The Other Side: can violent video games be a peacekeeper?

Idomeneus stabbed Erymas in the mouth with the pitiless bronze. The bronze spear passed right through and up under the brain, smashing the white bones. His teeth were knocked out and both his eyes flooded with blood: wide-mouthed he spurted a well of blood through nostrils and mouth: and the black cloud of death covered him over. [i]

In the 8th century B.C., violent video games were the lyre and voice of a blind man called Homer. His narratives were also widely available for consumption by children.

In my 8th grade classroom, my classics teacher told my classmates and I to prepare for the graphic details of Homer’s The Iliad. We were told that Homer believed depicting violence in media served to cleanse the soul, removing violent intentions, not creating them. He even believed that reciting his epic poetry of the brutality of war would disturb listeners enough to prevent them from wanting to go to war.

Most recently, controversy erupted when players discovered Grand Theft Auto V’s torture scene, where the player is required to input commands to torture an NPC. Was Rockstar’s intention to disturb players with that scene? If so, would players who completed the mission be less likely to want to torture in real life due to the feelings they experienced playing through it?

Regardless, the popularity of billion-dollar franchises like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto has of course led much of the non-video gaming public to believe that widespread consumption of such media is, in fact, making society more violent. On the other hand, an interview between video game journalist Todd Kenreck and psychiatrist Dr. Tyler Black of the British Columbia Children’s Hospital presents another view: that the rise in violence has been skewed by the amount of media coverage it gets, and that violent crime is at a 20-year low.

Thus far, the two warring arguments state that 1) video games make the consumer more inclined to commit violent crime and 2) video games have no effect on real-world violence.

In February 2013, the New York Times’ Benedict Carey presented a third angle: video games can actually reduce real-world violence.

Mr. Carey presents findings from various scientists’ research, including that of Michael R. Ward of the University of Texas, Arlington. Dr. Ward examined week-by-week sales data for violent video games across a wide range of communities in the United States and Europe. Dr. Ward and his colleagues, in fact, discovered a new trend: surges in violent video game sales led to a decrease in crime, especially violent crime.

Coincidence? The findings of Kimberly Wallace of Game Informer suggest Dr. Ward’s results are anything but one. In her article, she explains the infamous “finger-cutting scene” of Heavy Rain, where Ethan Mars, the protagonist, is required to amputate his finger, the method of which is chosen by the player. Failure to complete this task results in one less clue to finding Ethan’s missing son.

Ms. Wallace explains the trauma she experienced upon completing the scene. She states that all she could think about was the pain she’d endure were she to cut off her own finger in real life, coming to the conclusion that, “It shouldn’t be so easy to watch a man slice off his own finger, especially when you’re behind the wheel.”

Ms. Wallace’s experience suggests that exposing a consumer to gore and violent situations instills the undesirable feelings associated with possibly experiencing the violence themselves. Even in situations where the player is required to inflict pain on a character other than the protagonist, notably the airport scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, there is the option to skip the scene in-game. This is due to players decrying its disturbing nature, which is telling that gamers do not enjoy the idea of killing innocent people. Developer Infinity Ward told USA Today that the scene is meant to get players “pretty twisted up.” They go on to say that they hope the scene “makes some people a little upset.”

Infinity Ward’s hope for players’ negative reaction is likely attributed to the fact that they want players to recognize that murdering civilians is a shameful act. If Homer were alive today, would he endorse exposing that scene to people of all ages, including children, to educate them on the immoral nature and damaging consequences of committing violent crimes?

The idea that exposure to violence and undesirable situations reduces the consumer from committing them in real life is hardly exclusive to video games. Scientific American published a 2011 article stating that experts believe consumption of pornography may reduce the desire to rape by offering a safe, private outlet for deviant sexual desires. This is backed by data from Christopher J. Ferguson, professor of Psychology at Texas A&M International University. Dr. Ferguson states that rape and sexual assault are at their lowest levels since the 1960s, thanks in part to porn being nothing more than “a Google search away.” In 1992, psychiatrist Richard Green at Imperial College London found that patients requesting treatment as sex offenders commonly saw that “pornography keeps their abnormal sexuality within the confines of their imagination.”

If Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Green’s findings on pornography apply to violent video games, then perhaps there is a fourth side to this argument: that violent video games not only reduce the inclination to commit violent crime, but can be a tool for making violent criminals less likely to re-offend.

I am by no means suggesting that Charles Manson should be released from prison if he reaches the top of the leaderboards in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. However, the data presented does suggest we might be asking the wrong question when it comes to violence and video games.

Do video games cause violence? Do video games reduce violence? Or is there no link between the two? Perhaps we cannot find the right answer before we find the right question.

Which do I believe is correct? I believe that being traumatized after the much more traumatic “Trial 4” scene of Heavy Rain made me a better person. I also believe that bettering myself after experiencing that mission was a conscious choice I made.

