Note: Most of the data linked in this article comes from sources that relate to the United States. It’s not because I don’t care about other countries, it’s just easier and simpler to get numbers for the USA and that’s all I needed to make my point. Don’t worry about it. Your country is still awesome.
Yes, we’re having this argument again. A couple of weeks ago Katie Couric aired a exploitative and sensationalist episode on videogame violence. It’s bad, but it’s bad in a perfectly ordinary way that we’ve all seen a dozen times before: People who don’t play or understand videogames begin a ridiculous and uninformed moral panic over them. Like the unintentional hilarity of Reefer Madness, they superimpose their bent worldview onto a Scary Issue to “raise awareness”. Unlike Reefer Madness, Couric has appropriated real and tragic events to suit her story, rather than just making up her own. I’m not going to go over the whole thing in detail. Chris Person at Kotaku has already done a wonderful job of dissecting everything that’s wrong with the piece.
A couple of days after it aired, Couric posted this message to Twitter:
Passionate gamers upset w convo whether violent video games can contribute to v behavior. Tweet the positive side of violent v games? Thanx!— Katie Couric (@katiecouric) May 3, 2013
I mean sure, she just spent an hour on her show portraying violent videogames as dangerous to children and society, but in the name of fairness she’s willing to hear what the other side has to say – as long as its 140 characters or less.
This is a really pernicious way to continue the conversation. Imagine if I argued that nose piercings caused brain cancer. To support my argument, I talk about two people (there’s a robust data set for you) who had pierced noses and who also had cancer. And then I ask everyone if there’s anything positive about nose piercings. Instead of defending my ridiculous and shoddy argument, I’ve put the opposition in a spot where they somehow have to justify the existence of the thing I’m attacking.
It’s hard to give the positive side of lots of things: Celebrity gossip shows, greasy food, rock music about sex and drugs, trashy romance novels, and shallow Bejeweled knockoffs for Facebook. You can’t show the societal benefit of this stuff. That doesn’t matter. In any kind of civilized world, you shouldn’t need to prove that your entertainment benefits society. That’s not why we make or consume entertainment.
The argument is taking the angle of, “since these games [maybe] cause violence, and since they have no redeeming social value…” and then letting the audience take over from there. Couric doesn’t need to dirty her hands arguing that violent games should be banned. She can just construct a narrative where that’s the obvious conclusion and let nature take its course.
I will concede that violent videogames probably have the effect of desensitizing kids to violence… in videogames. Now, if someone wants to do a study to prove that this leads to desensitizing kids to actual violence, and then prove that this makes them more likely to perpetrate acts of violence, and then see if that effect is widespread and not just limited to “certain individuals” who likely have problems with violence regardless of how they consume it, and if you want to establish that this effect is any worse than the same thing in books and movies, and if you want to show that kids are playing these games in anomalously high numbers despite all the safeguards we have in place… well, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Get the research done (hint: you don’t do research on talk shows) and then maybe we can talk about violent games being a threat.
But fine. Let’s talk about the positive side of violent videogames.
1. The rise of videogames is concurrent with a fall in violence.
Violent crime is down. Way down. It hasn’t been this low since 1967. And this drop in crime began in 1994, the year after Doom – the great-granddaddy of all mindless murder simulators – hit the market.
Now, unlike your typical videogame demagogue, I’m not so sloppy with my science that I’m going to say videogames reduce crime. Sure, violence has dropped as games have grown, but violent crime is a complicated thing and studying it is a slow process that requires a lot of data. But this does provide a huge uphill climb for anyone trying to link games to violence. If they lead to violence, then where is the violence? Right now the link between videogames and crime is about as plausible as a link between cheese fries and anorexia.
2. Violent videogames are less violent (or disturbing) than other mediums.
Games like Dead Space and Manhunt sometimes got a lot of press for their violent imagery, and there was a lot of nasty stuff in those games. But they’re peanuts compared to movies like Hostel, The Human Centipede, the Saw series, or The Last House on the Left.
For all their attempts at realistic graphics, games are still very far from the level of realism and shock you can get with live actors and movie props. Watch some of the dark scenes from Grand Theft Auto IV, then compare it to the graphic scenes of, say, I Spit on Your Grave. I’m not talking about some obscure homemade movies here. These aren’t hidden cult movies. Some of these saw theatrical release and all of them are available on DVD and Netflix. Compared to these movies, your average Call of Duty gunfight looks like Sesame Street.
3. Videogames are regulated and restricted far better than other mediums
Movies have simplistic labels like R and PG-13 that will tell you what the approximate age level of the content is, but it won’t tell you why. Music is even simpler, with nothing more than a parental advisory. Books have no content labels at all.
But in games we have many strata of warnings: Early Childhood, Everyone, Teen, Mature, and Adults Only. Not only that, but the labels will also tell you why the game is rated this way: Violence, sex, language, or drug use. No matter what sorts of content you’re worried about, the ESRB labels give concerned parents the best possible picture of what the content is and who it’s for.
Even better: Videogames have the best compliance record when it comes to adult ratings. Its far easier for a teen to buy a restricted movie or explicit music than for them to get a videogame rated M for Mature.
4. Videogame violence is normal.
Just like movies, just like books, and just like plays, videogames like to tell stories. Stories require conflict. Conflict is often resolved through violence. It’s all part of how human beings tell stories, and it was millenia old before William Shakespeare ever got around to writing the first of his blood-soaked tales of murder, war, and rape.
5. Videogame violence is perfectly healthy.
Sports violence is real violence. People can and do get hurt all the time playing sports. Sports are far more dangerous than videogames. While people make a lot of scary talk about games “breeding hostility” or “increasing aggression”, that’s all it is: scary talk. Sure, people who play games sometimes get worked up. So do people who are stuck in traffic. It’s nothing compared to the adrenaline-filled rage of your average football game. (And if we’re talking about football in the European sense of the word, then feel free to compare videogame fandom with football fandom for incidents of riots and public vandalism.)
Surprisingly enough, human beings were not pacifists before Pong appeared in 1971. Like a lot of other mammals, we have a certain degree of innate aggression to cope with. We have a desire to be empowered, to protect, to compete, to overcome, and to test ourselves against obstacles. Historically, we’ve done a horrible job of finding ways to vent this excess energy in a way that didn’t kill thousands of people.
Sports have been good for this. So are games. Hundreds of millions of people manage to play videogames every day without confusing fantasy with reality or allowing their virtual violence to leak into the real world. Depriving people of an outlet for their aggression will not stop them from feeling aggressive. It will just force them to find another way to express it. Blaming videogames for violence is like assuming the cat will stop tearing up the furniture if you take its scratching post away.
6. Videogame violence is fun.
No, really. Go shoot some aliens. Kill some bad ninjas. Or zombies. Or robots. It’s all fun and nobody gets hurt.