Robin Smith / March 12, 2018

The Effects of Video Game Violence

Trump met with video game executives, but we just don’t really know what role this all plays.

“The video games, the movies, the Internet stuff, it’s so violent. I look at some of the things he’s watching, and I say, ‘How is that possible?’” Those were President Donald Trump’s thoughts regarding the content his son, 11-year-old Barron, has access to through video games and other entertainment. Last Thursday, Trump held his first meeting with video game executives to discuss what the White House called “violent video-game exposure and the correlation to aggression and desensitization in children” as part of a national response to the Parkland, Florida, school shooting and “gun violence.”

Predictably, representatives from the gaming and entertainment industry gave no ground on the issue. A spokesman for the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), Dan Hewitt, spoke definitively: “Like all Americans, we are deeply concerned about the level of gun violence in the United States. Video games are plainly not the issue. Entertainment is distributed and consumed globally, but the U.S. has an exponentially higher level of gun violence than any other nation.”

Echoing the sentiments of other participants in last week’s meeting, which included lawmakers, representatives from the entertainment industry as well as parental rights and media research advocates, Trump responded, “It’s hard to believe that, at least for a percentage of children, maybe it’s a small percentage, that this doesn’t have a negative impact on their thought process. These things are really violent.”

Looking at the issue from the framework of the First Amendment, there is no question that the freedom to choose the type of speech and entertainment we make and consume is protected in America. Trump isn’t saying otherwise. It’s another reminder, however, that with rights come responsibilities. While some research, according to comments made by ESA’s Hewitt, establishes “no connection” between the consumption of violent media and entertainment and violence, there are a few realities that simply cannot be ignored. And a few tough questions need to be answered very honestly.

Is there any real relationship between actual violence and regular exposure to violent video content? What is the impact of gratuitous, graphic violence in entertainment and behavioral change? Would that relationship and that impact be different, say, for a kid who’s already suffering deep sociopathic tendencies?

Ironically, those who assign morality to guns — they’re bad, bad, very bad — are not assigning any morality to violence perpetrated in an immersive experience on a repeated basis as characterized by video games that have the gamer engaged as an active shooter.

During the Obama administration, Congress refused in 2013 to approve $10 million for research assessing any link to violence in the media and that at the hands of individuals with guns. While small studies exist, there are no larger studies to validate either argument.

In 2006, researchers conducted a small study of 44 adolescents randomized to play 30 minutes of either a violent or a non-violent video game, after which the teens were tested with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The MRIs revealed that those exposed to violent video gaming demonstrated less activation in the prefrontal portions of the brain, which are involved in inhibition, concentration and self-control, and more activation in the amygdala, which is involved in emotional arousal. Subjects exposed to a half-hour of gaming violence showed a different brain response than those who played a non-violent yet stimulating game.

But, even aside from the tiny sample size, correlation does not mean causation. Many things correlate with others but are not the cause. Smoking is frequently correlated with those who are also alcoholics, but smoking is not the cause of alcoholism.

Similarly, for a very large population, one event, the exposure to violence in video gaming or movies, does not cause mass shootings or gun violence. However, there is a correlation in some individuals who’ve been involved in these mass shootings with their active participation in first-person shooter video games.

Why do some men and women who fight in the brutal conflict of war return home to lead very normal, healthy lives, while others battle the unseen wounds of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is tied to an alarmingly high rate of suicide among combat veterans? We saw the horrific results of that this weekend, when a veteran killed three nurses and himself. Not every veteran has PTSD. But recent data shows that up to 31% of veterans will experience this lingering impact of the chronic exposure to violence and stress with an escalated risk of suicide that is seen among this subgroup of veterans.

As a society, we have accepted the role of a traumatic experience, such as a rape, a natural disaster or severe injury or repeated exposures to conflict and harm as contributing factors to PTSD. We recognize the need to provide mental health intervention and treatment. So why do we utterly reject the possibility that regular exposure to first-person shooter games may negatively impact a similar subgroup of the population, especially children and teenagers?

From a larger perspective, why do we accept as normal the notion of killing as entertainment? The good guys and gals going after the bad guys and gals is a universal plot line, but what’s normal or entertaining about severed limbs, decapitation, disembowelment, torture or any type of excessive use of force?

Through these repeated exposures, our society is desensitized to the horrific. It’s called conditioning. Individuals become conditioned to view a situation or action as normal by the games we play and permit our children to play and the movies we view.

Furthermore, the meaning of the term amusement is relative. To muse is to be absorbed in thought, to think about something carefully and thoroughly. When one is amused, we might say he or she is in a state of being without careful thought. How much time is spent by our children in the latter state of mind? In the case of violent gaming, the amusement is coupled with a state of heightened response and emotional arousal. For the overwhelming majority, there is no causation leading directly to violence. However, for a small percentage, the conditioning of repeated violence as normal yields a less favorable and even potentially negative impact.

The old adage that when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail offers a bit of application. When your day very often includes an immersive experience that involves a violent response, whether in role play or in reality, your conditioning may change your perspective.

So, no. Video games do not cause mass shootings, just like guns do not cause mass shootings. However, when the mind is engaged with corresponding actions in the pursuit to win a game that rewards death and destruction, a correlation is certainly a possibility. We can’t say “always,” but neither can we say “never.”

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