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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.

Who’s On First (Beatdown)

In the comments for Unleash the Rage, Rohan and I had a little back and forth on whether or not I could have handled the Unleash the Hounds situation differently. While I am still rather certain that the game would not have materially changed, Rohan is correct in stating that a different sequence of actions would have resulted in a better board position.



Namely, using Wrath to kill Shieldbearer, using the Novice Engineer to kill the Stonetusk Boar, and then using the Druid Hero Power to kill the Owl. The Snake Trap still would have triggered, Mishra would (presumably) still have come down, and I would be eating 11 immediate damage to the face with no board position. A single Swipe would have turned the situation around next turn, had I the opportunity to draft one, but the point remains that things could have been better handled.

I was not playing an aggressive deck. Indeed, this was the deck I drafted:


Definitely a late-game deck

That’s right, two Legendaries, one of which was Ysera. I ended up going 3-3, losing to a Paladin and Mage the turn after I cast Ysera. So, pretty much from the start, I played the deck as Control (minus much control) seeing as how I had an extremely strong late-game presence.

The interesting thing to note though, is an article Rohan referenced in the comments: Who’s the Beatdown. This was an article written the in ancient days of 1999 concerning Hearthstone’s progenitor, Magic: the Gathering, but like most things written about Magic strategy, it is still quite relevant. Fundamentally, the article asserts that in any given match, the player that wins is the one who correctly understands the role he/she is playing: control vs beatdown. If you think you are control but are really supposed to be beatdown (or vice versa), then you will lose. This seems fairly straight-forward until you start thinking about what happens when two aggressive decks go head-to-head.

The Unleash the Hounds game was not a good example of misappropriation of roles, but look at this scenario:

Who's the beatdown? Hint: not him.

Who’s the beatdown? Spoiler: not him.

I drafted a fairly aggressive Shaman deck that had some mid-range direct damage to try and seal the deal before my opponents realized that I had no Bloodlusts. Encountering a 2/1 Loot Hoarder coined onto turn 1, however, and suddenly my Beatdown deck must shift gears into Control. So instead of casting a creature that will likely die immediately, I cast a totem (it ended up being a Healing totem) and pass the turn. My opponent then… kills the totem with the Loot Hoarder. Okay then. Who’s the Beatdown? I shift mental gears again and go on to play aggressively and win.

The soon-to-be 6/3 with windfury certainly helps.

The soon-to-be 6/3 with windfury certainly helped.

Arena is not quite like Constructed, and Hearthstone is not quite like Magic. Coining into Loot Hoarder on Turn 1 isn’t necessarily a sign of anything beyond perhaps being presented other choices that were even worse. The key point here is that you can play a Beatdown deck in a controlling manner, or a Control deck aggressively. Once you recognize those situations in which you should shift gears, your odds of winning will increase along with the odds your opponent will screw up. You might not always have a choice given what is in your hand or your deck, but that only makes it all the more important to recognize and act on it when you do.