Super Smash Brothers for the Nintendo 64 was released when I was seven years of age. I remember the time pretty vividly because when this game hit store shelves, I wasn’t allowed to get it. You see, my mother didn’t – still doesn’t, really – approve of any media that is violent for violence’s sake. It was one thing to play a game like The Legend of Zelda, a game where violence is displayed but in the context of a larger narrative. It was a whole ‘nother thing to play a game where the entire premise is based solely on perpetrating violence against other people.
“But Mom,” I said, my eyes scanning the box, “the game is rated E for Everyone! That means I’m allowed to play it.”
She didn’t budge. Mom felt that even though the game was rated E, it was still too gratuitous of a display of fighting for my seven-year-old brain to engage with it in a mature way. She felt I needed to wait until I was older, and she offered that I could potentially get the game when I was ten years old. Funny how a few years down the line, E10+ would actually become a rating for those games which seem to have content unsuitable for younger children.
Video games and their relationship to acts of violence have been an ongoing subject of debate for many years. From the shooting at Columbine to the shooting at Parkland, FL, every time a young person takes up a firearm and uses it to take the lives of their fellow students, we understandably look for a cause. How could a human being be capable of such a thing? What are the underlying causes of the violence? Is there any single thing we can target in order to bring an end to the killings? One popular explanation is to point out video games.
“Look at Grand Theft Auto,” they’ll say. “This game clearly glorifies armed robbery. Drug use. Prostitution. It encourages the indiscriminate killing of police officers. Violence is the natural conclusion of filling your brain and your free time with such a thing.” These arguments have started up again, with politicians and concerned parents using social media as a platform to share their fears. Of course, gamers are outraged. Many cite their own experiences as evidence of the fact that there’s no way video games can be blamed for mass shootings.
“I play Call of Duty all the time,” they’ll say. “I spend hours exposing myself to violence in video games and I’ve never picked up a firearm and gunned down my fellow human beings. It’s uneducated and ridiculous to say that playing a video game can convert a person into a killer.” Emotions are high around the issue of guns and violence right now, and unfortunately these heated emotions lead to gamers sometimes expressing themselves in a way that might back up the arguments of those who stand against them.
In the midst of all this heated discussion, The Well-Red Mage has chosen to focus his sixth post in the Asking Big Questions series on the subject of video games and violence. Red’s stated goal when it comes to his blog is to create an environment where civil discourse reigns supreme. The Well-Red Mage is intended to be a place where folks with differing opinions can calmly and respectfully discuss their differences in an effort to fully explore a topic related to gaming. This discussion on games and violence is no different – the goal here is to have an intelligent discussion on the subject. What you believe may be different from what I write in this article – that’s fine. I’m not here to change your mind, but to share my personal thoughts and experience when it comes to video games and violent acts. Every person has a unique perspective, something they can offer that no one else has seen or understood just yet. My mission today is to share that perspective.
FIRST, LET’S ASK THE RIGHT QUESTION
“Do video games cause violence?”
That’s the question that has been posed by The Well-Red Mage for this event. It is an extension of the question asked over and over again by concerned citizens who believe they see a link between mass shooters and video game playing. You’ll see it as the headline of many an article, some legitimately asking while others are simply clickbait with a single paragraph answer, feeding the confirmation bias of someone unwilling to seriously explore the question. The thing is, there are two erroneous implications in the current phrasing of our question. I’m not saying that it isn’t fair to ask the question, but I am saying that asking the question in this manner is going to get you a flawed answer and a bladed, defensive stance from everyone involved (also to be clear, I’m saying this to “society at large,” not The Well-Red Mage specifically).
The first erroneous implication is that all video games have the same message and impact. There’s an assumption out there that the only type of video game available is the type which glorifies acts of violence. Because games which graphically portray violence are those that get the most media attention, someone who otherwise doesn’t pay attention to the hobby may not know that there are other types of video games out there. The Well-Red Mage points out Tetris as an example of a game with no violence to speak of, and there are others as well.
Many puzzles games do not feature violence – their focus is on solving word riddles or object puzzles. Sure this applies to mobile titles like Bejeweled or Candy Crush, but even console games like Snipperclips present puzzles in a non-violent way. What about simulator games such as Harvest Moon, portraying a happy life on a farm consisting of hard work and innocent wooing? Or Cooking Mama, which consists of mini-games in the form of cooking challenges? Sports games only feature violence insofar as the sport itself features violence – and I don’t hear any voices crying out declaring that football is the source of school shootings.
