Thou Shalt Kill: A Look at Violence in Video Games

The issue of violence in video games has been around since the medium’s inception and the discussion of it merrily continues today. One of the first video games ever made was created by an MIT student named Steve Russell, called Spacewar!, and was just as violent — at least, in concept — as many of today’s titles. Originally a multiplayer game, two people would control rocket ships while firing torpedoes at one another. To make the game more realistic, modifications would subsequently include planets, gravity, and backgrounds. Even in the early days, by their competitive nature, video games have always contained a kernel of violence in them. At the same time, they’ve also aspired to be better simulations of the world. Whether out of the desire to make the virtual competition more appealing or simply “feel” right, video games have always sought to accurately reflect the competitions they represent.

So what are the consequences of that objective? I can now, with the press of a button, have the avatar representing me vividly and realistically kill the avatar representing you. What, psychologically, is going on in my head? A variety of studies have been conducted by a variety of sources and compiled in an essay by Craig A. Anderson entitled “Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts, and Unanswered Questions“. According to the research, playing even a non-violent video game for twenty minutes can induce in the player “increased aggressive behavior, thoughts, and affect; increased physiological arousal; and decreased pro-social (helping) behavior”. Which is fair enough. It doesn’t take a Ph.D to conclude that playing Halo 3 for a couple of hours is going to make you more aggressive. You’re competing with other players, with the AI, or with yourself when you’re playing that game. In all probability, Anderson’s research is wholly correct that after playing a video game the player is more aggressive and anti-social.

The rather curious question this raises is…so what?

Violent movies make you more aggressive and de-sensitize you. They also “look” far more realistic than even video games of today. Playing sports makes you more aggressive. Listening to angry music can result in decreased pro-social behavior. Yet because of their unique interactive nature, video games are potentially far more dangerous than these other mediums. Keep in mind that that’s where the gap in psychological studies of video games technically lies: not whether they make you more aggressive, but rather if their interactive nature makes them more dangerous than other mediums. Does playing a video game make you more inclined to be violent than watching an angry film or hearing an aggressive song?

Let’s look at both ends of the problem, and first assume they do. By playing Call of Duty 4, you are statistically more likely to resolve your problems at school by bringing a gun with you to class. How do we go about solving that? The most logical place to start would be a ratings system, but the ESRB would have to be overhauled, because technically, their raters don’t actually play the games. They just watch the content from them. You would have to invent a method to psychologically analyze what simulated acts cause in the brain and then decide what acts are acceptable at what age. The tricky part then comes from deciding who can play what. How old do you need to be to play a game about driving? About using a gun? Saving the Princess? Are we going to declare that all simulated acts in video games are the equivalent of their real life counter-parts? Does it matter if I’m using Wii gestures, pressing buttons, or wearing a VR helmet? Therein lies the problem with censoring interactivity: how do you make fake violence more safe and for who?

Continuing on with this extreme hypothetical, if video games really do induce violence, then even a ratings system isn’t really going to be enough. According to Anderson’s research, even non-violent games can induce aggressive behavior in players. Should more tests prove that video games are as dangerous as some say, how would we go about banning them at this stage of our society? This wouldn’t be impossible given the right social climate. Video games in the past, like gay marriage, have been a great fudge topic in politics. It’s something you can trash with little economic consequence that makes a lot of people happy. It would also certainly be a far easier way to curb violence than proposing a ban on handguns. But a prohibition on video games would raise eyebrows from even the most conservative groups in this day and age. They’re neither quite as disenfranchised in terms of supporters as before nor can the massive boost that games give to any country’s economy be shrugged off lightly. At this stage in the game, the people who play video games are only getting older and more likely to vote in an election.

The alternative would then be to force the prohibition by holding companies accountable through lawsuits. To have a case, you would have to establish a connection between a game and a large number of otherwise psychologically stable people becoming violent after playing it. To give an idea of how hard this would be in a court of law, remember the years of litigation it took to legally prove cigarettes caused cancer. There was a staggering amount of medical evidence that cigarettes were knowingly sold despite their dangers. In video games, people are just starting to publish responsible academic studies and none of them accurately account for long term risks yet. Without the legal deterrent of being punished for people’s violent acts after playing the games, why would a video game company ever stop making them? True, you could begin to impact their business by refusing to buy games and over time the connection would become irrefutable, but that could take decades. So if we discovered that games really do make you more violent and anti-social, could we even stop them any time soon?

Lets presume, then, the opposite idea, that psychologists will eventually determine that the interactive nature of a game doesn’t induce anymore aggression than say, Die Hard. That doesn’t necessarily justify the realistic depictions of violence in them. It doesn’t make it okay to keep making violent games that desensitize people. They bear the stigmas and political attacks they already endure for a reason: in the average game the sole option is killing people. The question of games as art aside, what are the merits of an “interactive murder simulator” to society? Well, they do present an alternative to violence. It’s the same conundrum that people face when dealing with the idea of legalizing marijuana. From a legal perspective, legalizing pot is very hard to do. It’s much easier to just create an alternative that people accept because you tell them to. Which is technically what Xanax, Zoloft, and all those other anxiety meds really are. They do the same thing as pot, they induce the same effects that people desire, but without the uphill battle of overcoming generations of prejudice. The same goes for cocaine and Adderall. You don’t legalize the crime, you create acceptable alternatives. You don’t legalize violent behavior, you allow video games as a substitute.

Yet are video games even really worth being called a legal alternative to murder and violence? That implies not only that they can simulate reality, but that there are amoral choices occurring in this fictional experience. Is there really any kind of choice in a video game? It’s all just conflict resolution by defeating someone else. In that sense, it’s actually quite easy say to video games aren’t murder simulators because violence is the only way to play. Simply put, killing is the way you play the average game. You don’t expect someone to play baseball without a bat, you don’t expect a gamer to play an FPS without a gun. So if a video game is truly supposed to be a murder simulator, then it can only achieve this by giving the player the option of not murdering someone. After all, what is murder except wrongfully killing someone else? How can it be wrongful if, within the game, killing is your only option aside from losing? This brings us to the final question of the “Games don’t make people violent” hypothetical: if video games aren’t really simulating murder because the only way to compete in them is killing, then what does that make them? Essentially…they’re still the exact thing that Spacewar! was when the medium was born. They are still just a competition: a battle against an AI, a puzzle, or some other player. True, they have a much prettier coat of paint and the games are different, but that’s about it.

To put things into perspective a bit: there is an urban legend about a question serial killers are asked while they’re in prison. The story goes that only a serial killer gets the right answer to this question: You’re at your mother’s funeral. While there, you fall madly in love with someone who seems to be close friends with your brother. A week later, you murder your brother. Why? Think on that for a minute before you read on. The answer that a serial killer gives is that you kill them so you’ll see the person you fell in love with at the brother’s funeral. Whatever effect the interaction in video games may have on a player’s behavior, it’s still a long way away from ever influencing anything except how people compete. After all, games still don’t really interact with people’s morals or beliefs. For as much as games may try to reflect reality, they still largely confine player input to the competitive structure of winning or losing. As long as the interaction merely determines your score and whether you “win” a game, the meaning of that interaction can’t really extend beyond it. Even if video games do make people more aggressive, they are a long way from ever convincing people that murder or violence are the right thing to do.