Do Violent Video Games make people Violent?

I’ve talked about this before but I’d like to think that these days I’m a little bit better at writing. Similar to the topic I’m about to cover I am joining the writhing mass that ignores all evidence to the contrary. Today we are talking about the connection between violent video games and violent people. I am going to approach this a little differently than I normally do. I’m going to outright tell you that “no, no they don’t” and then hope that you’ll stick around with me to see if I can make the case well enough. I feel that too many articles want you to stick around and hunt for the answer but I’d rather you have it, or at least as best as I understand it, and then take a journey to learn about why I believe that to be the case.

Think of this as the log ride at a waterpark. You and I are just floating along while everyone else is barreling down a tube to skim across the water at the bottom.

The first thing we need to establish is that correlation does not mean causation. The reason that this is so important is that often people ignorantly attach the two. This ignorance has lead to some very amusing graphs that are relatively ubiquitous across the internet now. One such graph links piracy and global climate change.

We must bring them back!

We must bring them back!

Humans are all about pattern recognition. Without it we would not be where we are today. That ability to link rustling bushes with jaguar attacks is the thing that separates the living from the dead. While one group of humanoids was checking the brush the other was running or perhaps grabbing their spear. Unfortunately in modern life this leads to things like racism, because we hold on tightly to those vestigial parts of our survival system.

Another reason that correlation does not necessitate causation is that you don’t know which direction things go. Does X lead to Y, or is an affinity for Y a fundamental characteristic of X? Do drugs create addicts or are people with addictive personalities just naturally drawn to things like drugs? We tend to look at certain groups of human beings as innocent and assume that everything negative in their life is “preying” on them but it is important to stand back and ask yourself if those people were lead to that decision or if they were just naturally predisposed to make that decision.

Anecdotally I am somewhat antisocial in nature. I love writing, reading, fantasy, and mathematics (maths and sciences in general). I’ve spent a very large amount of money on Magic Cards over the last decade and a half. This is not because of the skinner box nature of booster packs or because MTG is inherently addictive (things I would be willing to debate elsewhere), but because my own personality leads me to things like Magic Cards. They provide me with a fantasy setting, generally excellent writing, lovely art, and a deep math game. I am not a victim of this system rather I am a mutual participant. Similarly I haven’t purchased MTG cards for a while now because I lost the other facet of this relationship which is people to play with. If it were merely a victim and victimizer relationship I would still be buying these items without an avenue to utilize them.

Perhaps you like that anecdote, perhaps you don’t, its not perfect to what we will be discussing but it comes to mind. More relevant to this discussion is my affinity for video games. Almost by necessity if I like video games I must like violent ones. But that statement brings up a question that we need to address. What do we consider a violent video game? Minecraft is likely not something that comes to mind when discussing this topic but in that game you find yourself executing animals and monster alike with things as brutal as a shovel or pickaxe. Perhaps beating them to death with your own bare blocky hands. Is that not violent? Does it become acceptable because it is a necessity of survival in the game? If that’s the case would a game where you are placed in the center of a war be violent? Or would that be merely another case of survival.

Anyone reading is already predisposed to their position on this. For those of you that think only games like Killzone are violent this discussion is probably obnoxious and perhaps even vapid. Those that agree that Minecraft is violent are likely nodding along and pointing out in their mind another handful of games that are violent that people let slip under the radar. A third group might be looking to something like Harvest Moon and pointing out that you can create a quality non-violent experience. I won’t be able to address all the various points of view but I’m well aware that they exist.

The vast majority of video games are violent. Pac-man for all its simple art and design is a violent game. The ghosts might be arguable dead, but violence is violence regardless of the target. Any act of destruction is an act of violence. If you are willing to accept that most games are violent then the following data will hold more weight for you.

US Video Game Sales on the rise!

US Video Game Sales on the rise!

Violence on the decline!

Violence on the decline!

The amount of video game sales in the US alone is staggering these days. Billions upon billions of dollars in sales. Most people in the US are playing video games of some kind or another at this point (a notion I don’t have data for at the moment but I am quite certain it is true, anyone skeptical can most certainly disbelieve until proven otherwise). If video games make people violent there is only one outcome we can expect to see on the violent crimes chart above. That chart should be through the roof. With most people by necessity being inundated in interactive violence we should be seeing an absolute slaughterfest.

But we don’t. With each passing year we see (with a few anomalies usually related to spikes in drug trafficking) violent crimes declining. I have a theory about why this is the case but I would like to clarify something before I get into that. These data points are basically no better than the example of pirates and global climate change that I first listed. These ignore the other 9 billion things going on with every person that is alive. Data that tries to link specific item #1 with specific item #2 are extremely limited. Really you can only do this for exceptionally dramatic influences. Uranium strapped to your head is going to give you cancer, we can plot this and replicate the results. But something like video games is not on the same level as Uranium. If you want to find direct and clear causation you need a direct and clear (and very dramatic) influence. Anything less than extreme is really unlikely to be causative. Which is why I strongly suggest you take all correlative data with a grain of salt. We are not all single puzzle pieces, our minds and lives are incredibly splendorous jigsaws that are continually being pieced together over the coarse of our lives. It is only in death that we stop adding and even then the edges are unfinished.

