Do violent video games lead to acts of violence or is the controversy just a “moral panic?” Aoife Muckian details the history of the controversy, and weighs up both sides of the argument.
A recent meeting between Donald Trump and high profile members of the gaming industry took place to discuss the links between video game violence and criminal behaviour. Coming in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, this was not the first time the government has deliberated this topic. With each tragedy, video games have come under scrutiny and have been blamed for influencing the violent and aggressive behaviour which led to these acts of violence, but is there really any evidence to suggest this?
“In the past fifteen years, violent video games have been the subject of legal cases, statutes, and two resolutions by the American Psychological Association.”
Controversy surrounding the violent nature of video games dates back to 1976 with the release of the arcade game, Death Race, a game involving running over and killing other drivers in an arena. This game was heavily criticised as it was seen to appeal to violent fantasies. Carly A. Kocurek, an Assistant Professor at Illinois Institute of Technology observed that although games depicting human-on-human violence were common at the time, Death Race was singled out. As Kocurek pointed out, this may have been due to how in other violent games, murder was justified in the context of warfare by American society.
Violent video games continued to come under scrutiny throughout the 1990s. In 1993, a joint senate committee held hearings on violent video games, with the likes of Night Trap and Mortal Kombat coming under scrutiny. This lead to the establishment of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) in 1994.
Mass shootings in America further prompted the conversation to focus on a link between on-screen violence and real life violent behaviour. The first video game lawsuit occurred in 1997. Anti-video game activist Jack Thompson brought a case against several video game companies and other entertainment enterprises, after it was revealed that the Heath High School shooter regularly played video games. Thompson argued that the violent content in these games had desensitised and motivated the shooter. This case was dismissed as these claims were considered to have made too far a leap.
The 1999 Columbine High School shooting saw the killers referencing video games including Doom in journals when planning their attack. With this, the argument against video games was revisited yet again, leading to another lawsuit, which was again dismissed. President Clinton further suggested that games were one of the possible factors behind the shootings.
As school shootings continue to claim lives in the USA, the argument continues to re-emerge. In the past fifteen years, violent video games have been the subject of legal cases, statutes, and two resolutions by the American Psychological Association. In 2012, Anders Breivik admitted to using Call of Duty as a training method for his attacks. Meanwhile, Sandy Hook shooter, Adam Lanza’s video game obsession was often commented on in the media.
“Although the American Psychological Association study found increased aggression, there was no direct link shown between such aggression and criminal behaviour.”
The influence of violence in video games is further observed in how shooters have used video games to train before carrying out acts of violence. The USA military have also used video games to train soldiers, with the Marine Corps licensing Doom II in 1996 to create the training device ‘Marine Doom.’ Furthermore, various studies, including the American Psychological Association’s 2005 and 2015 resolutions, suggest that violent video games increase aggressive thoughts, aggression, and decrease prosocial behaviours. There are also concerns that the reward system for violent acts in video games may cause people to glorify these acts and that the content shown on screen may desensitise people to violence.
While some shooters have demonstrated tendencies to enjoy video games, this may not be the cause of their behaviour. A 2004 report by the United States Secret Services and Department of Education observed that only 12% of shooters had an interest in violent video games. Although the American Psychological Association study found increased aggression, there was no direct link shown between such aggression and criminal behaviour. In a recent scientific journal, psychologist Christopher Ferguson points out that the task force behind this resolution may have been motivated to confirm a pre-existing idea and some of the members may have been ideologically biased. Some of these studies have also been criticised for the way in which they measure aggression.
Additionally, while the sales of violent video games have increased outside of the US, other countries have not experienced mass shootings to the same extent. In the US, youth violence has decreased despite the increase in sales of video games. This further highlights the lack of evidence to support the link between video games and acts of real life violence.
It has been four decades since the argument against video game violence first appeared and it continues to make frequent reappearances in public discourse surrounding mass shootings. Some argue that proponents use video games to escape delving into the broader question of gun control. Others feel that it is relevant to examine whether violent video games do increase aggression and criminal behaviour for policy reasons. As video games continue to evolve in terms of resolution and graphics, it will be interesting to see how the controversy evolves with it.