Gaming Writer Rosie Carron gives their opinion on the seemingly mythologised link between video games and violence

Written by Rosie Carron

Content warning- Contains mentions of mass shootings, American gun control debates, and descriptions of violence

Is there some truth to the claim that video games cause violence?

As someone who enjoys playing video games, plenty of which include violence, it is easy to attribute the claim that video games cause violence to crotchety old men shaking their fists at the youth of today. I am not a violent person. Therefore, video games cannot contribute to violent behaviour. But is there some truth to the claim that video games cause violence?

Professional opinion on the topic is divided. Organisations such as the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) claim that violence in media desensitises young people and contributes to violent behaviour as children learn by observing and mimicking behaviour. Similarly, research by the American Psychological Association ‘demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behaviour, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases prosocial behaviour, empathy and sensitivity to aggression’.

Professional opinion on the topic is divided

However, recent studies suggest otherwise. Psychologists Dr. Patrick and Charlotte Markey argue that while some children may become more aggressive as a result of playing violent video games, most do not, and those who do are affected by pre-existing psychological factors. Dr. Mark Coulson concurs that while ‘exposure to repeated violence may have short-term effects’, there is ‘no evidence linking video games’ to ‘the long-term consequences of crime and actual violent behaviour’. As Keza MacDonald asserts in an article for The Guardian, ‘video games have been a part of popular culture for at least 50 years […] and violent video games have existed in some form since Space Invaders, though they’ve gotten more visually realistic over time. If video games were in some way dangerous – if they significantly affected our behaviour, our emotional responses – you would expect to have seen widespread, cross-cultural changes in how we act’. However, violent crime has actually decreased since 1996.

Claiming that acts of real-world violence are due to video games takes away from the real issues underlying violent crime; for instance, the lack of gun-control in America, hate speech, and bigotry. MacDonald points out that ‘after the El Paso shooting in 2019, Walmart removed violent video game displays from its stores – but continued to sell actual guns’, and Networks like Fox News are ‘happy to point out that the perpetrator of a mass shooting played video games, while remaining oddly quiet on the racist ideas that show up in these shooter’s manifestos’. Are video games a convenient scapegoat? 

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t criticise violent media. However, this shouldn’t be restricted to video games. Is Call of Duty more violent than the average Quentin Tarantino movie? Video games are critiqued more heavily for their violent content because the player is not a passive observer but an active participant. Games convey their messages not only through their narratives but through gameplay. Many games reward violence; after taking down a boss or mowing down a wave of enemies we anticipate loot or story progression. 

The excessive violence is not pointlessly gratuitous

We should certainly look critically at games in which the player character takes out hundreds of faceless enemies while still being considered the hero (Uncharted’s quip-ready Nathan Drake probably has a higher body count than the most prolific serial killer). However, many games use violence effectively to leverage emotional impact or make a point. The Last of Us Part II (2020) gained media attention for its harrowing scenes of violence. The takedowns are not slick and satisfying, but brutal and drawn out. Enemies are not obstacles to be quickly taken out but human beings who struggle and die messily. The excessive violence is not pointlessly gratuitous but relates to the central theme of the game – the destructive cycle of violence and revenge.  

Indie title Spiritfarer rewards compassion rather than violence

Not all video games rely on combat to tell their stories. Undertale (2015) offers a ‘pacifist run’ in which, rather than fighting the monsters, the player befriends them, subverting expectations. In the Life is Strange series, the player progresses the story not by fighting enemies but rather by talking to characters and uncovering clues around the central mystery. Far from encouraging violence, video games can be a tool of empathy. Indie title Spiritfarer (2020) rewards compassion rather than violence. The player character, Stella, is entrusted with transporting spirits to the afterlife, caring for their needs, listening to their stories, and completing quests so that they can make peace with their death and move on.  

We should continue to think critically about the media and question how it impacts real life. However, blaming video games for violent behaviour ultimately detracts from the real causes. Furthermore, video games are an incredibly diverse medium. Some may glamourise violence in a way that is problematic, but games can also be thought-provoking, emotional, and, let’s face it, fun. 

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