior to watching; also, activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and rostral anterior cingulate cortex, parts of the brain that partner up to resolve emotional conflict, are diminished, meaning that gamers are conditioning their brains to withstand the emotional weight that should follow violent actions in a real world setting as well as the gratuitous inclusions of Bruce Willis.
While I do agree that one form of violence in media desensitizes us to other forms of violence in media (violent games can decrease my emotional response to an equally violent movie), I’m skeptical of the theory that violence in games, movies, television shows, and the nightly news weakens my emotional response to real world violence and urgency. Viewing real world violence from behind the popcorn and wine coolers of a flimsy plasma screen is far less stimulating than experiencing the same type of violence or situational intensity in person.
My subjective case in point: I’ve simulated a car accident in a photorealistic game. And I’ve crash-dummied as a passenger into a concrete guard rail at 65 mph in the real world. I’ve cringed at violence toward women in a game. And I’ve tried to pacify domestic violence in the real world. Let me tell you (like you somehow don’t already know), when you collide with a solid, unflinching object at ludicrous speeds or attempt to negotiate a weapon out of an infuriated man’s grip, your emotional responsiveness is firing on all twelve cylinders, regardless of any movie you’ve watched or game you’ve played that resembles the situation at hand.
Lacking Constructive Context
Even more interesting than the arbitrary violence in games, which seems to be the focus of contention, is the trend in the popular film industry to minimalize the context of violence in action movies, motion pictures that certain videogames take inspiration from. It sort of reveals our culture’s attraction, or desensitization, to the intensification of violence in our entertainment through the years.
Take the Rambo franchise: in the seminal film, First Blood (1982), Sylvester “Damn I’m Old and Fit” Stallone suffers from a flashback of being tortured in a Vietnamese P.O.W. camp. He proceeds to rough up a couple of officers who triggered the episode by treating him a bit inhumanely (he was arrested for vagrancy, after all). He swiftly escapes the police station, outruns a police car on a dirt bike through small town streets and dirt trails, climbs a 3,000 foot rock face to avoid capture, and accidentally kills a police officer in self-defense after the cop tried to snipe his flexing biceps off from a helicopter. Every act of violence in this film is contextual and pushes the plot forward – Rambo’s harsh treatment leads to his flashback that prompts his escape that provokes his survival instinct that triggers the unfortunate death of a police officer that brings about a statewide manhunt for an alleged murderer. By the end, everything comes together to highlight the repercussions of war. There is a consequence for every violent action. And only one person dies in the entire movie.
Now look at the most recent Rambo flick, Rambo (2007): 236 people are killed in the movie. The context that justifies the violence is something about rescuing missionaries (whose methods of peace are useless) taken hostage in a Burmese camp, but what it really boils down to is “the only way to deal with ‘primitive’ people who solve their problems with conflict is with people more experienced in conflict – and a bow and arrow!” The consequences for violence are a rescued missionary, 236 mostly faceless deaths, and a perpetually grimacing anti-hero.
Briefly analyzing these two movies, we can see not only how much more violent the franchise has become, but how the contextualization of violence was sharply reduced to compensate for a higher body count (it’s hard to develop the backstory and motivations for 236 characters to make us care about each death). Violence has gone from a cinematic tool that displays dynamic consequences to a means that justifies its ends.
A lot of action games use the contextual style of the second film for some of the same reasons actions movies do, to create agency and to minimalize realistic consequences.
When you play a game where the primary mechanic is guns or swords or slow-motion slide tackles, you want to feel like the centerpiece badass of that universe. One of the best ways to do that is for the developer to set your character up against taunting waves of enemies who are challenging enough to keep your attention and make your dominion over them a reward worth achieving. This creates a feeling of power and importance for the game character that you happily connect with (because who doesn’t want to play as a nearly undefeatable demi-god from time to time?). Minimalizing realistic consequences adds to this agency. Your character can take a dozen zombie bites to the neck, eat a green herb laced with masculinity, and then be right back to full health, debilitating the undead with elbow drops.
Game Over, Man!
Videogames were much different when I was a kid. Franchises like Doom and Mortal Kombat were considered unforgivably violent then but when looked at from today’s standards appear to be cartoonish, slapstick allegories of testosterone crusading for survival and relevance. Presently, games are more lifelike, and with that level of authenticity is a higher concern for the violence that’s portrayed in them. It’s understandable. I realize that the games I experienced as a child weren’t a fraction as realistic, visually, as the games released today and that there’s a possibility that the violent images and situations displayed may trigger aggression and desensitize children to other forms of media violence. So perform more studies, I say. What harm could it do (as long as it doesn’t strip attention away from other legitimate issues)?
But I don’t think that researchers will ultimately find a link between game violence and real world violence. Maybe I give children, young adults, and myself too much credit and confidence. I do believe that there’s a link between competitive gaming and real world short-term aggression, but what rivalries that require challenge and skill for supremacy don’t? (Don’t say chess. I’ve seen a guy vehemently karate chop a chess board after losing a match).
My concern is that society focuses too much on the negative aspects of videogames. Parents, politicians, and venerable folks who have a distrust of anything that operates without a power cord need to understand that gaming is like any other pleasurable activity – it’s greatly beneficial in moderation but incredibly damaging in excess. As I said at the beginning, videogames are one of my forms of stress relief. I credit Final Fantasy II (and my parents’ support) as the intrinsic motivator for learning to read and, much later, falling head-over-high heels in love with everything about the written word. I would not be the highly flawed yet brashly optimistic man I am at this moment if it were not for the games I played and the friends I played them with.
So I ask you: stay cautious, maintain skepticism, ask questions, and continue to do more research on this topic if you truly believe videogames to be an assemblage of evil and lethargy; just make sure to take note of some of the benefits while you’re at it.
By Jedediah Hoy