In recent years the video game industry has become a profitable venture, and games themselves have entered the popular culture as solidly as literature or film. Most people know of popular franchises, even if they have never played a video game at all. Naturally, popularity creates controversy, and the central debate about video games is whether or not they cause real-life gun violence by simulating it and priming young gamers to develop murderous and antisocial tendencies. In fact, video games do not cause violence, and the claims that they do are either misguided or malicious.
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Despite both recent and older claims by politicians and advocacy groups, the research suggests that there is no link between video games and violence. According to Markey et al., homicides and aggravated assaults tended to decrease for a while after the releases of major M-rated titles (291).
The researchers explain that there can be several explanations for that decrease. The first explanation is that the people with pre-existing violent tendencies stay at home and play games rather than prowl the streets committing violent crimes. The second is that violent games are cathartic, and people can vent their urges in the virtual world, instead of hurting real people. Moreover, when multiple pieces of research are aggregated and analyzed, the expected trends that equate “violent videogames” and “increase in violence” are not present (Markey et al. 291). The public outcries do not match the scientific data at all.
The public outcry creates the impression that video games are especially harmful to the human psyche, but their effects are actually short-term and benign. Zvyagintsev et al. have found that violent actions during gameplay engage the players cognitively to a higher degree and lead to a stronger feeling of accomplishment than solving the problems non-violently (9). It does not mean that violent gameplay leads to violent tendencies.
However, it does mean that violent gameplay excites and stimulates people more than non-violent gameplay when there is a choice. Another study found that playing games that depict women as sex objects tend to decrease the feeling of empathy towards female victims of abuse in gamers (Gabbiadini et al. 11). The players identified with a violent and sexist male character, and it seemed to reinforce similar beliefs in them after playing. These beliefs, while not motivating gamers to rob and murder, can still be harmful, but not to any significant degree. There is not enough data to assert that any significant change in human behavior can be caused by playing games.
The moral panic about video games is not a reflection of facts, but historically common practice of blaming complex social problems on a convenient new hobby. It has been present in the public discourse for decades and has religious roots. The current trend is to assert that video games make people sexist through the displays of toxic masculinity (Gabbiadini et al. 2). Earlier, video games were blamed for mass shootings for depicting gun violence (Markey et al. 278).
Earlier still, tabletop role-playing games were blamed for satanic worship (Laycock 97). The religious panic over Dungeons & Dragons and cult worship seem quaint and even comedic. However, the truth of the matter is that the moral panic over Grand Theft Auto and mass shootings is exactly as preposterous. There is nothing to do but wait and contribute to a growing body of literature that disproves those claims. Video games will most likely survive the onslaught of moral dictates, but individual studios may suffer lawsuits or scandals, as they have in the past.
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Video games as a cultural phenomenon are stronger than ever. With that strength comes controversy, as moral panics sweep the nation after regular mass shootings. Research suggests that there is no link between video games and real-world violence, but facts will not stop people from claiming it time and time again. People must remember the blunders of the past, and come to their own conclusions, or someone else will come to conclusions for them.
Gabbiadini, Alessandro, et al. “Acting like a Tough Guy: Violent-Sexist Video Games, Identification with Game Characters, Masculine Beliefs, & Empathy for Female Violence Victims.” PLOS ONE, vol. 11, no. 4, 2016, pp. 1–14.
Laycock, Joseph P. Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds. University of California Press, 2015.
Markey, Patrick M., et al. “Violent Video Games and Real-World Violence: Rhetoric versus Data.” Psychology of Popular Media Culture, vol. 4, no. 4, 2015, pp. 277–295.
Zvyagintsev, Mikhail, et al. “Violence-Related Content in Video Game May Lead to Functional Connectivity Changes in Brain Networks as Revealed by FMRI-ICA in Young Men.” Neuroscience, vol. 320, 2016, pp. 247–258.