Monday, 7 January 2013

Question: Do Video Games Cause Violent Behaviour? Answer: No.

“Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively.”
- Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, majority opinion in Brown v. EMA/ESA

Merry ‘Insert-Whichever-Holiday-You-Happen-To-Celebrate-At-The-End-Of-The-Year’ and a Happy New Year to you, dear readers. Sorry for the truly atrocious rate of updates for this thing; I am trying to get stuff written, I swear.

With that said, let’s get stuck right into the topic at hand.

So, confession right off the bat; I’m a fan of video games, and have been since I was a kid. I grew up on games like Mario and Sonic, the Half-Life series is nothing short of magnificent (give us Episode 3, Gabe), and I think they’re an exciting, ever-expanding form of entertainment with opportunities for audience interaction unparalleled by any other form of media.

I’ve also never murdered anyone, either.

Strange that I should have to add this, yes, but in the news frenzy that tends to follow on from senseless tragedies I’d forgive many people for being led to believe otherwise. I’m going to avoid addressing the aforementioned tragedy directly; you know the one I’m referring to, it’s been discussed, and repeatedly bringing up such a travesty only helps to exacerbate the problem. In the wake of such events, it’s understandable that many seek an explanation as to what could cause something so awful to happen. This is only natural; we are pattern-seeking animals, after all, and we desire a reason for an act.

Yet this understandable phenomenon can very often take a nasty form, namely the labelling of some form of media as the cause of the tragedy. It’s happened time and time again. When John Lennon was shot and his killer claimed he was inspired by The Catcher In The Rye, people called for the book to be banned. Hip-Hop is often blamed for violence amongst young people.

And when a mentally disturbed individual walks into a public place and starts firing, people often blame the video games.

Now, commentators far wiser, well read and wittier than I have already covered this very topic, and their rundowns of the issue are pretty damn comprehensive (I’ll link them at the end, and you guys should really consider checking them out), so you might think that someone like me writing about this is a little pointless. But given that just a few days from now the town of Southington, Connecticut intends to collect together violentvideo games and likely burn them (because nothing says calm and rational like a bunch of townspeople getting together to destroy things they don’t like), I do feel the need to make known the colours I fly and let people know why folks making the correlation between violence in video games and violence in real life are wrong.

Correlation does not equal causation, people.

The idea of video games being linked to violence is not a new one. It’s been around for many a year, and in those years many a study has been conducted. Thus it’s safe to assume that if a link between violence in video games and violence in real life was indeed a thing, we likely would have found it by now or at least have an inkling of its existence. Yet consistently, the studies that are worth a damn (that is to stay, properly-conducted studies with decent control and whose authors didn’t set out with an agenda already in mind) have shown that no such link exists. In fact, as the ESA note in one of the links, “violent crime, particularly among the young, has decreased dramatically since the early 1990s. During the same period of time, video games have steadily increased in popularity and use, exactly the opposite of what one would expect if there were a causal link.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are plenty of things wrong with video games and the video game industry today. Please don’t get me started on the shitty business practices of companies like Sony and EA. They are guilty of plenty of things, but the blame for the recent tragedy and others like it is not one of them. Simply put, speculation as to what the cause of a school-shooting might be is an extremely tricky tight-rope to walk; as Stephen Novella noted in a recent The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe episode, there are more variables in such an event than there are data points, so anyone offering up answers like “video games done it” are guilty of massively over-simplifying the issue.

Whether you personally disapprove of the violence it portrays, violent media has a right to exist. As I’ve said before, I think such media can be extremely valuable, powerful and worthwhile. Don’t believe me? Check out stuff like ‘Spec Ops: The Line’ (one of the few games to really nail the horrors of war in a truly mature, sincere manner) or Telltale’s ‘The Walking Dead’. And if it really isn’t your thing? That’s perfectly fine, too, but blaming it for events we have no explanation for isn’t the way to go about things.

To quote the guys at Penny Arcade, “it’s a very odd sort of Patriot that would destroy the First Amendment to protect the Second.”


  1. Thanks for taking a stand against the hysteria.

    If violence depicted in entertainment media caused real-world violence, Japan would be the most violent-crime-infested country in the world. In fact, it's among the least.

    1. Cheers, mate. And thanks for the link on 'Crooks and Liars'.

      And yeah, by that logic South Korea, where Starcraft 2 is so popular it's a nationally-viewed E-sport, would also have a high rate of violent crime. Yet as far as I'm aware there's never been a school shooting there.

  2. The link, and only similarity I can fathom, between video games and utilizing an automatic weapon to shoot random people lies in the measure of control both activities give the operator. Video games allow anyone who plays them to use their wits, creativity, and hand to eye coordination to "control" and win (or lose and start again and to learn from the losing). Real life has fewer opportunities for creative control and winning. There are multiple motivations for mass killing - more than I can go into here. But playing video games should actually allow someone a level of control so they DO NOT have to go out in the world and perpetuate violence (in my opinion).

    1. You can't really compare the experience one has playing a video game to actually handling a firearm. They are two vastly different things, and bear little to no resemblance to each other. Even games with pretensions to realism are still just games, and a stable mind can tell this.

      That's not to say that unstable individuals might get a kick out of them, but FBI reports on spree killers and similar violent criminals shows that they tend to prefer entertainment like books and writing than video games.

  3. Very nice article. Now it is proven, and scientifically proven. Video Games are helpful for kids' brain exercise. Well, violence may be caused by other factors rather than blaming it to Video Games. Kids' behavior will primarily be developed on how they were raised by their parents and influences from those around them. Just an opinion.