Even when looking at games that display violence, many of them do not portray violence in the same manner. Mario + Rabbids, for example, has “shooting,” but a defeated enemy is teleported back to the hub area, not killed. Splatoon is simply paintball on steroids. Many games allow violence but then employ a morality system which punishes that violence rather than rewarding it; games such as Star Wars, Dishonored, and Undertale give you a worse outcome for playing the “evil” side. Though these titles allow you to be violent, experienced in context they teach you that violence is not the ideal solution to your problems (honestly, you could write a whole article about this topic examining Undertale exclusively).
A fairer version of this question acknowledges that there are plenty of video games out there which do not glorify violence, and even some that do not portray it in any way. When you expand your understanding of video games to include mobile games and built-in computer games like Solitaire or Pinball, these numbers grow even more. It is an unfair generalization to declare that all video games do or do not cause violent behavior. Those who wish to explore this topic fairly need to narrow their focus to games which specifically glorify acts of violence.
The second erroneous implication of this question is in its absolute nature. “Does _____ cause ______?” implies a direct causal relationship no matter what you fill those blanks with. Phrased this way, the question implies that anyone who plays video games will commit an act of violence as a result. And that, adventurers, is simply not true. Such a direct and absolute relationship is negated by anecdotal evidence from literally millions of people.
“Okay, English major, you’re being a bit nitpicky about phrasing here.” Yeah, you’re right, but phrasing is important. The way you present the question to another person is going to define their response to a degree. Do video games cause violence? is an antagonizing question that will immediately put any gamer on the defensive. Asking it in a way that’s more respectful and more aware of the complexity of the issue can get a fairer answer. Again, I want to emphasize that I’m not correcting The Well-Red Mage – based on his answer in his own article, I believe that he is understanding of this distinction. He has simply presented this question to the blogging community as a whole in the way it is delivered by concerned citizens/society-at-large.
So how can we better ask the question? Or rather, how can we phrase this question so that it asks what people really want to know? Here is the question I’ll be seeking to answer throughout the rest of my article:
CAN PLAYING VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES INCREASE THE PLAYER’S LIKELIHOOD OF ENGAGING IN VIOLENT BEHAVIORS?
I stated towards the beginning of this article that my goal today is to share my unique perspective on this issue. To help you understand that perspective, it’s important you understand my relationship with the various facets.
I am a gamer. Those of you who follow this blog and read my content regularly know that already. Adventure Rules is a blog about video games. As the story at the beginning of this article shows, I’ve been playing video games since I was a little boy. And I grew up in a household where violent video games (and other forms of violent media) were discouraged. I primarily play Nintendo games, which is to say that many of the games that I play may portray violence but they do not do so in a way which glorifies excessive violence. Almost none of the games I play feature firearms.
What does feature firearms is my career. I’ve worked for the juvenile justice system in my state for almost two years, specifically 13 months working directly with juveniles charged with crimes and another 7 months working in a role where I train employees, develop educational programs, and compile/analyze data around juvenile crime both at the local level and statewide. For the past two weeks, I have been assisting another employee in researching programs around the country focused on the reduction of violent gun crimes committed by kids.
It’d be a bit of a stretch, but you could say that preventing juvenile gun crime is literally my day job.
Okay, maybe a bit more of a stretch than should be allowed during this discussion. My point here is that I see this issue both from the perspective of someone who loves video games (enough to write about them on the internet for three years) and as someone whose goal is to reduce the violence in his community. I have sat across the table from juveniles whose charges range from petty thievery to homicide by gun. I have heard parents and grandparents tell me in my office that video games are corrupting their precious children. And I have had children tell me how video games and their creators have inspired them and enriched their lives.
So here we go, adventurers. Can playing violent video games increase the player’s likelihood of engaging in violent behaviors?
My answer is Yes; engaging with violent media in the wrong circumstances can potentially desensitize an individual to the real-life effects of violence on another person.
Now before you call me a traitor or blow up my comments with hateful statements, please remember which question I am answering. I do not believe that video games cause violence. My own life is a testament to that. Let’s take a few moments to unpack my statement one piece at a time, and if after my explanation you’re still mad at me or disagree, we can talk about how you can express that.
Yes; engaging with violent media…
Notice here that my answers allows for video games to not be the only culprit of this issue. Video games are not the only form of media our youth engage with – and there is plenty of violence to be had in those other places. Films such as 300 celebrate violence as a sort of art form, a spectacle to be watched in order to entertain us. All it takes is one look at Liam Neeson’s action movie career to see that violence sells films too. Now just like video games, not all movies have graphic violence and some movies portray that violence within a specific context to make a statement – but that’s precisely my point. Any medium can be utilized to glorify acts of violence – video games are not exceptional in this.
