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Video games aren't the problem: it's in our genes
by Michael Kasumovic on 03/05/13 11:23:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



 The debate around videogames and violence is getting seriously out of control – not least in the US. Just take this recent homepage above on The Huffington Post.

Hyperbole aside, videogames are (once again) being used as a scapegoat by politicians looking for a simple answer to causes of violence. But despite how they skew research outcomes there is one undeniable fact: aggression is a normal response that is caused by many different triggers.

The US Senate, along with the media, is in a large debate over whether aggression caused from videogames does or does not cause violence.

Jason Schreier, a writer at Kotaku, published an excellent article recently summarising what researchers have found about links between videogames, aggression and violence over the last 20 years. If you haven’t yet, I urge you to read it.

It highlights points for and against links between videogames and violence. But as with all other articles discussing the topic, it focuses on videogames and aggression – and therein lies the problem.

There’s no reason to believe the aggression videogames cause is any different or more severe than aggression from any other source.

A violent evolution

Let’s look at aggression from an evolutionary standpoint. Humans have long since responded aggressively when in competition, territorial disputes and disagreements, as doing so could provide an advantage. Throughout our development, individuals that responded aggressively in the proper contexts would have had more favourable outcomes, and therefore access to greater resources and mating opportunities.

In the same vein, one can see how too much aggression could be negative. Express this aggression at the improper time, or allow it to escalate, and you could find yourself in a potentially dire and/or life-threatening situation – clearly something natural selection would select against.

As a result of the above, individuals responding moderately and at the right times may have had the best success.

Although most individuals no longer encounter the same types of situations that require the aggressive responses of our predecessors, the physiological machinery remains and responds to situations that mimic historical confrontational challenges.

Sporting events increase aggression, especially when teams are more equally matched, and workplace aggression seems to be caused, with alarming regularity, by belligerent supervisors.

Increased alcohol use and hot weather, among many other triggers, can likewise make us aggressive.

So should we be surprised that videogames can increase aggression? I don’t think so. But we should be able to scrutinise this link more closely to ask whether videogames make us more aggressive than other triggers and whether this aggression persists for longer.

Putting a finger on the trigger

Unfortunately, studies don’t often compare responses between different aggressive triggers (although the outcomes may be similar) and we don’t understand how aggression caused by videogames compares to other aggressive triggers. But we do have some insight into the duration of aggressive behaviours and thoughts after playing violent videogames.

Research suggests it can be less than ten minutes. It’s been estimated this timeframe can be increased by 24 hours if players dwell on the game: a common outcome when individuals continually reflect on what triggered the aggression in the first place.

As a result, it’s possible excessive gameplay could affect aggression over the long term. Studies looking for exactly that link do find effects of violent videogames on long-term aggressive behaviour.

But when researchers consider other social factors linked to adolescent aggression, it seems increased exposure to family violence and negative peer influences and less communication with their parents have greater effects. Violent videogames, it seems, may be an indicator, but there are clearly deeper issues at play.

Experimenting with aggression

I’d like you to imagine you’re driving your car, calmly, alone. As you’re cruising along, a car comes squealing by and cuts you off, meaning you have to swerve to avoid it as its speed away. If at that very moment you had a button in your car that would blast the driver with some of the most annoying sounds possible, would you press the button? And if so, how loud would you blast it?

This is an example of how studies examine the effect violent and non-violent videogames have on aggression. Two individuals play a game, and the loser receives an offensive noise blast. In general, studies show that individuals playing violent games tend to blast opponents with a louder noise.



There are other means to test aggression, such as word association or even hot sauce, but the point is that a pre-determined punishment is often used to assess aggression at that exact moment.

Let’s take a step back and look at this experimental design in a different light. Participants play a competitive game to determine which individual is better. Should we be surprised that individuals become aggressive in this scenario?

In many animals (humans included), winners often perform “victory displays” – a well-known behaviour used to reinforce a triumph. As the only way for opponents to communicate in the type of experiments mentioned above is through pre-determined punishments, the noise blast (or its equivalent) could perhaps be viewed as a dominance or victory display.

In such situations, does responding in an aggressive way make you a violent individual? Unlikely, as aggressive feelings will likely dissipate after time, as in the videogame study.

There are, of course, some individuals that do respond violently in certain situations. If we use driving as an example again, we’ve all heard of stories where road rage escalates into violence.

In such situations, it’s important to remember that these individuals may perceive and react to aggression differently. This doesn’t make their violent response acceptable, but does encourage us to try to understand why this variation exists. This is where it may be especially fruitful to combine evolutionary and psychological approaches that could help explain the variation in these responses.

In the same way, there may be a subset of individuals that are at a greater risk of the influence of violent video games. As videogames have many benefits, rather than demonising them, shouldn’t we use videogames to try and identify these individuals?

Unfortunately, I doubt the $10 million the US president pledged towards videogame research will examine that.

What needs to be done

The debate is already hijacked by rich, old, white politicians that are clearly misguided through outdated morals and NRA donations. But the biggest problem is the xenophobia about societal progression.

The introduction to the the book Grand Theft Childhood by Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson provides an excellent historical overview of how politicians have responded correspondingly to each introduction of new media starting from the dime novels of the late 19th century, to silent films, to movies and videogames today.