I believe that video games have the ability to heal and make you a better person. I also believe that video games can only accomplish the above if you let them.

I don’t know if I am right. But I believe that a medium is only as good or bad as you decide. How do video games influence you? I believe only you know the answer to that.

[i] The Iliad: A New Prose Translation by Martin Hammond (Penguin Classics, 1988)


The Wrath of Achilles (1819), by Michel Drolling

Grand Theft Auto V, from Pixel Enemy

Heavy Rain “The Lizard,” from IGN

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 “No Russian,” from PC Gamer

Should Gaming News Report on Anders Behring Breivik?

On July 22, 2011, Anders Behrig Breivik killed 77 people in a horrific tragedy in Norway.  Within a day, game-centric journalism sites and blogs began covering stories about the killer because Breivik wrote a 1500 page manifesto that included recommendations on using Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as training for an inevitable war with Islam.  He also discussed using an obsession with World of Warcraft as a cover – saying you couldn’t answer your phone because “you were busy raiding” isn’t likely to invite any questions.  “If you’re planning requires you to travel, say that you are visiting one of your WoW friends,” Breivik writes, “or better yet, a girl from your ‘guild’ (who lives in another country). No further questions will be raised if you present these arguments.”

Violent events have been linked to videogames countless times in the mainstream media, usually to the dismay of gaming journalists.  While some have strong connections, such as Breivik explicitly saying he used Modern Warfare 2 to train, others have much more tenuous connections, like when the Denver Post claimed the Columbine school shooting was caused by parents revoking the shooters’ videogame rights.

Continue reading Should Gaming News Report on Anders Behring Breivik?

Games and Learning: Double Standards

Do we in the videogames industry employ a double standard?

The answer is yes, but that’s hardly unique to our field. Every line of business, from handguns to ham sandwiches, is quick to point out its own benefits, and ready to dismiss common criticisms. However, when the same logic is used to arrive at two separate conclusions, a second glance may be in order. Continue reading Games and Learning: Double Standards

The Decisive Battle: How Video Games Truly Affect Us

The belief that the media we consume affects us negatively is not a new idea. The debate that arose twenty years ago when the Entertainment Software Rating Board (or ESRB) was created to inform consumers of the violent content of video games was far from the beginning. It started with the advent of organized society. Governments have a long history of banning, imprisoning, and even executing any author or journalist for writing articles and books deemed a “bad influence on the public.”

Today, governments threaten to unleash a firing squad that would shoot giant stickers on video game boxes stating that, “Excessive exposure to violent video games and other violent media has been linked to aggressive behavior.”

This movement arrives in the middle of the battle that was documented by the Wall Street Journal between Jane McGonigal, game designer and advocate for the benefits of video games on gamers in the real world, and Edward Castronova, Indiana University professor who questions the extent of Ms. McGonigal’s claims. Ms. McGonigal states that putting people in the role of “hero” in a video game makes players aware of their best selves. Professor Castronova claims that though we have already integrated video games into our lives, all media scholars agree that too much use points to the frivolity of games—that all games come to the same conclusion of valor, without showing players that everybody has varied views on what constitutes honor and morality.

I would otherwise jump to Ms. McGonigal’s side, using myself as an example of someone who has been bettered by games, someone who believes that video games can indeed do us good as a society. But that is too easy, and it will never banish the naysayers to the land of believers, no matter how hard Ms. McGonigal fights to prove that games can make us better people.

Instead, I will step out of the warzone, look away from what arguments are on the table, and look inside of myself. Why is my life better because of video games? Why am I confronted with my best self when I assume the role of [insert popular RPG character name here]? Why am I a better person now after I played [insert game here]?

I know my answers to those questions, and I will not explain them in detail here. This is why:

I believe that before we point fingers at video games or certain video game companies for promoting violent behavior, we have to remind ourselves that we are responsible for our own actions. We are responsible for controlling how the media we consume affects us. Parents are responsible for controlling how the media their children consume affects them. Whatever that entails is up to you to decide. You are reading this blog post, and you probably also read the Wall Street Journal articles by Jane McGonigal and Edward Castronova, and you are probably deciding for yourself right now what you think of all of them, which you choose to believe, and which one affected you the most.

You are in control. You are in control of how a video game affects you. Does it raise your moral values? Or does it threaten to lower them? Do you focus on the blood that results from the fight, or do you focus on the story, what your character learns in the game, and in turn, what YOU learn from the game?

You can choose to dismiss video games as an art or as a viable piece of entertainment. You can choose to connect yourself with the experience of a game, BE the character you played on screen, feel his or her emotions and learn what he or she learns. In any case, the good and bad in a video game are found within. How do video games truly affect us? The answer: you decide.