Even if we take away games, movies, books, and comic books, our kids are still exposed to violence. But where could they possibly be getting it after taking all of those sources away? Excluding real life violence perpetrated near them or against them, there’s also the news, which uses the same “violence sells” mentality as certain games or certain movies to keep people watching every day at 5 o’clock and 11 o’clock. Even when our kids aren’t exposed to violence through art, our world is saturated with it – it takes a wild combination of privilege and luck to never witness it. Because it is effectively impossible to avoid engaging with violence in some way, my next point is particularly important.
…in the wrong circumstances…
What are these “wrong circumstances” of which I speak? Well for one, video games come with these convenient labels telling you the recommended age at which the game should be played. I posted them at the beginning of this article but I’ll share them again here:
The ESRB is responsible for assigning the content warnings to video games released in the United States. Based on the level of violence, language, drug content, sexual content, and whatever else we may not want our kids to see, the game is given a rating indicating who is developmentally ready to engage with that content. Early Childhood is most appropriate for small children; Everyone I would hope is pretty self-explanatory; Everyone 10+ means that a child should be ten years old before playing the game; Teen means that the child should be thirteen years old. Now up to this point, there is no limitation on the distribution of the games. So it is possible for a ten year old kid to walk up to a counter with a wad of cash and a T-rated game and end up purchasing that game. However, there are roadblocks for the next two levels.
A game with a Mature rating is only appropriate for someone 17 years old or older. In order to purchase a Mature game, you must be old enough to play it. The same thing applies to Adult Only games, but to get those you have to be 18. Now does anyone want to take a wild guess at the rating on the violent video games that are being blamed for the USA’s mass shooting problem? What kind of rating does the ESRB slap on games like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty? It must be Everyone, right, considering how all these little kids are playing them and learning violent behaviors!
Oh wow, look at that. These games which are touted as the robber of our children’s innocence are clearly labeled Mature, 17+. The only way a kid can get access to a game like this is to have a parent or another adult who purchases it and allows them to play it. This is something that I definitely witnessed when working with kids in my office – the same parents who were concerned about their child’s video game habit weren’t quite concerned enough to tell their kid “no” when that child booted up a video game the parents didn’t like.
Now before I skate too close to the line of judging these parents, I definitely understand that there are some circumstances in which kids can get access to these games without permission. Or perhaps with uninformed permission. My own 15-year-old brother is the master of spinning a game in such a way that it sounds like a safe purchase to someone who isn’t engaged with the hobby. My mom will sometimes ask me about the content in a particular game so that I can help her make an informed decision about what my brother should be able to play.
Of course, even that doesn’t stop him or any other kid from busting out their parent’s M-rated games while no one is at the house. It takes a lot of education to be the parent of a gamer: you have to understand the rating system, you have to understand how to set the parental controls on a console – it’s a lot for someone who isn’t interested in and doesn’t know anything about gaming. And even if mom or dad or grandpa or aunt or whoever goes through all of that, if you ever trust your kid enough to let them leave your house it’s pretty much inevitable that their friends will have a copy of a game you don’t approve of and let them play it anyway.
Again, it’s almost impossible to protect your child from engaging with violent content. This leaves it to the parent to know what their child is playing not just by looking at the rating, but by understanding the content within its context. My mother did a great job of that with me. She made it very clear that violence was not a viable solution to real-life problems and that I should not recreate the behaviors that I saw portrayed in a video game. That level of personal involvement is valuable in helping kids of any age – even the age that the box says is appropriate – understand that they should not emulate the behaviors they see their character perpetrate.
So the point of this part of my statement is this: there is a system in place for engaging with violent media in a safe and mature way. Games are clearly rated for a particular age group, and there is an understanding that the person playing will be experiencing the game within a context that informs them that the behavior portrayed in the game is not appropriate in real life. Kids exposed to violent media too young, without a parent or other authority figure to help them understand why violence is negative, may experience the next part of my statement.
…can potentially desensitize an individual to the real-life effects of violence on another person.
I am of the belief that all media is didactic. That is to say, everything we watch, listen to, or otherwise consume is trying to teach us something. I don’t mean that in a literal educational sense, but rather that every piece of media is created by human people and those people have a worldview. Every person has beliefs about the world that drive them and even if they don’t intend it, the things they create will have elements of that view within them and could potentially influence other people to believe the same way.
Whenever a player plays a game, that game is communicating a message to the player. The message may not have any kind of impactful meaning in the grand scheme of things, but it’s being communicated nonetheless. If the player receives that message and is open to it, they may incorporate it into their own beliefs about the world. This is even more likely if that message is reinforced by other media that the player engages with and by the beliefs and views of the people who influence that player on a day-to-day basis. And if the message of the game is a message like “there are circumstances in which it is acceptable to take a human life,” then the player could internalize that if there’s nothing else out there preventing them from absorbing it.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
Let’s use an example to illustrate this whole thing. Imagine if you will an adolescent male who plays age-appropriate video games. These games don’t necessarily glorify violence, but they do portray “heroes” using it as a way to stop “bad guys” and bring peace. So the message being communicated here is that violence can be a viable solution to problems if it is justified.
