Whenever there is a major public tragedy, one of the first places people go for an explanation is violent video games.
It makes sense — realistic modern games are still a fairly recent addition to our culture, only a decade or two old. For most of the people who set the tone of our national discussion, modern video games are an alien, incomprehensible thing with which they have zero personal experience, except to watch in flabbergasted horror as their grandchildren score headshots.
That kind of noncomprehension always passes with time. Our current generation of leaders grew up with rock and roll, and none of them are agitating to blame it for the world’s problems, even though their parents found it scandalous. It’s innocuous because it’s been an everyday part of their lives, and they know it didn’t transform them into monsters. In another thirty years, games will be the same.
However, there is one group of people that I hold to a higher standard than politicians and pundits — scientists.
Fingers on the Scale
Most of the time, when someone cites a video game study, they don’t give you any details about the methodology, which always sets off my skepticism alarms. Typically, these studies “discover” that playing violent video games may be tied to short-term aggressive feelings. … which should seem like a no-brainer to anyone who’s had the experience of losing a game of Tetris because the DAMN COMPUTER WOULDN’T GIVE ME A RED PIECE!
However, this one time, I remember running across an article about a study that found NO correlation between video games and short-term aggressive feelings, and it actually linked the official documentation of the study. Excited to finally have “proof” that my industry wasn’t the cause of the world’s ills, I clicked through and read the study.
Do you know what violent game they were testing? WORLD OF WARCRAFT.
Now, I’d like to give these scientists the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure they weren’t using the most low-impact, relaxing, cartoony, inoffensive “violent” game in the industry in an attempt to put their finger on the scale and tip the results in the direction that they wanted them to go. That would be disrespectful.
(Yes, angry WoW players, I know that World of Warcraft gets very challenging and intense, especially in the endgame … but this was a study in which people came in and started fresh games, playing for only an hour or two. They were stuck in the parts of the game that you blast through in your sleep just to try out a new alt.)
But this got me thinking … are ALL the studies this poorly-constructed? Are the researchers so ignorant about video games and how they work that they are repeatedly choosing specific games that tilt their results in random directions, without controlling for the peculiarities of those games?
If so, then I think we should call for a new set of studies that consciously separate different aspects of violent and competitive video games, and zero in on what it is, exactly, that generates the “aggressive feelings” that participants so often display.
Study: Winning versus Losing
Collect a sample group of Call of Duty players and separate them by skill into three groups: Noobs, Enthusiasts, and Pros/Exploiters.
Create unbalanced matches whose results are a foregone conclusion: Noobs versus Enthusiasts, Enthusiasts versus Pros/Exploiters, and Noobs versus Pros/Exploiters.
Measure the effects of play on the winners and on the losers of these matches. Is there a different effect on the players who sail through effortlessly and win than there is on the players who are repeatedly and helplessly frustrated?
Results: If the losers exhibit more aggressive feelings than the winners, we may propose that frustration with loss may be a major contributing factor to the aggressive feelings recorded in other studies.
Study: Intense versus Relaxing
Have a pair of sample groups play two different games — some should play a highly-intense game that requires split-second decisions, and which puts the player in constant danger, like Call of Duty. Others should play a more relaxing game in which the player makes decisions at a calmer pace, and is in little danger of death (like the first few levels of a shooting-themed MMO).
One rule, though. The type and level of violence depicted must be the same, or the study is worthless.
Results: If the players of the intense game exhibit more aggressive feelings than the players of the relaxed game, then we may propose that intensity is a contributing factor.
Study: Fight versus Flight
Have a pair of sample groups play two different games — an intense, violent combat game like Call of Duty and an intense, violent racing game like Split/Second.
I chose these two games because they put the player in similar levels of danger, and require similarly fast reaction times — but Call of Duty has the player shoot people to get out of danger, while Split/Second has the player flee danger in a driverless car, while blowing up inanimate objects.
Results: If the players of the two games exhibit similar levels of aggressive feelings, then we may propose that these feelings arise from the player’s reaction to danger, and the stress of trying to survive when split seconds count, and do not arise from the experience of shooting a fictional person.
Study: Cooperation versus Competition
Have a pair of sample groups play two different, but similar experiences — one cooperative, and one competitive.
Ideally, these should be from the same game, to control for other factors. For instance, Slayer and Spartan Ops in Halo 4, or Free-for-All and Combat Training in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. We should also attempt to control for difficulty, recording how frequently a given player wins at each game type. Do not include unwinnable or nigh-unwinnable cooperative modes like Firefight and Zombies, because that introduces inevitable frustration as a factor.
Results: If the cooperative players exhibit less aggressive feelings than the competitive players, we may propose that these aggressive feelings are at least in part tied to the psychology of competition, rather than simply the content of the games.
Study: Gory versus Clean
Have a pair of sample groups play two different games — some should play a gory torture-fest like Mortal Kombat, while others should play cleaner family fare like Super Smash Brothers.
One rule, though. The two games chosen should have similar designs, with similar levels of difficulty, intensity, and frequency of combat. If you don’t control for those factors, then the study is worthless.
Results: If the players of the gory game exhibit more aggressive feelings than the players of the family game, then we may propose that gore is a contributing factor.
Study: Violent Video Games versus Violent Sports
Measure the aggressive feelings of a pair of sample groups — hardcore Call of Duty players after a series of matches, and high-school football players after a game.
Results: If the football players exhibit the same type of aggressive feelings, or exceed those of the Call of Duty players, then we have learned something very important.
Which Games are the First to Go?
Controlled studies like these are the only way we are ever going to zero in on how, exactly, these games might be doing harm to our children, our adults (who also play them), and our society, if any at all.
But the last study is the most important one, for this reason. We like to zero in on the favorite pastimes of the geeks, the outcasts, and the socially-inept to explain why they occasionally snap, make violent threats, and in rare but horrible cases, take violent action. We do it because their pastimes are new and strange and hard to understand.
But if we find that their pastimes are no more harmful than an old-fashioned game of football, then that leaves us with this question:
Do we ban the games that may contribute to violent tendencies in our socially-rejected kids? Or should we START by banning the games played by the socially-powerful kids — the hazers and the bullies — whose aggressive and violent attitudes TURN those geeky kids into social outcasts, and make their lives a living hell every single day?
Do we ban the games that laughably “train” children to use imaginary weapons? Or do we ban the games that physically train children to actually smash and injure each other?
If violence in games is truly found to have a preventable negative impact on children, then I’m all for improving our ability to protect our children from that impact. But let’s start at the top of the list. Let’s start by restricting the games that do the most harm, and only then work our way down.