When it comes to videogames, psychologists and social theorists have been asking the wrong questions. Instead of obsessing over the purely correlational links between violence and videogames, researchers would find more value in simply asking why people – young boys, in particular – are attracted to violent media in the first place.
The worlds of videogames are often dark, frightening and gory places, especially in the action and adventure genres most popular with boys. That’s not surprising given the history of children’s media, which is full of doom and gloom. In part of their book Grand Theft Childhood, Harvard researchers Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson document some of the macabre entertainment that has been madly popular with kids of previous generations, including British “penny dreadfuls” and American dime novels from the 19th century, early violent films featuring mobsters and other criminals, crime and horror comic books from the 1930s to 1950s and pen-and-paper roleplaying games labeled as “satanic” by ignorant critics.
One would think that discovering why kids like to be entertained by dark, disgusting and violent subject matter would be important to researchers. After all, finding out what attracts kids to violent videogames could explain why researchers sometimes find correlations between gaming and aggressive behavior. It’s likely that the reason some kids behave aggressively is the same reason they play violent videogames, or why some play more violent games than others. Instead of casting blame and attempting to censor the media, researchers should investigate the root causes of violent behavior. But as it stands now, social scientists investigating the effects of violent games are more focused on the symptoms than the underlying source. They’re like doctors so squeamish about the sight of blood that they frantically bandage their patients without even examining their wounds.
Culled from current research into other areas of children’s development, here are seven of the many possible explanations for why kids may be attracted to violent videogames:
1. Lower education
Research suggests that people who are less educated or less intelligent are more likely to consume violent media and to choose violent media at the expense of other, nonviolent media. It’s possible that the less educated a person is, the more they are affected by violent media as well.
A person’s level of education or intelligence is itself a tangled web of correlations that has sparked many unsettled “chicken or the egg” debates. Poverty is related to less education. So is having uneducated or negligent parents. Genetics may be involved. Racism can be a factor as well, as some studies suggest some education systems don’t treat people of all races the same.
Studies that find a correlation between a preference for violent games and violent behavior may actually be finding a correlation between a lower education level and violent behavior. The cause of the lower education level may be poverty, meaning that the original videogame study actually found a relationship between poverty and violence, not gaming and violence. Tracing the roots of violence this deep gives a much greater perspective on the problem and calls for more thoughtful, far-reaching solutions than simply restricting videogame sales.
2. Aggressive personality
“One glaring problem with most studies of violent game effects is their failure to consider which groups are at most risk,” write Kutner and Olson. Even those who claim videogame violence causes real-life violence don’t believe the effects of violent games are universal. It’s very important, then, to find out whether common characteristics exist among individuals who are strongly attracted to violent games or seem more affected by them. Some studies suggest that personality characteristics like aggression may be genetic, which would mean that some people are naturally more aggressive. Those people may enjoy violent videogames more than the average person.
Playing violent videogames may not necessarily be a bad thing for them, though. Fragging Locust Horde or ripping spinal cords out of virtual opponents may be a cathartic release for people with aggressive personalities, offering them a way to act violently that doesn’t affect the real world. Out of a group of more than 1,000 middle-school kids, Kutner and Olson’s research found the ones most likely to exhibit bad behavior were boys who didn’t play videogames regularly.
Another personality trait that may increase the odds of regular visits to Liberty City or Stilwater is the desire for new feelings and experiences, what psychologists call sensation-seeking. Either by nature or through nurture, sensation-seekers crave stimulation more than the average person and are more willing to take risks to get it. This personality type is often positively associated with the extreme sports crowd and glorified in terrible Mountain Dew commercials, but sensation-seekers have also been linked with increased drug and alcohol use.
With their constant visual stimulation and visceral thrills, videogames are also appealing to sensation-seekers. And you’re more likely to find them entrenched in a Halo marathon than an all-day Bejeweled session. Many research studies split subjects into two groups where one plays an action-packed violent game (Grand Theft Auto or Doom) and the other plays a more laid-back, nonviolent game. (Myst seems like a popular choice among researchers.) However, some of the measured differences may not necessarily be related to the violent content of the first group, but just the sensation-seekers getting the action “fix” they enjoy.
In his book Killing Monsters, Gerard Jones argues that kids need imaginary violence to grow up normally. It gives children a safe way to explore behaviors they usually have to repress. “Being evil and destructive in imagination is a vital compensation for the wildness we all have to surrender on our way to being good people,” Jones writes. When a child maims minotaurs as Kratos in God of War, he knows he’s doing something that would be wrong to do in real life. That’s what makes it fun. Violent gaming could be a way for children to explore violent behavior, safely express their aggressive urges and get it out of their systems. Jones writes that such play can “enable children to pretend to be just what they know they’ll never be.”
5. Emotional development
“Children are drawn to violent themes because listening to and playing with those frightening images helps them safely master the experience of being frightened,” write Kutner and Olson. We’re all used to the idea that a child has to burn themselves on a stovetop before truly appreciating the danger of those glowing coily things the soup pot goes on. Videogames may function in a similar way, letting children experience the fear and danger of violence without ever actually exposing themselves to harm. Where the oven burner teaches a physical lesson, videogames may teach emotional ones. Kids who see how hurtful, gory and disgusting violence is may learn that they never want to see that kind of stuff in reality.
Another comparison may be more apt: In the last decade, doctors have learned that completely disinfecting homes to prevent children from getting sick actually reduces the effectiveness of kids’ immune systems when they’re outside the home. Children need to be exposed to risk in order to make them strong enough to survive similar risks outside their protective environment. Preventing kids from engaging with violence in their play may leave them unequipped to deal with the often violent world we live in. Mastering violent desires and fears may be a vital part of development that overprotective parents deny their kids.
Violence is the distillation of conflict. Combat is perhaps the essence of competition. The simplest way to express the opposition of two people is to make them fight. So it makes sense that highly-competitive people would be drawn to violent content. Pitting your Ryu against a friend’s Dhalsim is a more tangible way to compete than, say, seeing who can finish Sam & Max the fastest. Blasting strangers in an Unreal Tournament match leads to a more immediate sense of victory than just topping the leaderboards in online Scrabble. Feeling a sense of accomplishment at covering a hallway with your opponents’ guts is not a mark of depravity; it’s just a more concrete sign of triumph than having the highest score. A child who chooses to play violent games may just be picking the games that best fulfill his competitive desires.
7. Avid gaming
There’s an extremely simple but often overlooked explanation for why kids play violent videogames. Kids who are passionate about videogames want to play the best titles available, and they want to play as many games as they can. Just like a food connoisseur want to try out the restaurants that have the best reputations, avid gamers want to play the games that everyone is raving about. The violence isn’t the attraction so much as the quality. Many fans believe games or series like Grand Theft Auto, BioShock, Halo, Gears of War, Fallout and Crysis have some of the best production values and most fun gameplay in the business. Of course videogame lovers want to play them. They all happen to be violent, M-rated games, but that’s not a necessary ingredient for success. Look at LittleBigPlanet. Remember the Katamari Damacy craze. Think about how universal the popularity of Tetris is. Hardcore gamers want to play all the best games, not just the violent ones.
Videogame opponents make it seem like every violent game is a huge success, but that’s not true. Just ask the developers of Manhunt, the remake of NARC or the last few Mortal Kombats. The kid who thinks a mediocre game like Postal is the best game ever and only plays games rated M – that’s who researchers should be studying. Maybe then those of us simply enjoying the best of what our hobby has to offer can be left alone.