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Pushing Buttons: Why linking real-world violence to video games is a dangerous distraction


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Remember how, in the wake of yet more awful shootings in the US this month, Fox News decided to blame video games rather than, you know, the almost total absence of meaningful gun control? Remember how I said last week that the video-games-cause-violence “argument” was so mendacious and nakedly manipulative that I wasn’t going to dignify it with a response?

Well, here I am, responding, because the supposed link between video games and real-life violence is one of the most persistent myths that I’ve encountered over the course of my career, and it has an interesting (if also infuriating) history.

Many video games have violent content, just as many films and TV series have violent content (and of course many books, as anyone who has endured a Bret Easton Ellis novel will attest). And it makes intuitive sense that the interactivity of games – especially shooting games – might appear more troubling, from the outside, than passive media such as film. (I gotta say, though, that in 25 years of playing video games I have never seen a scene as violent or upsetting as, say, a Quentin Tarantino movie.)

But the idea that exposure to these violent games turns people into killers in real life is comprehensively false – and it deflects attention from the actual drivers of real-world violence, from inequality to access to firearms to online radicalisation. It is a very politically motivated argument, and one that makes me instantly suspicious of the person wielding it. The NRA, for instance, trots it out on the regular. Donald Trump, inciter of actual real-life violent riots, was fond of it too. Why might that be, I wonder?

First, the facts: there is no scientifically credible link between video games and real-life violence. A lot of the studies around this issue are, in a word, bad – small sample sizes, lab conditions that have no relation to how people engage with games in the real world – but the best we have show either no link at all between violent games and violent thoughts or behaviour, or a positive correlation so minuscule as to be meaningless. A review of the science in 2020, which looked at and re-evaluated 28 global studies of video games and violence, found no cumulative harm, no long-term effect, and barely even any short-term effect on aggression in the real world. It concluded that the “long-term impacts of violent games on youth aggression are near zero”.

This seems self-evident: video games have been a part of popular culture for at least 50 years, since Pong, and violent games have existed in some form since Space Invaders, though they’ve gotten more visually realistic over time. If video games were in some way dangerous – if they significantly affected our behaviour, our emotional responses – you would expect to have seen widespread, cross-cultural changes in how we act. That is demonstrably not the case. Indeed, overall, violent crime has been decreasing for more than 20 years, the exact period of time during which games have become ubiquitous. Though it would be unscientific to credit video games with that effect, you would think that if the generations of people who’ve now played Doom or Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto were warped by it, we might be seeing some evidence of that by now.

It is true that some perpetrators of mass murders – such as the Columbine shooters – were fans of video games. But given that the great majority of teenagers are fans of video games, that doesn’t mean much. More often than a fixation on violent media – of all kinds – mass shooters display an obsession with weapons or explosives or real-life killers, an interest in extremist views, social ostracisation. These are not otherwise well-adjusted people suddenly compelled to real-world violence by a game, or a film, or a Marilyn Manson album.

The history of the “video games cause violence” argument goes back even further than video games themselves: it’s an extension of the panic that flares up whenever a new and supposedly morally abject form of youth culture emerges. In the 1940s, when New York’s mayor ordered 2,000 pinball machines to be seized so that he could performatively smash them up, it was arcades; during the satanic panic of the 1980s and beyond, it was metal music. Since the mid to late 90s, it’s been video games, and no amount of studies debunking any link between them and real-world violence seems to make a difference.

So why does this argument keep showing up? In short: because it’s an easy scapegoat that ties into older generations’ instinctive wariness of technology, screen time and youth culture, and it greatly benefits institutions like the NRA and pro-gun politicians to have a scapegoat. Whenever video games are implicated in a violent event, there is usually stunning hypocrisy on display. After the El Paso shooting in 2019, Walmart removed violent video game displays from its stores – but continued to sell actual guns. Fox News, the TV network that platforms Tucker Carlson and the great replacement theory with him, is happy to point out that the perpetrator of a mass shooting played video games, while remaining oddly quiet on the racist ideas that show up in these shooters’ manifestos.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t examine video game violence at all, or question it. Does every game that involves sneaking up on enemies need a gratuitous neck-breaking animation when you succeed in overpowering a guard? Why do games so often resort to violence as the primary method of interaction with a virtual world? Do we really need more violent media – couldn’t we be playing something more interesting than another military shooter? These are valid and interesting questions. But they have nothing to do with real-world violence.

What to play

‘The most interesting anti-violent video game I’ve played’. This week, we recommend 2015’s Undertale
‘The most interesting anti-violent video game I’ve played’. This week, we recommend 2015’s Undertale Photograph: Toby Fox

Back in 1994, video game magazine Edge ended its review of Doom with this infamous line: “If only you could talk to these creatures, then perhaps you could try and make friends with them, form alliances… Now that would be interesting.” Nearly 30 years later, “talk to the monsters” jokes and memes still crop up, even if nobody remembers where it originally came from.

Turns out that reviewer had a point, though, as proved by 2015’s Undertale, probably the most interesting anti-violent video game I’ve played. In this lo-fi role-playing game, you get into fights with plenty of monsters, but instead of battering them into submission you can win them over by talking them down and showing them mercy, which is often the more difficult option. In most games, there’s no question about what you do when a monster turns up in your path: this one makes you interrogate yourself. I interpreted it at the time as social commentary on pacifism and community, and looking back, I don’t think that was too much of an overreach.

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Approximate play time: 6-10 hours

What to read

  • I’m going to start with a book this time: Lost in a Good Game: Why We Play Video Games and What They Can Do For Us, by Pete Etchells. A researcher and lecturer in biological psychology, Etchells’ perspective on video games is both relatable and extremely well-informed. He looks at the evidence (or lack of evidence) behind all the most pervasive beliefs about video games, and in the end he makes the case that most of the effects that they have on individuals and society are actually positive. It’s a reassuring read that I often recommend to worried parents who don’t play games themselves.

  • Grand Theft Auto V, perhaps the poster child for morally bankrupt video games that supposedly corrupt the youth, has now sold 165 million copies, following its launch on PS5 and Xbox Series X earlier this year. This makes it one of the most popular entertainment products of all time in any medium, and yet strangely, in the nine years since it was released, we have not seen the emergence of roving gangs of teenagers looking to act out their chaotic GTA Online shootouts in real life. Funny that.

What to click

Gibbon: Beyond the Trees review – short, simple and lovely to play

Activision Blizzard’s Raven Software workers vote to form industry’s first union

Question Block

Will return next week. If you have anything you’d like me to answer, just email me on pushingbuttons@theguardian.com!



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