Violence in media–and video games in particular–become a topic of popular discussion every now and then, especially after a mass shooting or other highly publicized act of violence. Enough people play video games, and violent games in particular, that as a matter of statistics you’re going to have the occasional violent outburst by somebody who was also a big fan of violent video games. The question is, is there a cause and effect going on here?
As a kid, I wasn’t really bothered by video game violence. I played Wolfenstein, I played Doom, I played Quake. I was never a violent kid–this stuff was all just fantasy to me, and while I did have a fair amount of anger (for a variety of reasons), it never occurred to me to pick up a weapon and go after anybody. I occasionally defended myself from bullies, but spontaneous outbursts of violence just didn’t happen. That’s not the kind of person I am.
But as I’ve gotten older, I have found myself troubled by the trajectory of video game violence. I quit playing Spec Ops: The Line because the game had you killing people who seemed to be defending their homes and/or country. At the least, I was an intruder, and I was shooting at people because they shot at me first, but ultimately I was the one encroaching on someone else’s land, so what right did I have? It wasn’t like Wolfenstein 3-D, where you’re killing digital Nazis, or Doom where you’re killing mutants and zombies, or Quake, which similarly featured inhuman enemies. Like Spec Ops, I was similarly discouraged by Bioshock: Infinite, because it was another instance where I had come into someone else’s world and got sucked into mass slaughter for the sake of a mission that seemed to be selfishly motivated. It wasn’t even like the first Bioshock, in which your enemies are, in large measure, inhuman: it’s hard to see Splicers as anything but former humans gone completely deranged and homicidal by their genetic experimentation, therefore it’s OK to kill them to defend yourself. You also went into the city of Rapture as a means of survival, rather than with the intention of hurting anyone. But with Infinite, you’re killing cops and soldiers who have done nothing worse than defend their city in which you are an unwelcome intruder. Yes, the people in the fictional city of Columbia are horribly racist and cruel, but they’re still human beings, and what gives me the right to bust in, pass moral judgment, and then execute them?
But if I’m being honest, this fixation on whether the murder sprees in specific games are narratively justified is beside the point, if not hypocritical. In video games, violence is very frequently the first resort to conflict resolution. In real life, it is supposed to be the last resort, only used in self-defense or in defense of others who are in imminent danger. Research thus far shows there is no clear evidence that playing violent video games (or consuming violent media in general) results in more real-life violence. Nevertheless, I am skeptical that, as much as we are affected by other social and media forces (objectification, sexism, racism, etc.), our brains are somehow immune to being significantly affected by virtual violence. How is it that engaging in objectification, absorbing and reiterating sexist or otherwise bigoted beliefs, and so forth change our thought processes (and ultimately behavior), but spending hours and hours killing virtual people and blowing up virtual worlds doesn’t affect us meaningfully? I would not suggest there is any kind of straight line between, say, playing Call of Duty and then going on a mass shooting spree–there is certainly no evidence of that. But it’s possible it does teach or at least reinforce violence as an acceptable means of conflict resolution, and it might encourage dehumanization of various groups of people.
As a specific example, circling back to the mention of Nazis above, for a long time I have been uncomfortable with the use of Nazis as universally acceptable villains, and Hitler himself as the archetypal supervillain. It’s Hitler and they’re Nazis–kill as many as you want. They’re monsters.
But they weren’t. Hitler was just some guy. So were the Nazis themselves. Real, living humans who had dreams and aspirations, who thought about the world around them, who had families and loved ones, who ate and breathed and slept just like the rest of us… and nevertheless participated in or even planned and orchestrated industrialized genocide. We should be made to think about that–to consider how otherwise reasonable human beings end up going along with such horrors. But, at least in video games, Nazis are disposable bad guys, cannon fodder for your ever-escalating repertoire of cool and deadly weapons. I’m not saying games must always engage in social commentary, or that they have some special obligation to humanize historical figures, but I look around me and I see how easily people speak of mass murdering others. Americans routinely talk about how undocumented migrants should be “shot on sight at the border.” There is generalized Islamophobia, to the point where Presidential candidates compete with each other over who will treat ISIS most harshly. Let’s carpet bomb them! Let’s shoot them! Let’s nuke them! They’re animals, not humans! Put them down! Muslims in the US are increasingly being treated violently or at least disrespectfully. This is to say nothing of the dehumanization of black and brown people that leads to them being gunned down in the streets by cops, followed by peanut gallery comments that “the thug had it coming” or “if a rabid dog attacks you, you put it down.” Video games don’t cause this. I don’t think they foment hatred, per se. But do they reinforce the notion that violence is OK? Do they suggest that righteously-motivated violence is not only OK, but praiseworthy, even obligatory? I think one would be hard-pressed to argue that a great many video games don’t push exactly that perspective, and I have a difficult time believing that nobody internalizes it, or that nobody is reinforced and encouraged in such beliefs, especially if they are playing such games at a formative age.
I do think it would be very hard to prove that video games result in actual violence, because the causes of violence are a complex tapestry fed by various social cues, inputs, and feedback cycles. But, at the minimum, video games don’t generally tell us, “violence is a bad thing,” or “violence should only be a last resort.” In many games, violence is the key to victory. Violence is the source of your high score. Violence is what makes you a winner.
I am not sure empirical research will ever give us good answers on this, either, because there are so many different forces involved, and video games are just one piece of the puzzle. I think it at least says something about our culture that we emphasize violence-as-problem-solving so much, and in fact, games which don’t take this approach are frequently dismissed as “not real games,” or “casual.” Strategy games with implied violence (Civilization, etc.) are still OK, of course, because there is still the aspect of domination, the reward for aggression. Games that focus on the emotional impact of a story and characters, of non-violent resolutions to conflict, get dismissed as “girly” or unserious. It’s possible that, as we’ve spent a few decades developing game systems based on killing and blowing things up, we’ve neglected other kinds of systems, and have assumed that since other kinds of games systems aren’t as mature, they are too difficult (perhaps impossible) to accomplish. I don’t think that is the case, though. It makes me hopeful that there is a lot of narrative and mechanical experimentation going on with video games these days. It gives me hope for the future, especially if those kinds of games continue to be developed and mature into robust genres viewed as every bit as valid as games focused on violence.
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