Violent Video Games

MOLLY SCHOEMANN: While videogames used to consist of primitive and unrealistic characters in fantasy lands, I’ve slowly watched them develop into first-person shooter games that are so realistic they frighten me for the future.

I can’t really stomach violence of any kind—even videogame violence. I used to wander away feeling vaguely sullied and generally unsafe after only a few minutes of watching my college boyfriend play Grand Theft Auto. Having grown up in a city, I was scared for the poor pixilated pedestrians who were unlucky enough to stray into his character’s path. I imagined them innocently leaving their videogameland houses to grab a newspaper from the drug store and suddenly—bam! They’ve been beaten up and robbed by my boyfriend’s digital doppelganger!

“What did they ever do to you?” I would mutter, grabbing my things and leaving his dorm room to get away from the noise and the simulated (but eerily realistic—and terrifyingly random) violence.

This morbid sensitivity has only increased with age. A couple of years ago my fiancé was naïve enough to invite me to play an xBox game called “Army of Two” with him. It was a first-person team-player game in which you found yourself smack in the middle of a war zone in the middle of a city filled with civilians. Five minutes into the game, I huddled in a pile of rubble and refused to shoot anyone. “I can’t tell the soldiers from the innocent pedestrians!” I howled. “Everywhere I look there are people who have loved ones and families and some of them are shooting at me! War is hell! I can’t DO this anymore!” He acquiesced and put on Nintendo’s Bubble Bobble, but the damage had already been done.

With my aversion to violence of the videogame persuasion, it is difficult for me to imagine that they have no impact of any kind of the mind and morals of a developing child. Particularly in light of the violent school shootings that have occurred over the last decade in America. Can you really tell me that the experience of playing a videogame in which you rampage around shooting other people happens in a vacuum and has absolutely no influence over the way in which a child thinks of violent behavior and its consequences?

Granted, I am not sure that I am particularly in favor of laws restricting these games from being sold to minors either. For one thing, I don’t think this would really do much in the way of keeping them out of the hands of children. For another, a child who is otherwise well-rounded and grows up in a loving and supportive home is ideally receiving enough positive influences in his or her life to combat any tendencies toward violence that might be awakened through videogames or other media sources. Ultimately , it is the children who do not grow up in loving and supportive homes whose potential for violence we need to worry about – and their access to violent videogames is among the least of our concerns in that case.

JEFF MORROW: A decent chunk of my childhood was spent trying to figure out how best to respond to that wonderful prompt: “Finish Him!”

In Mortal Kombat, there was a sequence of motions that would allow you to grad your dazed opponent’s head at the base of the neck and, by pulling quite hard, you could remove it and the intact spine, presenting it to the fourth wall for admiration. This was very cool.

The Supreme Court last week heard the case of Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association, asking whether the First Amendment trumped a California law prohibiting the sale of violent videogames to minors.

While it’s tempting to believe our constitutional law is a tidy, self-contained box, this is one of those dreaded cases that calls for empiricism. The reason is that content-specific restrictions on speech need some justification. If a particular type of speech caused the consumer to become uncontrollably, murderously violent, the restriction would survive almost any challenge (so long as it’s not too broad). But if a particular type of speech has no effect on its consumer at all, beyond passive entertainment, that restriction becomes harder to sustain.

Ergo: do violent videogames actually make kids violent?

The scholarship on this, as my colleagues have noticed, is not terribly helpful. In the absence of clear guidance, I wanted to offer the only thing worse than inconclusive statistics—anecdote. As a sometime social scientist, I know that anecdote is the worst of all forms of evidence because it suggests a conclusion, when it has no right to do so. But that’s for the Supreme Court to worry about.

I loved violent videogames from a young age. When I was 8, there was Contra, in which you just ran to the right with a giant gun, spraying everything that moved and hoping nothing hit you. At 12, Wolfenstein 3D introduced me to the idea of roaming the halls in the first person, shooting Nazis at close range.

Then came Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Doom, Mortal Kombat II, Rise of the Triad, and a neverending stream of games that not only presented the possibility of serious gore, it actually rewarded it. In college, my roommates and I would wander the corridors of Goldeneye 007, killing one another for sport.

I must have loved violence, right?

But I didn’t. I loved the cartoonishness of it; I loved the absurd. (Oddly, though, I have very little patience for slapstick comedy.) When Mortal Kombat II introduced, alongside its new “fatalities,” the ability to simply turn your opponent into a baby, or give him a present, this was just as awesome as impaling him on the swords implanted in my character’s arms. And it was hilariously subversive, for the same reasons the violence of the original were.

Real violence was different.

Real violence or violence presented realistically made me queasy then, as now. It’s why I could laugh heartily at Total Recall’s legendary “Human Shield” scene, but found the D-Day opening to Saving Private Ryan incredibly difficult viewing. It’s why I know that to make an enemy explode from the inside out in Doom, you should shoot the wall behind them with a bazooka (it’s true!), but I spent the week in 2004 when Nick Berg’s murderers released their grisly footage feeling faint and largely avoiding televised news.

Real violence horrifies me. Real gore disgusts me. Videogames never once made that distinction seem fuzzy. My instinct is that what weaknesses exist in that barrier for other people have their source someplace other than a control pad.

That’s not constitutional law, to be sure. It’s not social science, either. It’s just a remembrance of activities I truly enjoyed, and a defense of others like me who might enjoy these games without it being either an outlet for or a gateway to perversity.

I dream of a world in which people treat each other with dignity, and nations can work in common purpose. But once that’s in order, I’ll gladly kick your ass in Mortal Kombat II—and if I can remember the keystrokes, I might even rip out your spine.

EMILY SAIDEL: I share Molly’s aversion to violent games. It’s not the genre or style of game play I enjoy. I find the current commercial for Code of War: Black Ops, in which people in every day dress (notable for being mixed-races, mixed-gender, and almost all adult) walk around the war environment shooting at each other, disturbing rather than enticing. This is my taste.

However, when asked “Can you really tell me that the experience of playing a videogame in which you rampage around shooting other people happens in a vacuum and has absolutely no influence over the way in which a child thinks of violent behavior and its consequences?” I can provide an answer. Or rather, researcher Christopher John Ferguson can, in his study “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: A Meta-analytic Review of Positive and Negative Effects of Violent Video Games” from Psychiatric Quarterly, Volume 78, Number 4 (2007).

This article is an analysis of other studies (between 1995 and 2007, 17 articles) that have asked the question of video games and violence (and the development of visuospatial cognition). It concludes that current analysis “did not support the conclusion that violent video game playing leads to aggressive behavior.” On the plus side, “violent video game playing was associated with higher visuospatial cognition.”  Although intuition suggests that playing violence begets factual violence, science has yet to find any proof for it.

Alternative theories include the concept that violent video games are an alternative fantasy outlet for players with destructive impulses and that violent video games consume time for aggressive people, reducing the time available for violent acts in real life. Ferguson is careful to say that violent video games might pose a risk to special populations, such as individuals already at risk for violent behavior. But that risk exists before playing the game, not because of it.

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