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What Do We Really Know About Violence & Video Games?

What Do We Really Know About Violence & Video Games?

 Two of this week's biggest stories have revolved around the complex, intertwining themes of video games and violence.
On Monday, tragic news came out of Washington, D.C., regarding Aaron Alexis' shooting rampage that claimed the lives of 12 victims. Analysis of his horrific acts has largely focused on his unstable mental state. But amid the details about possible motivations and influences in his life have come reports that Alexis spent significant amounts of time playing M-rated shooters such as Call of Duty. "He could be in the game all day and all night," said friend Nutpisit Suthamtewakul. "I think games might be what pushed him that way." Suthamtewakul told the United Kingdom's Mirrorthat Alexis could be so engrossed in a game that Suthamtewakul would take food to him so that he wouldn't have to take breaks from the onscreen action.
While no one involved with the investigation is suggesting as strongly as Suthamtewakul has that violent video games spurred Alexis' actions, it's yet another mass murder in which those kinds of games were a were a known element in a shooter's media diet.
Simultaneously, another story was playing out, the story of Grand Theft Auto V's epic release. In its first day of availability, the latest entry in this always-controversial M-rated video game franchise raked in a wallet-bursting $800 million. That figure was twice what some industry experts had predicted, and it represents 10 to 12 million units sold in the game's first 24 hours on the market.
Hot on the heels of those sales figures, however, came the first controversy regarding the game's violent content.
According to, a mission in the game titled "By the Book" involves players actively torturing an individual, including waterboarding, using electricity to shock him and pulling his teeth out. Eurogamer reviewer Tom Bramwell notes,
This is a series best known to people who don't play it as the one where you sleep with a prostitute and then murder her to get your money back, so the news that you can now waterboard people and rotate analogue sticks to wrench out teeth with a pair of pliers is unlikely to leave a positive impression. The fact you have to use the full range of torture techniques to get a higher score is unlikely to improve anyone's mood either. Even to people who know the series intimately, it is likely to hit hard. GTA is a game full of violence, of course, but it is mostly slapstick, impersonal, cartoon violence—floppy-limbed pedestrians flying over your bonnet, cars flipping through intersections, or tanks and helicopters exploding. … It's very unusual to be hurting a single person in isolation over a prolonged period, which is why the torture scene is a different and unpleasant experience.
So how does such simulated violence in the context of a video game affect players? Is there any link or correlation between digitally doing damage to virtual enemies and actually harming real people in the real world?
These are questions that have been debated for decades now. And while very few academics who study the issue would say that there's an iron-clad causal connection between video game violence and real-world violence, a growing body of research suggests that playing these games correlates with some ominous outcomes.
Mike Jaccarino explored those questions recently in two articles (found here and here) for Fox News. He spoke with experts in the field who sought to connect the dots between real-life violence and the video game variety. One of the experts he quoted was Bruce Bartholow, director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of Missouri. "More than any other media," said Bartholow, "these video games encourage active participation in violence. From a psychological perspective, video games are excellent teaching tools because they reward players for engaging in certain types of behavior. Unfortunately, in many popular video games, the behavior is violence."
Longtime video game researcher and Iowa State associate professor Douglas Gentile added,
"I think it's the wrong question—whether there is a link between mass shootings and violent video game play. I understand people want to look for a culprit, but the truth of the matter is that there is never one cause. There is a cocktail of multiple causes coming together. And so no matter what single thing we focus on, whether it be violent video games, abuse as a child, doing drugs, being in a gang—not one of them is sufficient to cause aggression. But when you start putting them together, aggression becomes pretty predictable."
Dr. Michael Brody, who chairs the media committee for the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, says that many soldiers he's talked with noted how closely today's games now resemble their wartime experiences.
"More than one openly volunteered how they felt when they were going to Iraq they were going into a video game. I didn't ask them. They volunteered the comparison. And the military uses these games for simulation of real-life experiences. The games are very realistic, and that's the difference between them and TV and film. In games, you are using a mouse or a joystick and you are interacting with the content and that makes it much easier to internalize the violent actions that are going on."
Finally, it's worth noting what the American Psychological Association has to say about the subject of violent video games potential effects on their players:
When one combines all relevant empirical studies using meta-analytic techniques … five separate effects emerge with considerable consistency. Violent video games are significantly associated with: increased aggressive behavior, thoughts and affect; increased physiological arousal and decreased prosocial (helping) behavior.
Again, few seem to suggest that video games inevitably cause people to act violently. But I find Gentile's assertion—that video games might be one of "multiple causes" coming together to spark violent tendencies—persuasive.
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