Now that that is out of the way on to my anecdote. As a kid I was bullied very badly. Kids were extremely nasty towards me because (like I imagine many kids) I had basically the same size head as I do now. But I also had that head on a very skinny body. As I grew out it became basically unnoticeable but as a child it was picked apart by the sociopaths that were my peers. Don’t get me wrong either, almost all kids are sociopaths and that ties into child psychology, but we can cover that some other time (or you can look it up, good stuff).

I genuinely hated my peers. The thought of great harm befalling them was like nectar to me. I often dreamed of the school burning down, not by my hand, but perhaps by some kind of divine intervention. It was part of what sewed me into the monster that I was for a while in my youth. Defensive tendencies that took all the way until a bit after high school to unwind completely.

But I never hurt another person physically. As far as I can tell there is only reason that during my darkest hours I didn’t lash out and cut someone. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the desire was there. Another kid, who could have easily beat my ass, told me many years later that he didn’t because he saw something dark in me when he tried to stare me down. That’s a bit of poetry, certainly, but it helps to paint the picture of the story. What stopped me though? It certainly wasn’t the chance that I might get caught and punished. My life at that time was so nasty that I fantasized about dying. When I wasn’t busy being bullied by kids I was at home suffering through night terrors for years. Every waking moment of my young life was genuinely miserable.

I had an out. I played a lot of video games. More specifically I played a lot of violent video games. Goldeneye was my delight of choice as a kid. I got extremely good at that game. At that time in my life I got extremely good at a lot of video games. Over time it lessened the sting of other kids for me. Because for all the hurt that they could deliver to me I could go home and just play some interactive make-believe. The npcs became them and I was able to vent my frustrations. Not only that but the games were so incredibly positive, they didn’t pry too much, if I did well they would thank me, give me new options, levels, items, and might even let me inscribe my name within them.

Obviously that sort of relationship shouldn’t need to be necessary. But like a small group of people I was a little too different. That slightly larger head meant that I set off the survival instincts in other children. They became less trusting and more negative towards me. I suffered because of their ignorance (and in some part the poor parenting that was a part of their lives). Video games, no matter how violent, did nothing but sooth me and they provided me with genuine joy.

This isn’t a recent phenomena. Before I had video games I played out in the front yard alone. I imagined myself in all sorts of situations where I was a hero saving people. Fighting off legions of bad guys. The generation before me did this very same thing in Dungeons and Dragons. The generation before them did it by playing cowboys and Indians. And this pattern repeats all the way back to when people couldn’t even speak and were playing hunters within their tribes with the other children of the tribe. Even our nursery rhymes and fairy tales are stuffed to bursting with explicit violence.

The noun might change but the verbs remain the same.

Each generation has been chided by the generation before it. That previous generation blames all the things they dislike on the new activities of a younger generation. Before video games people blamed roleplaying games, before roleplaying games they blamed foreigners, before that they blamed books.

Part of it is nostalgia as well. We ignore all the negatives of our youth and exaggerate all the positives. Even while the world becomes less violent you will be hard pressed to find a 60 year old that isn’t pining for the old days. They will speak ignorantly of how they could safely leave their doors unlocked, or how they could walk outside at night, not taking into account all the variables that made that specifically true in their specific neighborhood and the reality of why that might not be true now [in that specific place].

People move from one location to another and don’t attribute the change in people around them to geography but instead to chronology. Many variables lead to these incorrect conclusions but the vastness of their variety does not change that they are all, in the end, incorrect.

Violent video games do not make violent people. If it was that simple we would be inundated with violence on every street corner, in every mall, in every home, in everything. But we do not see that, even as video games flood every facet of our lives we do not see the roads red with blood. Violent people or people predisposed to violence might be attracted to violent games more, but that’s not something that should surprise anyone.

I abhor real violence, but I delight in it in fantasy environments. Because in a video game world those people you kill, those orcs you slay, those worlds you destroy, they all respawn. Life in video games is, in many ways, infinite. It is this beautiful utopia where all is without genuine consequence. The real world is finite and a single death is all that anyone is afforded. Most healthy people understand this and those that don’t won’t be helped by just removing violent video games.

People who are on a hair trigger will likely be triggered by something. This doesn’t mean that we should be complacent but it also doesn’t mean we should consider those triggers as the cause. The cause is within their skulls. Their brain chemistry lead to that outcome. The real answers to reducing violence and tragedy is found in understanding brain chemistry, not in looking for the victimizer of your ‘innocent’ victim. To reiterate, violent video games don’t make people violent. I would hazard caution when speaking with anyone who thinks that they could. Anyone who has such difficulty separating fantasy from reality that they can’t even fathom others being able to differentiate the two is likely mentally unwell.