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The Culprit Effect: When Video Games and Violence Collide, Part 1

by on July 18, 2013

Violence has been hotly debated when it comes to video games. Is there really a correlation? Could it be something else? Or do we have enough data to prove anything?

By Terry Randolph

Ah, the beautiful, beautiful marriage of sensationalism and news, something so common that is also a travesty. It is always interesting to see news stories having to find a sole reason for the event they are covering. There has to be a factor that allows us context to believe we found a sole reason for a complex issue. Particularly, when it comes to shooting and video games it has always been a very extremist mentality; video games are what made the person the way they were.

For the Columbine High School Massacre, US psychiatrist Jerald Block linked Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s decision to plan the shooting and execute it after they received computer access restriction for a theft crime. With the Virginia Tech shooting, people cited a correlation between Cho Seung-Hui’s love of playing Counterstrike to his shooting. How about the link between Anders Breivik and Call of Duty? Or, more recently, Adam Lanza’s enjoyment of playing video games as a means for his desire to shoot up Sandy Hook elementary.

Yet, the debate about violence and video games has gone on for decades and the two main problems people argue are the potential of violent games being sold to minors and the effects of exposure to violence in games. The earliest documented national controversy can be seen in the famous 1994 Congressional hearing for a standardized rating system. The reason for this hearing; release of the then controversial, hyper-violent game Mortal Kombat and its “irresponsible marketing of violence to kids”. Parents raised concern at the fact that kids could play a game that had digitally captured actors fighting to the death, and could finish their enemies by ripping out their spine, push them into spikes, etc.

The hearing resulted in the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board and the Video Game Act of 1994. The verdict of the case was a huge achievement in creating a ratings board and system that actually limits the sales of games to minors, but it never solved the problem. Cases have continued on like the overturning ruling in 2008 of selling violent games to minors in California. Understandably, the desire to keep children from being exposed to prolonged moments of violence that could desensitize them to real-life situations is a genuine argument. With video games becoming an increasing activity that kids enjoy, it is the easiest thing to blame when it comes to perceived increase anger and aggression. Yet, should video games really be at the center of blame for acts of violence such as the Columbine High School Massacre or Newtown?

Those that argue yes cite that the interactivity of video games and the immersion it provides for players prove that games can lead to violent behavior. As Nina Huntemann says, “You’re not just moving your hand on a joystick, but you’re asked to interact with the game psychologically and emotionally as well. You’re not just watching the characters on screen; you’re becoming those characters.”[1] Games are about stepping into a character’s shoes to be involved in their story. Some games have gameplay that require you to “mow down” tons of people by shooting them, or glorify vicious acts of violence or even allow you the option to kill. Essentially, people believe and assume that games with violence incite a person to think or feel a certain way that can only be satisfied through killing; a perfect example the CEO of the NRA tried this route with saying that games glorifying guns are the culprit for shootings.

There have been many studies done over two decades trying to find any link between violent behavior and video games. One study conducted in 2012 by Ohio State University professor Brad Bushman had 70 French students divide into two groups of 35; one group played violent games and the other non-violent games for 20 minutes a day, 3 days in a row. After each gaming session, students were asked to write an ending to a story they were given. Another part of the experiment would place them in competition against someone of the same sex in a computer game. The loser would have to listen to a horrible sound that was as loud and long as the winner chose. Brad Bushman concluded the experiment had irrefutable proof that aggression and games were linked.[2]

My question is how can anyone say that this finding alone proves that aggression is caused by violent games? How are violent games solely the reason for their acts of aggression and elicit violent behavior?

To say that violent games alone have lead to violent behavior dismisses other factors of life that can play a role. Not to mention, violent actions can be observed and then committed. A prime example would be the famous Bobo the clown experiment:

In 1961, children in APS Fellow Albert Bandura’s laboratory witnessed an adult beating up an inflatable clown. The doll, called Bobo, was the opposite of menacing with its wide, ecstatic grin and goofy clown outfit.

