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Teaching Violence? A Guest Post on Video Games

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Will. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines.)

What has every school shooting from Jonesboro, Arkansas to Virginia Tech and beyond had in common? The shooters all played violent video games.

I recently went to a talk on school violence given by Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman and this is an issue he felt very strongly about and so do I. Lt. Col. Grossman has devoted his life to the study of violence in society and when someone so knowledgeable in one area comes down so firmly on one issue, we should take note. Games like Grand Theft Auto in recent history, and Doom and Quake from a few years ago, numb the mind when it comes to violence and killing, especially in children.

Grand Theft Auto has to be one of the worst perpetrators. Players can kill anyone and everyone they see, from cops to little old ladies crossing the street.  And there is no shortage of methods for carrying out these brutal assaults. When children see this, the line is blurred between reality and game.

So what makes video games different from violent movies or violent music, as Matty P talked about in his post "Violence and Entertainment"? The answer is the interaction. In movies and music the watcher/listener doesn’t have any say in what happens--it has already been decided by the creator. In video games, the player can make a conscious decision that they are going to “kill” a cop or innocent bystander on the street. The player can decide how they want to do it--with their bare hands, with a baseball bat, or with a gun. They can literally stomp someone’s face into the pavement until they stop moving. In the Nintendo Wii game Manhunt 2, users actually simulate the movements of cutting their victims throat with a piece of glass or suffocating them with a plastic bag. Think about that for a minute…

One could argue whether games like this even need to be made, but if they are, tighter restrictions should be put in place to keep them out of the hands of children. These games have come under attack in the past but the game makers claim that they are being censored if vendors don’t want to sell their games. So sell them they do – to anyone who wants to buy it, regardless of age. Stores enforce age laws on things like tobacco, alcohol, firearms, and pornography. Why don’t they do it for video games?

Some critics say these games teach children how to shoot and kill.  I would disagree that one can learn how to accurately shoot a gun from playing a video game, but studies have shown that children who play these games become less sensitive to violence and lose touch with what is real and what isn’t. 

In conclusion, I want to draw a distinction between games like Grand Theft Auto and games like Call of Duty and other “war” games. Being a soldier or a cop is an honorable and noble profession. Being a criminal is not. There is a difference between games that reward senseless, immoral, wanton violence and games that simulate being a soldier or a cop where killing is sometimes a necessary part of the job.

nine comments

Two things:

1. Our readers should know that for guest posts, it doesn’t mean thats what Michael and I believe. If a guest post is interesting and well written and well argued, we’ll probably publish it. In the case of this post, I disagree with its central argument, but I enjoyed reading it.

2. Will touches on something about video games that is at their very core, and which all criticism about video games will need to understand: they are player-centric. Video games aren’t a narrative, but a benefit/punishment matrix. The designers only determine the feedback.

With this in mind, Will’s conclusion brings up a very logical and interesting point, about what video game designers choose to positively reinforce.

Great post. This is something I have always contempleted and struggled with. For me personally, it’s mostly been the driving in video games. If I’ve been playing a video game with driving, I have that moment while driving an actual car where I remind myself the appropriate driving protocol.

As far as videogame stores enforcing the rating, you’re right. I’ve seen store associates sell m rated material to unaccompanied minors. It happens. But even when a child is accompanied does an associate confirm with a parent whether a game is age appropriate.

But I like your point about actual interactivity. No longer do we simply wish to see the bad guys killed at the hands of the good guy, but we virtually take the action. And sometimes it’s the bad guy killing good guys or innocents.

I like the picture.

“What has every school shooting from Jonesboro, Arkansas to Virginia Tech and beyond had in common? The shooters all played violent video games.”

Let’s do some math. First, let’s look at the number of “violent video games” sold:

Doom: This was originally released as shareware, and according to Wikipedia, estimated to be installed on 10 million computers by 1995.

Grand Theft Auto 4: Again according to Wikipedia, GTA4 has sold 13 million copies as of March 2009.

I’m going to be (very) generous and estimate the number of school shooting perpetrators is 1000.

Assuming only Doom and GTA4 exist, ONLY the above numbers are used, and assuming ONLY those who purchased/installed the games EVER played them, there is a 1000/23,000,000, or 4.35×10^-3 chance that a person who has played a violent video game will become a school shooter. I’m completely sure that alcohol can be implicated in more murders and lightning in more deaths annually than video-game caused school shootings will ever kill.

I bet if you looked at the number of kids getting college scholarships or volunteering in churches you would see that a large number of them play violent video games. They just make a good scapegoat, like that crazy “rock and roll” kids listen to these days.

Ok, fair enough, the odds are very small that any kid will become a school shooter; however there are numerous studies on the effects of video games on the brains of children and how they effect school work, physical activity, and social interaction — all negative.

More importantly, the shootings you refer to also include mental illness, access to weapons, and anomie.

You can agrue that violent games cause violence surely. However, your work is entirely still infront of you with respect to explaining details such as complex planning, targeting, and increasing effectiveness.

To add in my viewpoint, I believe in general violence in our society has declined since WWII. Basically, the overall trendline of violence is downwards.

That said, do violent video games increase violent propensities or decrease them? What about rock and roll or rap music? Violent movies? Unfortunately, trying to parse out what causes violence in a society is very complex and its a wicked problem. That said, I appreciate this article because it does make us reassess a very common and possibly very destructive force.

I do recommend everyone read On Killing by David Grossman for more information on this topic.

Two more thoughts:

1. Plato had a chapter in the Republic about how poems, violent poems, excite young children and make them violent. Time has passed and only the technology has changed.

2. I think someone mentioned that young children shouldn’t play video games. Maybe this is the distinction. Age.

I am a big fan of On Killing, I think it is a brilliantly researched and well written piece of work, however in this particular situation I think LTC. Grossman is going overborad. He equates überviolent video games with anti-social behavior as equivalent to the desensitization training carried out by the Army to condition people to kill without hesitation. I think most mature people (of course not kids) understand the difference between a video game played for fun and reality. Do I think regular exposure to violent mass media can make that line easier to cross? Yes. Is it usually the main reason that the line is usually crossed? No. Usually there are other reasons someone picks up a gun and runs amok, as I think last weeks shooting at Ft. Hood shows.

Besides, I love the commercials on GTA, they´re great.