Between the Supreme Court’s ruling against California’s proposed ban on the sale of violent videogames and the recent rampage in Oslo where it was revealed that shooter, Anders Behring Breivik played videogames there has been much discussion about the dangers and benefits of videogames. While the Supreme Court decision in California had games journalists rejoicing to see their medium constitutionally recognized , theOslo shooting found journalists searching for the elusive connection between acts of violence and violent games.
There are certainly games that are best kept out of the hands of minors, but if the conversation about games is limited to censorship, we will neglect an equally important discussion: the artistic meaning and potential of violence in videogames. Christians are often quick to decry videogames as a primary culprit in the constant deterioration of our culture. Instead, we ought to be deeply concerned with the whole truth. We must honestly ask the question—are videogames responsible for the violence in our world?
Breivik admitted to playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and did in fact write, “I see MW2 more as part of my training-simulation than anything else.” Still, it’s clear from his 800,000 page manifesto that he had planned the Oslo attack 3 years before ever playing COD: MW2. And yet, news outlets were quick to make a connection between Breivik’s atrocities and violence in videogames.
John Walker recently wrote:
It’s normal practise, as what was once a confusion over new media has now reached the far more insidious position of being a received opinion: that videogames cause people to become violent, and in extreme cases, inspire them to go on murder sprees. It’s important to realise, this has never been demonstrated, let alone proven. Studies come and go that suggest links between extensive sessions of playing violent games and minor changes in the brain, but none has ever shown any demonstrable causal link to real-world violence, and many have suggested no such link exists. In the end such attempts to create links between a tragedy and the perpetrator’s having played games end up becoming tasteless attempts to score aimless political points.
Given that videogames are one of the youngest entertainment mediums in today’s culture, perhaps we should not be surprised to find them accused of malice. And accused of malice they are. Given that I openly admit to enjoying videogames, I am constantly meeting people who assume a causal link between violence and videogames. But what does the research about videogames actually say about their effects on people?
There is research that says that violent videogames stimulate areas of the brain associated with aggression. These studies, however, are misleading for two reasons. First, other forms of media where violence is depicted have been shown to stimulate the same portions of the brain which makes one wonder why videogames are being singled out. Secondly, it only makes sense that violent images would stimulate portions of the brain responsible for aggressiveness. This does not mean that children will act on those feelings and become overly aggressive.
There are sociological studies that show that students who play videogames are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior at school. These studies are not convincing due to their lack of investigation into other variables at play. These studies do not ask about the home situation of these children or whether they had a history of aggressive behavior before beginning to play videogames. There are simply too many influences involved in the development of children to conclude that violent videogames cause aggressive behavior in children. Thus the California Supreme Court investigated much of the data about violent videogames and reported:
The State’s evidence is not compelling. Californiarelies primarily on the research of Dr. Craig Anderson and a few other research psychologists whose studies purport to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children. These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning). Instead, “[n]early all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology.” Video Software Dealers Assn. 556 F. 3d, at 964.
It’s important to note that the jury is still out on the affects of videogame violence on children. Consequently parents will be pleased to know that the videogame industry does an excellent job of keeping “Mature” games out of the hands of children. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission has recently reported that the videogame industry is setting the standards for other entertainment industries in terms of restricting the sale of mature content to minors.
Despite the media’s attempts at demonizing the game industry, no one is arguing for the unrestricted sale of rated “M” (“Mature” 17+ to purchase) games to children. Do children get their hands on such games sometimes? They certainly do. But how? It is my suspicion that those children whose parents are faithfully and consistently invested in their children’s lives do not have access to “Mature” games.
When we blame the industry, we are side-stepping the larger issues and looking for a scapegoat. There are probably children whose social behavior is being negatively affected by their indulgence in violent videogames. However, the answer to such behavior is not to ban the sale of violent videogames. The answer is the same as it’s always been: involved, thoughtful, loving, and consistent parenting. If you know the strengths and weaknesses of your child, you will be able to help them faithfully navigate these waters as they mature.
Videogames are now a constitutionally recognized art form. It’s time to stop blaming them every time tragedy strikes. The presence of violence in games testifies to realities in our world that should be explored by mature players. The problem that many see with videogame violence is not a problem inherent in the medium but a problem with the deceptive way violence is often handled. Violence, after all, can be a powerful teacher (Matthew 27:32-55). Videogame violence has much to teach the mature gamer if he will listen but, like other mediums have had the privilege of doing, videogames need time to grow and mature.
And with regard to the acts of reprehensible violence by sociopaths like Anders Behring Breivik and Seung-Hui Cho, we learn very little from such atrocities when we attribute them to videogames. We refuse the opportunity to understand the ideological and psychological forces that drove them to violence. In short, when we blame videogames, we are ignoring much more sinister truths about our world and the importance of our influence in it.