But when it was their own turn to play with Bobo, children who witnessed an adult pummeling the doll were likely to show aggression too. Similar to their adult models, the children kicked the doll, hit it with a mallet, and threw it in the air. They even came up with new ways to hurt Bobo, such as throwing darts or aiming a toy gun at him. Children who were exposed to a non-aggressive adult or no model at all had far less aggression toward Bobo.

The kids merely observed violence that adults were conducting on the doll, and recreated the actions and even came up with new ways to attack Bobo. Bandura’s experiment shows that violence and aggression can be gained simply by observation and does not require interaction. Their perception was that it was ok to attack Bobo because the adults did it, and they did so.

We live in a world where we can see violence on our television every day through news events, dramas, cartoons, wrestling, boxing and mixed martial arts. Graphic novels, comics and books discuss or display violent acts. Music can even describe violent events in detail.  We even have many movies throughout the years that have glorified the act of violence as being “heroic” or amazing when there might have been other ways to approach a situation.  Yet, to say that even one of these elicits violent behavior is problematic.

Other factors within our lives can play a role in violent behavior, such as socioeconomic conditions, social interactions. A child could have a relative that is prone to violent behavior, and can create “If, then” correlations for social behavior. Someone could be caught in a fight or flight situation, and choose to fight instead of fleeing.

My main point is that instances of acts of violence are far more complex than just from one reason. In order to really understand the reasons behind acts of violence, we have to look at many factors leading up to them.

Continued in part 2, which will be posted on Friday, 7/19/2013


[1] Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Eastern and Western Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review

[2] From Halo To Hot Sauce: What 25 Years Of Violent Video Game Research Looks Like -Kotaku

5 Comments
  1. The earliest violent video game controversy I’m aware of predates Mortal Kombat significantly:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_Race_(video_game)#Controversy

    I think few people argue that “violent games alone have lead to violent behavior”. When I think of closing my eyes and seeing falling coloured blocks many hours after a marathon Tetris session I feel comfortable concluding that video games can have an impact on my subconscious. I think game developers should recognize they have a responsibility when they create a work that millions may play for hundreds of intensely focused, dedicated hours – that game will have an effect on people, though we may argue over how significant it will be.

    • I agree that games CAN have an effect on people but I believe the responsibility is on the player, game developer and parent (depending on the age of the player). The extent of the effect a game can have on someone I believe depends on a person’s mental state, perception, and vulnerability. What I’m trying to point out (something I wanted to point out in part one and REALLY examine in part 2) is that when games are cited as being the motivating factor or sole reason for acts of violence, it doesn’t take into account the various factors of the person’s life that affect them as well. It’s just a problem that our media has in general: find the scapegoat and pin the blame on it. The best term I can find (which is in an article I’ll post under my last article, is called the “Culprit mentality”).

      Also, I think games and developers are starting to show an awareness of the violence and its effect it can have. My example I’d say is the fairly recent game The Last of Us. Naughty Dog did a hell of a job creating grizzly, violent, frantic fights that are cruel, unsettling and harsh that garner a reaction from your ally Ellie. Her reaction to these sequences; the occasional “Holy shit” or “Woah”, for me personally made me take a moment and reflect on the fact that I had killed someone. Maybe not in real life, but in this world I did. It’s powerful and very poignant in that regard.

      Part 2 of my article was actually going to look into the fact that there just isn’t a lot of data out there to show what effect violent games can have on aggressive behavior because it’s hard to create experiments with enough controlled factors to get an accurate measure. Aggression, in respect, can be a very vague term and hard to quantify (depending on how a researcher wants to limit it and state what they perceive as “aggressive”). Though, at the same time, there are signs/studies that do show that games CAN affect aggressive behavior, particularly games built around competition. In fact, here’s the article I’ve been using as the start of my writing, and since then branched away from. Tell me what you think:

      http://kotaku.com/5976733/do-video-games-make-you-violent-an-in+depth-look-at-everything-we-know-today

  2. Yim Lai Randolph permalink

    I think you are right when you point out that violent video games should not be identified as the sole source for agitating someone to violence. Anything can get a person going. There are many people who consistently play violent video games and not engage in violence. Whether a person acts out in violence depends on the person’s state of vulnerability at the moment the person is exposed to violence.

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