Violence in Videogames

[Blaugust Day 17]

A new metastudy concerning violence and videogames was released last week, and the conclusion is that there is a correlation between such games and aggression.

Which, of course, makes me want to punch all those researchers in the face.

My own thoughts on the subject are complicated. I think it’s silly to suggest there is no effect at all on a person who plays violent videogames, while at the same time asserting that someone can feel moved, or challenged philosophically, or experience any positive emotion at all in some other game. Clearly games can make you feel things, yeah? And in this sense, we can extend the argument to say that if we agree that movies, books, or songs can have any long-term affect on us as human beings, then certainly games have the same power. Hell, games should arguably be more powerful given the unique sense of interaction, which those other mediums lack.

That said, I find it difficult to believe even violent videogames can have a necessarily net-negative, long-term effect.

Can people become desensitized to violent imagery? Sure. I’ll never forget one summer vacation when family from Nebraska stayed with us for about a week. During one of those nights, we gathered around the TV and watched The Patriot for the first time. There is a scene in the movie in which one army starts shooting cannon balls at the front lines, and it goes bouncing through the ranks like a bowling ball knocking over pins (and limbs). In fact, here it is:

My father, sister, and I practically cheered at the surprising/unexpected/morbidly humorous display. My family from Nebraska? They were – to a person – shocked, disgusted, and a few ended up leaving the room. Suffice it to say, I don’t think they were playing the Sega Genesis version of Mortal Kombat back in 1992.

While I may be desensitized to fantasy violence though, I am absolutely not desensitized to real-world violence. Shit, I still sometimes get physically anxious whenever I get a Reply notification from Reddit or WordPress. “Oh what did I say now?” I was somehow able to corral a dozen people through 5 years of WoW raiding just fine – in addition to talking shit about other bloggers in this space all the time – but there is a sub-surface level of personal angst just the same. That may just be because I’m an avowed introvert and generally find social interaction with strangers exhausting anyway.

Be that as it may, if fantasy violence was supposed to have a correlation/causation with actual violence, I should be the most aggressive hoodlum imaginable.

And speaking of aggression, the Kotaku article brings up the fact that in most of these studies, the focus has been on violent videogames without bothering to control for competitive games. It is the most intuitive claim imaginable that people get more aggressive in competitive games, even if (sometimes especially if) there is no violence at all. My high school group of friends about split up for good a few years ago over a particularly spiteful game of Monopoly, for example. And I don’t know about you guys, but Mario Party practically trains you to both hate people and destroy game controllers.

On competition, the APA paper (PDF) punts by saying:

The literature on competition as the underlying causal component of the apparent link between violent game use and aggression is still nascent and is not currently substantial enough to influence, on its own, an objective assessment of the broader violent video game research. (pg. 26)

The other detail that I’m not entirely sure anyone is focusing on is simple adrenaline. Being more aggressive while under the effects of higher levels of adrenaline is basically a redundant statement. Do violent videogames provoke higher adrenaline responses than other games? I kinda hope so, because that is almost the point of violence in these games.

In fact, that is pretty much my default belief on the subject: nearly all of the negative effects of violent videogames can likely be traced back to increased levels of adrenaline – which competition also triggers rather readily. The rest are either attributable to younger children unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality, or older people with the same deficiency.

In any case, science is a complicated subject and psychology/neuroscience is more complicated still. If violent videogames did cause violence or even make people more prone to violent acts though, I would expect youth crime to be increasing, rather than decreasing by 37% between 2003-2012.

Tide goes in, tide goes out – can’t explain that.

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Posted on August 17, 2015, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I’m of the mind that the capacity of being able to differentiate between fantasy and reality is the more important phenomenon to study.

    So what if someone has more adrenaline than another person, or is more desensitized to violence in media imagery… I should think that the key factor behind whether he or she acts out violently is impulse control and/or being able to realize that X behavior is an inappropriate response in a particular situation.

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  2. I know this is a meta-study, hence the language in that quote, but with that big of a hole in essentially all the methodology in the examined papers, it’s pretty obvious this is inconclusive, irrespective of correlation. At least the meta-study points that out. But hey, the grant was spent and no one puts out papers that support the null hypothesis, let alone that claim the hypothesis is inconclusive, so if you want more grants in the future, you had better say something.

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    • If I were an eccentric billionaire, I would set aside a large portion of my fortune specifically for null hypothesis research. We’d have to come up with some way to weed out the truly superfluous stuff, but it’s maddening how the only research that is supported is the stuff that can immediately make an economic profit. What about the good of species as a whole? Or the pursuit of truth itself?

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  3. My issue with all studies of this kind is how they do not also research the down-winding effect of violent videogames on their consumer base. I know a number of FPS players who tell me it’s the best way to relax in the evening when they’re really hyper or aggravated after the work day – how would that number compare to the opposite effect, if such exists?

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    • I don’t know about video games, but the down-winding effect of things like working out aggression on a pillow or punching bag are grossly overestimated iirc. I seem to recall that “working out aggression” physically in the form of attacking things is actually correlated with more aggression later, but I may be mistaken.

      I also have no idea if the same applies to other less “aggressive” forms of activity in response to anger. ie. running/swimming/biking/lifting. My suspicion is that they don’t but I don’t actually know the status of that research.

      Obviously, there’s a huge difference mechanically and psychologically between playing some games of smash bros after work and working over a punching bag after a rough day.

      It turns out human behavior and the various factors that influence it are incredibly complicated. For example, time since last meal is directly correlated with harshness of sentencing by judges when its been studied. Perhaps we should classify “hunger” and “low blood sugar” as “risk factors for aggression”. I’m sure a pretty solid correlation between argumentativeness/violence/irritability etc and lack of food would be much easier to demonstrate than video games even if game use can be a contributing factor.

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