Violence and Video Games: Are There Ties That Bind These Two Evils?

In the aftermath of the horrific Virginia Tech shooting spree that happened in April 2007, video games were put in the hot seat again because some media hype proclaimed the perpetrator, Seung Hui Cho, was a loner and an avid video game player. Considered as the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history, Seung Hui Cho killed almost 32 students and Virginia Tech faculty members, “who subsequently committed suicide at the scene of the crime”. (Chan, 31 August 2007). But, future investigations revealed that none of the video games that Cho possessed has violent content or imagery. In this shooting incident, it only reflected that most people push their luck on blaming video games as a source of violent behavior among youth and yet there is still no salient and direct scientific proof that can fully support this unfounded claim.

Violence and Video Games Are There Ties That Bind These Two Evils

In fact, the “video games promote violence” angle in the Virginia Tech shooting was exploited by anti-video game pundits to hawk their thoughts in the limelight. Fears were even fueled in with the previous 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where teenage students killed fifteen people. In their suicide note, the teenage murderers said they drew inspiration from the video game Doom. These incidents gave the opportunity to activist Jack Thompson to grill violent video games as the source of Cho’s violent behavior.  Thompson was quoted commenting in Fox News that: “To be able to pull this off, with this high body count… one has to have rehearsed it in able to do it.” Later, Thompson’s accusing finger became bolder as he mentioned that in NBC News that “according to eyewitnesses, there was a flat affect on his face, as if he were playing a video game.” On another interview, Thompson was trying to convince the television viewers that Cho “had been immersed in the video game Counter-Strike, playing it on his computer while in college” (Hartlaub, 24 April 2007).

Although there is lesser studies surrounding violence in video games than in television, almost 74% of households with school-age children have video games and their children spend close to an average of 1 hour a day with much less parental supervision than is used for television viewing (Woodard _ Gridina, 2000). A 2001 review of the 70 top-selling video games found that 89% contained some kind of violence. Almost half of all games (49%) contained serious violence, while 40% contained comic violence. In 41% of the games, violence was necessary for the protagonists to achieve their goals. In 17% of the games, violence was the primary focus of the game itself (Children Now, 2001). According to the USDHHS (2001), violence in video games can teach children aggressive strategies as children learn to imitate and identify with characters.

According to Gentile and Anderson (2003), researchers define violent video games as those games in which the player can harm other characters in the game. They go on to state that in many of today’s most popular games, harming other characters is the main activity and that killing occurs at a high rate. A study by Dietz (1998) found that nearly 80% of 1995’s most popular Nintendo and Sega Genesis video games included some type of aggression, ranging from sports aggression (48% of violence) to criminal victimization (52% of violence). Dietz found that in most cases, the violence was directed at another human-like character and was often quite graphic. Dietz also noted that many of the games included violence as the key used to accomplish goals. Furthermore, socially acceptable aggression was shown in 27% of the video games.

In the recent years, the amount of time Americans over age twelve played video (and computer) games rose from fifty-nine hours in 2000 to sixty-nine hours in 2003, an increase of 17%. Also, it is believed that the average person in 2003 spent nearly $30 on these games, compared with about $26 in 2000—an increase of 15%. The marketing research firm NPD Group reported that the video and computer gaming industry sold $11.9 billion in merchandise in 2005, which was up from $11.2 billion in 2003. Of this, computer games accounted for $1.2 billion in 2003 and $1.4 billion in 2005 (Weier, 2007).

It is interesting to note that along with the increased number of hours American youth are exposed in video games, violence in school also rose. In fact, there were almost 700,000 violent crimes in American schools in 2000 and 1.87 million crimes reported in 2001 committed by youth ages 12 to 20 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2004). In 2000, 9% of murders in the United States were committed by youth under the age of 18; this age group accounted for 15% of violent crime arrests in 2001. There are four types of violent criminal acts: murder, felony assault, rape, and robbery (Walker et al., 2004). However, in the school setting, any type of physical aggression and assault is considered to be violence, as is vandalism (damage to school property or the property of others), carrying a weapon, and threatening others with violence.

While accidents remain the number one cause of death of adolescents, death caused by use of a firearm is second. Homicide and suicide are the causes of one-fourth of all deaths in young people between 10 and 23 years of age (CDC, 2004). These rates are significantly higher than for any other industrialized nation. Use of firearms causes the death of between 3,000 and 4,000 American children and adolescents each year. That equates to one in 1,056 young people who will be killed each year by gunshot before they reach the age of 20. Sixty percent of these are murdered, 32% use firearms to commit suicide, and the rest die from accidental shootings (CDF, 2004).

