Videogames made me do it

by Ryan Cook


In recent years the entertainment industry has become the favorite among angry parents and politicians frantically searching for a scapegoat to lay blame to for the so called “corruption” of today’s youth. Even more recently, the video game industry has become the primary focus in this witch hunt and is repeatedly misunderstood as journalists, analysts, and politicians skew the facts (or their perception of) in order to satisfy their need for a scapegoat. On top of that, there has yet to be any conclusive scientific evidence stating that video games are indeed a channel for real-world violence.

A favorite tactic that the media like to use is to draw connections between violent crime “X”, and violent videogame “Y”, using vague references to make their point. For example: The popular videogame Grand Theft Auto is a favorite suspect when the media and/or politicians are looking to connect a violent crime to a cause. The problem with this connection is that videogames have become too pervasive to simply blame an act of violence on something present in 50 percent of American homes. Here are a few facts provided by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) that show just how ubiquitous videogames have become:

1. Seventy-five percent of American heads of households play computer and video games.
2. The average game player is 30 years old and has been playing games for 9.5 years.
3. The average game buyer is 37 years old. In 2005, 95 percent of computer game buyers and 84 percent of console game buyers were over the age of 18.
4. Eight-five percent of all games sold in 2005 were rated “E” for Everyone, “T” for Teen, or “E10+” for Everyone 10+ (ESA).

That leaves Fifteen percent for games rated “M” for Mature Audiences Only, and “AO” for Adults Only. Only Fifteen-percent of the 228 million games reported sold by the ESA were rated “M” for Mature, or “AO” for Adults Only. Furthermore, when looking at the ESA’s data on best selling games, you see that not one of the top 10 best selling games of 2005 was rated “M”, or “AO”. Not one. So what’s the problem?

The problem is the impetuous need for someone, or something to blame when things go wrong. Example: On February 1, 2006 the Toronto Sun newspaper headline read, “Did Need For Speed Kill?” The story told of an 18-year-old being charged in a street-racing crash that left a cab driver dead. There’s nothing too out of the ordinary here, right? Well, there isn’t except for the fact that the kid who was racing just happened to have a copy of the game Need for Speed in his car. This, by definition, means he was only imitating what he had already experienced in the game, right? Because no one street raced until the advent of video games, right?
However true that may be, by far, it is much easier to simply look for something to blame. There was a murder two blocks over? The killer was sixteen years old? He played video games? Case closed. Mind the fact that, since 1994, all video games have received ratings from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), and these ratings are clearly marked on all packaging. Granted, these ratings are not enforced on a federal level; however, neither are the MPAA ratings provided for movies. Yet, for some reason, the MPAA ratings seem to hold more worth in parents’ eyes. Most parents would be hard-pressed to allow their child to see Gratuitously Violent Movie: Part 5. Why then, do parents seem less reluctant to purchase violent games for their children, completely negating the rating system that is in place? Do most parents simply shrug video games off? What does science say?

For the most part, the scientific question, of whether or not video games directly lead to violence, is mostly inconclusive. Craig A. Anderson, a PHD in psychology from the American Psychological Association (APA) feels they are “significantly associated with: increased aggressive behavior, thoughts, and affect; increased physiological arousal; and decreased prosocial behavior.” I agree that video games may desensitize some to violence, but no more so than any violent movie or book, even. But as far as “decreased prosocial behavior” goes, I’m going to have to disagree. Not only are video games great fun when you and a few friends are around duking it out in friendly competition, but the Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) genre has really taken off in the last 5 years. These games take place in virtual worlds inhabited by literally thousands of other real players that you must interact with regularly. Many people form guilds with other players, and guilt meet-ups in real-life are very common. There is plenty of socializing to be had in the gaming world.

The problem with many of these studies, as well as media analysis, is the inaccurate presentation and skewing of information. For instance, New Scientists magazine featured an article discussing violence in video games, wherein a study conducted by Craig Anderson of Iowa State University, and his colleague Karen Dill was mentioned. In their study, students were asked to “play a violent video game, Wolfenstein 3D, while another group played the non-violent Myst.” According to their experiment, those who played Wolfenstein reacted more quickly to aggressive words flashed on a screen and were also found to be more aggressive in a game “where the object was to blast an opponent with a harmless noise.” First off, both of these games were released well over a decade ago, and are hardly representative of the extreme ends of the spectrum that are in question. Second, blasting someone with a harmless noise? I’m not even sure I understand how that, in any way, proves a tendency to violence.

Regardless, Jeffrey Goldstein, a psychologist at the University of Utrecht thinks that linking violent video games to aggressive behavior may not necessarily be a case of cause and effect; aggressive kids may simply be most attracted to violent games. He also feels that there is no distinction between different types of violence. “Sometimes they tot up the amount of violence in a game, making no distinction between Tom and Jerry hitting one another with a frying pan and more realistic images of people getting blown up,” he notes. “The news creates more trauma for kids than games”, says Henry Jenkins, director of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1950s America, Rock & Roll was the Devil’s music. In the 60’s and 70’s it was comic books. Then, in the 80’s, Dungeons & Dragons was supposed to be the downfall of America’s youth. They all closely resemble a witch-hunt – what with the inconclusive scientific evidence, and the obvious skewing of facts for attention, and the sudden shift from one scapegoat to another. Now, video games have risen to the throne of the number one excuse for bad children. All hail.