That message could be pretty destructive if this child internalized it, right? Luckily, his mother and father discourage him from using violence to get what he wants. If he hits someone or throws a toy when he doesn’t get his way, his parents punish him and make sure he understands that this behavior isn’t right. They don’t allow him to play video games which portray violence gratuitously, glorifying the behavior. These views are supported in by the child’s grandparents and by religious leaders – all of the trusted adults in his life make it clear that violence is not acceptable. So even though his games could have potentially taught him that violence is a viable solution to problems, the other elements of his world fight against that message. While there’s no guarantee that he’ll grow up a nonviolent person, this child has many resiliency factors and prosocial structures that will discourage violent behavior.
Now let’s imagine another child, playing the same video games. There’s violence but it isn’t necessarily glorified. However, unlike the family the first child grew up with, this child’s parents teach him that the world is a violent place. This worldview might be supported by the danger in the neighborhood he lives in. His dad tells him that when someone perpetrates violence against him, he has to answer back with violence. Perhaps he sees his father use violence as a “solution” to marital problems in the home. Television shows teach him that a real man values his ability to fight and that violence is a legitimate method of earning respect. His religion is the same as the first child but instead of an emphasis on forgiveness, he is taught to have a judgmental attitude towards those whose views do not align with his own. How do you think this kid might turn out compared to the first? Even though they play the same games, the world around them contextualizes those games in a very different way. While it is definitely possible that this child’s inner strengths could help him rise above his circumstances, there’s a statistically higher chance that he will perpetrate violence compared to the first child.
I hope I’m communicating my message clearly here. Again I will emphasize that I do not believe that all video games cause their players to become violent people. However, a person exposed to violence in video games whose view of violence is then reinforced by the other elements in that person’s life could potentially develop a propensity for violence, or at the very least be desensitized to it.
SO HOW DO WE SOLVE THIS PROBLEM?
While proposing a solution is not technically part of the question posed by The Well-Red Mage, I also don’t want to be the guy who says “video games aren’t the problem” but then offers nothing else to the discussion. At the same time, I can’t pretend that I know the answer to the problem of gun violence. I’ve been researching it at work for weeks and everything that I’ve read simply reaffirms how incredibly difficult this whole thing is.
What my efforts at my workplace have taught me is that when it comes to gun violence, we simply don’t have enough information to make an intelligent decision. Most of the programs I researched were either tested and revealed to have no statistically-significant effect on youth violence, or were tested without a control group to verify the results, or simply weren’t tested at all. The more specific the problem gets, the less research and programs we have to address it. Kids being violent? A decent amount of stuff exists addressing that. Kids using firearms for violence? There are a few things but very little evidence-based material. Kids using firearms for mass shootings? We’ve got a whole lot of nothing.
My proposal, then, is that education is the solution to the problem. Our nation needs to be educated on the root causes of the issue. Our parents need to be educated on how to properly manage the content that their kids consume. Kids need to be educated about alternatives to violence, particularly kids whose life circumstances constantly reinforce that violence is the only way out. Only when we understand the problem can we honestly come up with a viable solution. Anything we try while blinded by ignorance risks failing or even making the problem worse.
Having conversations like this can be a first step to education. The Well-Red Mage is helping to guide us to the right path. However, we have to be willing to meet him halfway by having this discussion respectfully and being willing to have our views changed when it comes to this complicated issue. Both in social media and in person, I have seen people become so vehemently attached to their own political agenda that they cannot even begin to have a conversation about real solutions to this problem. The true answer to the issue of gun violence won’t be found by liberals or conservatives – it will be found by human beings willing to explore the problem and to come up with a solution together.
In the interest of that, I now turn the conversation to you, adventurers. You are welcome to leave a comment with your thoughts about my post, whether you agree or disagree with the ideas I have put forth here. My request is that you do so respectfully – foul language, name calling, and hateful dialogue will be deleted without warning. If you’d like to make a contribution not just in my comments but on your own blog, you too can get involved in Asking Big Questions. Just remember to credit The Well-Red Mage for starting the discussion, and to follow his rules and regs for the event.
Additionally, if you’re interested in reading more about this topic, I cannot recommend enough the Held Hostage series by Athena at AmbiGaming. Parts one, two, and three are all very well-researched and informative, and even though they were published many months ago they are still very relevant to this discussion. Athena’s insight on the issue has no doubt colored my own – I highly recommend giving her articles a read if you care a lot about how video games and violence may or may not be linked. Thanks for reading, adventurers; I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the subject, and I hope that sharing mine has been helpful in collecting your own.