20th April 1999. The state of Colorado is shaken to its core as two tormented teens Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, equipped with shotguns and explosives, killed 13 people and injured 24 others before killing themselves at their local high school in Columbine. Almost immediately after the fatal attacks, the media put the blame on violent video-games.
Games such as the gory shooter Doom which Eric Harris had used to recreate his school and virtually foreshadow the shootings. This eventually lead to the parents of the 13 victims filing a lawsuit against 25 companies, all of which were game developers and publishers, suing them for $5 billion worth of damages. This incident has added to an argument that has spanned for as long as arcade machines have existed: is there a link between video-games and violence?
A question that might have popped into your head is how could these victims sue the video game industry for such a huge sum of money? Aren’t videogames just played by kids and adults still living in their parent’s basement (a stereotype that has created a stigma towards gamers)?
Truth of the matter is, over the past couple of decades, videogames have gone from an underdog of sorts to a colossus. Activision are the 20th Century Fox of the video game industry, their most prominent and well known video games series Call Of Duty grossing $10 billion over the series’ 12 year existence, a feat that some film studios can only dream about. Even one of the most famous movie sagas of all time Star Wars hasn’t even made half of what Activision’s FPS series has, only bringing in $4.4 billion since 1977. With inflation adjusted, even the highest grossing film of all time Gone with The Wind ($3.4 billion) would only scrape a measly 13th place on the highest grossing games of all time. In fact, the only way films would be able to accumulate more money than the highest grossing game of all time Space Invaders ($13.9 billion), you would have to add the top 5 grossing films of all time (Gone With The Wind, Avatar, Star Wars, Titanic, The Sound of Music).
Not only are they profitable but videogames are more accessible than ever, some so simple that regardless of age you’ll be able to pick it up and play with ease. Go on Facebook and you’ll see the evidence first hand, Farmville and Candy Crush requests flooding your notifications on a daily basis. We’ve now reached the stage where games are played just as much by teens as they are by their parents.
Unfortunately, this popularity for video games hasn’t worked in its favour. Although only 10% of people asked if video games made people violent said yes (1), no one said they believed videogames should be held responsible for events like Columbine. The media whistle another tune though, as shown by the tragedy that occurred in Norway back in 2011. Anders Breivik, equipped with van bombs, a carbine and a pistol, killed 77 people and injured a further 319. As soon as his trial began, Breivik said that he used Call of Duty as a firearms training program which the media paraded around for 24 hours a day.
Charlie Ward is a psychologist at Anglia Ruskin, the largest university in the East of England which is generating world leading research in 12 areas. Not only is she a psychologist but has had hands on experience with video-games and the effects they have. Talking to me over the phone from her home in Cambridge, she highlighted her opposition to the theory that video games could cause someone to go on a killing spree. “I think to do something like that you must have a mental health issue that should have been sorted. It shouldn’t just be related to the fact that people just think it’s video games, I think there’s something underlying that.”
Although holding a rifle is much different to holding a controller, Breivik’s claim might actually hold some merit after recent scientific studies. In 2012, students at Ohio State University asked volunteers to play video games and after an hour asked them to shoot human shaped targets. The study showed their was a 33% higher hit rate and 99% head-shot rate by FPS players than non FPS players which has lead those who think video games are violent to believe the popularity of shooters like COD is having a toxic effect.
However 1.2 billion people spend 3 billion hours a week playing video games and they don’t go around killing people. Miss Ward agreed, saying “ think that people with decent morals, are quite healthy and don’t have any mental health issues wouldn’t do something like that. I think you have to have something psychologically wrong with you. It could be anything related to hormones or anything like that which can cause these violent events, not Call of Duty or any Tarantino film.”
Critics of video games and their violence still insist that they cause players to become killers, partly by desensitising them to the horrors of their actions. After the horrific events of the Sandy Hill shooting in 2013, President Obama called for research into the effects of violent games though this isn’t the first time a politician has called for action on violence and video games. Since the 90s, Democrat party members have repeatedly tried to highlight the extreme content in video games, Mortal Kombat being a true showcase of this. Herb Kohl argued that regulation was needed for video games while Professor Provenso said that games like Mortal Kombat had almost TV quality like graphics. In hindsight, these claims over graphics are ridiculous but at the time it was of great concern.
Although it may sound like some sort of conspiracy theory, the military has been made well aware of the advantages of video games as both a recruitment tool and a simulation for training. In 2011, the US military spent $50 million on a training program known as America’s Army which has been in use since 2002 which researchers at MIT found to be the most effective method of recruitment than all other advertisement combined. Shockingly enough, the executive producer of the game says that their demographic is 13 year olds who after playing the game will want to enlist by the time their 17. The developers behind the game though justify their actions by saying desensitizing the gamer to violence reduces the chances of PTSD occurring. Defenders of video games also say that there’s an M rating for a reason and that it’s ultimately down to parents to take responsibility for what children play.
Even army personnel have voiced their stance on the controversial debate over violence in video games. Most stand by the view that trained soldiers follow orders and protect civilians by killing enemy hostile but a gamer in his bedroom does not have the same constraints for outlet. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a retired west point psychology professor, supported this by saying “Violent video games contain military condition but without the safeguard of discipline found in military and law enforcement conditioning”.
In some video games this strikes some truth as there are certain video games that encourage the slaughtering of innocent civilians in virtual reality. One of the most notorious instances of this is the No Russian mission in Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In the mission, the character controls an undercover CIA agent posing as a terrorist in a group while riding an elevator and as the doors open, the group proceeds to massacre an entire airport full of innocent civilians. As well as this the Grand Theft Auto series has succumb to a large amount of controversy during its lifespan. 18 year old Devin Moore, who killed 3 policemen in a shooting spree in Alabama, was supposedly motivated by the video games which give the player a large array of weapons in an open world.
People who have this train of thought though fail to mention some very key things, most important of all being that violent acts within video games are totally within the player’s control. Even the aforementioned No Russian mission is totally optional and even those who decide to play it can go through the whole thing without shooting anyone and still complete it without any repercussions. In addition to this, the mission is justified in the context of the narrative and is extremely emotive. A 2011 report by academics from the University of Texas is one of the few conclusive scientific researches that has played a notable part in this debate, showing that video games have a positive effect on aggression by reducing stress. Another piece of evidence that’s up for interpretation is the decline in youth violence in correlation with the rise in popularity of violent video games.
In a post Charlie Hebdo world, censorship is a touchy subject. The lawsuit brought forward by relatives of the Columbine shooting was dismissed by the court of appeals, leading to the same decision being made every time that any lawsuit comes forward claiming video games are an influence on an individual’s behaviour. Dr Ward pointed out that if people are so worried about violence then it should be censored rather than outright banned though this censorship has a negative effect on the creativeness of the video game industry which has made it so viable. Although studies may show that gamers are desensitised to violence and would make better killers than ordinary civilians, there is simply no conclusive evidence to link violent video games and real life murder. With video games being the most profitable type of entertainment, one question will be rampant amongst media and researchers: do violent video games create killers or do killers play violent video games?