About Violence in Video Games: Part 1 What the Studies Say

[originally posted on October 12th 2013]

By Lord Yabo

“more games need to be the violent. I'm sick of games where I shoot a guy in the face at point blank range with a shotgun and his head stays in tact” – video game trailer youtube comment

Book 6 of Augustine’s Confessions tells of a man who is totally against gladiator battle and blood sports.  Yet his friends forced him to attend (literally carried) the amphitheater.  He kept his eyes firmly closed until a moment when the crowd roared in unison.  Curiosity got the better of him and he opened his eyes.  After witnessing the violent show he was hooked.  From then onwards he was a hardcore fan of savage games.

What attracted this man to that which he hated?

Why do some, most, or all of us enjoy violence and gore?

There is a tension between two things we know:

  1. What goes into a mind, comes out in a life. (sowing & reaping)
  2. The vast majority of violent media consumers do not act out on it (in ways we can observe).

This is a thorny complicated subject.  More akin to a question about the trinity, then to simple questions like “What day is today?”  Not everything in life can be boiled down to a 140 character tweet.

This is a multipart article exploring violence in video games from a christian perspective.  My hope is it is valuable to church leadership, players, and game designers.

What do the studies say?

The results are inconclusive.  And they always will be.

I’m sure you were hoping for something more definitive, but that is the best you will get.  If you don’t believe me, check out this helpful summary of 25 video game violence studies from Kotaku.

President Obama is as disappointed as you.  So he authorized the CDC to research this further with a grant of $10 million.  I’m telling you now they won’t find anything.

So why does science fail us here?

Because the only way to get a definitive answer is to:

  1. Get a control group of people who have never been exposed to video games.  Close to 95% of the North American population has already been exposed to video games in some form.  Oops.
  2. The control group must never have been exposed to violence outside of video games.  Real life, TV, Movies, all depict forms of violence.  You can’t have a true clean slate.
  3. The experiment group must be as “blank” a slate as possible, which means they must be young.  The younger the better.  Perhaps 4-6 year olds.  But we don’t know the affect violent gory video games have, so no parent is going to sign off on having their child exposed to it and potentially pop out a serial killer.  Even if you could find a parent dedicated (or apathetic) enough to do it, you couldn't get the kind of numbers for a truly scientific study.  How many do we need?  100, 500, 1,000, 10,000?
  4. Even if you overcame all the above hurdles, you would need to follow every experimental child in every moment for the rest of their lives.  Every time they hit their sibling must be documented and compared to the control group.  Maybe they don’t turn violent until puberty.  Maybe they don’t turn violent until early adulthood.  Maybe they don’t turn violent until they have the first major career failure.  No one has funding for this kind of decades long one-on-one research.

So what we have, at best, is violent video game players, within a short time window of playing, have a heightened sense of aggression.  However this also happens when subjects play non-violent competitive games, like Wii Tennis or head to head Tetris.  So even the one thing we can measure (heightened aggression) is inconclusive.

So if we can’t work forwards, maybe we can work backwards from people that have demonstrated acts of violence.  Weren't the columbine shooters in love with Doom?  Didn't the Virginia tech shooter play video games?

Yes, but there are two problems with this approach.  First, everyone who was in their teens in the 90’s played doom.  It’s a popular revolutionary game!  So if there are two, five, or even ten people who are violent and played doom, Doom sold 11 million copies.  That is 10 out of 11,000,000, hardly conclusive evidence of cause.

Secondly, to look at playing a violent video game like doom as a commonality between violent people, you must consider all other commonalities, like: they all owned blue jeans.  They all took public transit at some point.  They all ate Macaroni & Cheese.  To find causality we must find what is unique to violent people that is not common to all people.  Violent video games are common to all people; myself included.