With computer game sales and usage getting higher among American youth and violence in schools going directly proportional with it, most people would naturally feel that the massive violence in video games might have cultivated the violent behavior in schools today. Even famous personalities have something to say regarding this issue, presidential Republican candidate Mitt Romney proclaimed, “Pornography and violence poison our music and movies and TV and video games. The Virginia Tech shooter, like the Columbine shooters before him, had drunk from this cesspool” (Bacon, 6 May 2007). Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke of the game, “Grand Theft Auto, which has so many demeaning messages about women, and so encourages violent imagination and activities, and it scares parents” (Speech to Kaiser Family Foundation, 8 March 2005).

Indeed, not only do video games contain violent material, but it was found in research that it can promote high levels of aggressive thoughts observed among individuals who play these types of games. Experimental research conducted by Craig A. Anderson and colleagues (2004) has shown that participants who play violent versus nonviolent video games tend to experience more aggressive thoughts following the play. For instance, Bushman and Anderson (2002) found that participants who played a violent video game tended to expect others to react to potential conflicts with aggression to a greater extent than did participants who played a nonviolent video game. Likewise, Anderson et al. (2004) study have results indicating that participants who played a violent video game produced a higher rate of aggressive word completions than did those who played a nonviolent game. Finally, in the analyses of these studies, the researchers have consistently shown violent video game play to be linked with higher levels of aggressive thoughts.

Not only do video games promote aggressive thoughts, it is also found to trigger addiction among its users. In an article, M. J. Koepp et al. (21 May 1998) reported that video games can cause secretions of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay signals between brain cells. Dopamine is one of dozens of these chemicals and has been known to induce pleasure in the brain to reinforce behavior. Previous studies show that dopamine levels in hungry rats increased when they received food. In this case the chemical reinforced the pleasure the hungry rat felt on eating, so the next time the rat was hungry, it would be doubly motivated to eat and keep itself alive. Dopamine levels have also been associated with pleasure-producing drugs. Koepp et al. (21 May 1998) reported injecting human volunteers with a chemical that reacted to the brain’s secretion of dopamine. The scientists then used positron emission tomography (PET; an X-ray-like technique) to monitor the levels of dopamine in the brain as the volunteers steered a computer game tank through enemy territory picking up flags. The participants were awarded $10 for each level completed. The PET showed that dopamine levels shot up in the volunteers each time they finished blasting through a level. While Koepp et al. (21 May 1998) claimed that they were simply testing the technique of tracking dopamine and not gaming addiction, the possibility exists that goal-oriented games elicit a pleasurable chemical response in the brain. Memory of such pleasure could cause addicted gamers to come back for more.

Although some researchers do claim that they have established a link between playing a violent game and aggressive thoughts, such as Craig A. Anderson and colleagues. But their measure of aggressive behavior is not evidence of an actual violent act or the actual intent to injure someone, but the intensity and duration of noise blasts initiated by their subjects. Another measure used in this research is reaction time to aggressive words flashed on a screen after playing a violent game. A faster response was presumed to indicate aggressive thoughts. Thus, this research presented weak evidence that represents the high expectations for research seeking to establish that violent video games lead to aggressive behavior and is now being contradicted by ongoing research.

This is not to say that video game playing should be promoted, what this paper is trying to prove that more studies need to be done to finally find the link of video game playing and aggressive behavior. Fact is that there is also evidence that some video games can have many positive effects on players on regular use, including enhancing educational performance, improving spatial skills, improving cognitive development, and as therapeutic tools to treat attention deficit disorders, among other things. Thus, it is wrong to put the blame solely on video games when school shootings occur. If Grand Theft Auto and Counter-Strike were really training youngsters to become murderers, and everyone is playing them, one could not imagine how suburban streets would look like as most youths would be on a shooting spree by now. What parents and teacher can do is to help youths by encouraging them to espouse critical thinking, including talking to them about alternative, nonviolent solutions to problems. They can also encourage skepticism; for example, by talking about the consequences of media story lines if they were to happen in real life. Any form of media, like video games, can be harmful if taken in the wrong context, this is why education and information is the key to insulate young people from violence.

References:

Anderson, Craig A., Carnagey, N. L., Flanagan, M., Benjamin, A. J., Eubanks, J., _ Valentine, J. C Specific effects of violent video game content on aggressive thoughts and behavior. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 36 (2004): 199-249.

Bacon, Perry Jr. Romney reaches to the Christian right. Washington Post, (May 6, 2007): A4. 15 October 2007. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/05/AR2007050501081.html>.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Violence-related behaviors among high school students—United States, 1991–2003. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 53.29(2004): 651–655.

Chan, Leo.  Video games not a factor in Virginia Tech massacre, (31 August 2007). NeoSeeker. 15 October 2007. <http://www.neoseeker.com/news/story/7080/>.

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