What’s needed is a lobby group as powerful as the NRA that stands up for gamers, and not the industry. Gamers make up a large proportion of today’s population and if each of them were card-carrying members of an organisation that critically and honestly examined the effects of videogames on children and adults, we might be able to have a proper discussion about their benefits and costs.

I’m sure gamers wouldn’t disagree with the idea, especially given that many of us are parents and have our own children’s safety in mind.

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Christian Philippe Guay
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Anyone with a head on his shoulders already figured out that video games do not make people violent and that the real problem always been us, the individuals. Considering our current level of technology, understanding of psychology and the human mind or if we acknowledge that the US government or military are indeed involved in advanced psyops operations (mind control, remote viewing, etc.), the US government probably knows it better than anyone else in the country.

As an additional note, governments once prohibited scientists years ago from studying the impact of alpha waves on the brain, because they knew that to increase the level of consciousness of a person and can even lead to ''paranormal'' abilities (telepathy, etc.). The point here is that when we reach a certain level of consciousness, our life priorities change and we start to see all those traps. We stop investing our money in superficial stuff and we start investing in what's really worth it, what is actually healthy for us and everyone else. Big companies and most governments, they don't want that. They much prefer to sell you drugs, cigarettes, vehicles that work on gasoline, etc. More importantly, all those things are under their control and they want to keep it that way.

It's just dirty business, because they don't have the level of consciousness to understand how a healthier business could be far more profitable on every level.

If their real goal was to get rid of those violent behaviors, everyone in North America would be forced to learn Kriya Yoga (meditation), Qigong (bioelectricity/mind) and martial arts (how have a strong body and defend yourself). That's where the $10 million should have been spent in the first place.

If they are ''funding'' a $10 million research to examine how video games currently influence violent behaviors, they could just gather some mixed data, mostly bad and find a legal way to make money on the back of the video games industry, because that research... is just totally absurd. We already understood mind control over 30 years ago through cables, images, TV news, sounds, etc.

Kujel Selsuru
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Very good write up and some very interesting points.

I thouht I should mention that I'd love to see a study test the aggression of people playing violent games but not competitively vs competitive versions of the same game. Have a series of test subjects play just the singleplayer of say Halo, then have another series of test subjects play just the multiplayer and see if their is greater agression after the multiplayer (which I'll wager there is). It is my belief that multiplayer (digital sport) is far more likely to increase agression then just "shoot" bots.

Christian Philippe Guay
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There already were studies about violent behaviors and video games and the result were simply that yes! video games trigger agressive behaviors, the same type of agressive behavior that we find in tennis or any other sports.

And it has nothing to do with violence. Whoever becomes violent by playing a video games has mental issues.

Nicholas Heathfield
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You can't have an honestly self-critical lobby. That's almost a contradiction in terms. And it's completely unnecessary.

Video games are mainstream culture already, and all a lobby would do is perpetuate the adolescent guns n' boobs phase that the medium is in. Let's instead try to make some game design masterpieces which go beyond basic wish fulfilment, so that we can prove that the video game can be as great as we all think it can be.

(as a side note - is that what passes for journalism on the Huff? Really?)

Chad Berger
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I've worked in the game industry for over 10 years.

Open your eyes, simulated hours of killing humans with weapons INCREASES violent tendencies.

PROOF - I don't care who it is, if you have kids, and let them play a violent game, even just a fighting comic book type game, the kids will want to punch and kick and hit each other all week.

The only people I see blaming ' politicians ' or defending video games, are the young punks I see occasionally at work, who don't have kids, who can't wait to line up for the next Socom for Blackops release at midnight, get their hands on their game, to make them feel like a 'real macho warrior' when in real life they are a lousy chip eating self centered nerd. Nerds with tunnel vision, and honestly aren't thinking about violence, but are angry that their right to play their little boy toys be defended.

How many more teenagers who have logged HUNDREDS of hours on these violent military games, need to pick up a gun and off someone for people to open their eyes?

Randall Stevens
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I knew this would be interesting when the first reply started talking about people having telepathy, but this is even better.

I am very impressed by your words and was wondering if you had a blog I could follow so I could read more of your obviously well formed and hard earned opinions.
As a note, I have seen children hitting each other outside of a church, a waffle house, and a hallmark store. Which confirms what I already feared: PROOF - religion, waffles, and greeting cards make children violent.

Michael Ball
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I have a suspicious feeling that I am being rused.

Christian Philippe Guay
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''PROOF - I don't care who it is, if you have kids, and let them play a violent game, even just a fighting comic book type game, the kids will want to punch and kick and hit each other all week.''

I think you are just slightly confused.

That would be a sign of agressivity, not violence. The same kind of agressivity we find in sports, combat sports or any other competitive activity including video games. Fighting is not violent, it's just like wrestling, but the physical consequences are far more punishing. What would be violent is if the kids try to kill or hurt each others, but tell me... when is the last time you played a violent game or watched a violent film and then tried to kill someone right next to you because of it?

I think most people will answer ''never''. But if you can remember a moment when it happened, then I strongly recommend you to get some help, because you clearly have mental issues.

Christian Philippe Guay
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@Jeferson Soler
Well, I think you nailed it.