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Violent videogames should worry us (but shouldn’t be banned)

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, we need to more concerned than ever about the effects of violent videogames. JBLivin/Flickr

Violent videogames should worry us (but shouldn’t be banned)

The Connecticut town of Southington last week introduced a videogames return program, offering a $25 gift card to parents who wanted to rid their households of violent titles.

The program comes in the wake of the December 14 shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown – roughly 50km south west of Southington – which claimed the lives of 20 children and six staff members.

The main aim of the “buy-back” initiative is to create a forum where the media’s role in cultures of violence can be discussed. It is not an attempt to demonise games or the people who play them.

School officials recognise violence as a complicated social problem. They are aware that the media violence debate is but a strand of a much bigger conversation on the causes of the real thing.

The Southington buy-back scheme demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the lessons of research on the effects of playing violent videogames. It finds unlikely allies within the games community, as gamers have stepped forward to consider what a love of violent videogames really means, after Newtown.

In this sense, while elements of the National Rifle Association (NRA) seek to divert attention from the role that gun ownership plays in mass murder, gamers appear more willing to grasp the JFK nettle, asking what they can do for their country.

Right after the Sandy Hook massacre, the NRA pointed an accusing finger at the videogames industry. Their position has attracted congressional support. One reaction to these developments has been to argue that studies on the effects of videogame violence on gamers are inconclusive.

They are not.

In 2010, the noted effects researcher Craig Anderson was lead author of a survey which carefully analysed the results of 130 studies on videogame violence. Anderson’s findings were quite clear.

There is reliable evidence that a long-term diet of violent game playing leads to an increase in real-life aggression. The size of the effects noted in these studies were small, but statistically and socially significant.

In other words, gaming violence isn’t the major cause of real-world violence, but it probably is enough of a catalyst to warrant concern. All the more so because while many things can provoke aggression – for instance, non-violent games can do the same thing if they are frustratingly difficult to play – violent videogames are designed to spark aggressive responses.

At the same time, Anderson and colleagues cautioned that the policy implications of these findings are unclear.

First, where the research addresses aggression, social anxieties are focused on physical violence. In this way, most of what we know about (aggression) doesn’t directly address that which worries us most (physical violence).

Second, it may also be that videogame violence also has a range of positive effects. The problem, in this regard, is that there is a bias in effects studies toward looking for the damage games can cause among some groups.

In either case, the confident conclusion that videogame violence is bad for a significant number of people does not imply prohibition. Instead, Anderson argues that videogame violence is an environmental risk that has to be managed.

The problem, then, is that the research on videogame violence does not lend itself to quick and easy, crowd-pleasing policy action. In the resultant political vacuum, it’s been interesting to see gaming insiders step up to reflect on their role in glamorising guns.

Games reviewers have challenged the industry and its consumers to take action. The games industry has been accused of playing into the hands of the NRA, by becoming over-reliant on violence as a quick and easy narrative device.

This laziness has been criticised as an abrogation of creative responsibility; a failure of games and gaming as a form of creative expression.

Perhaps the most chilling exemplar here has been the collusion between the games and gun industries, where the former has become a product placement vehicle for the latter.

Approaching gaming as an art form, games reviewers have called for the industry to take more responsibility in making the genre about expression, rather than commerce.

This mirrors the argument put forward by MIT media scholar Henry Jenkins, in the wake of the 1999 Columbine Massacre which claimed 13 lives. There, too, first-person shooter games were identified as catalysts for mass murder.

Jenkins argued against banning games, but acknowledged there were reasons to worry about the prevalence of violence in them. The trouble with most gaming violence, for Jenkins, was that it was boring.

Gamers were offered the same scenarios and options time and time again, which meant that the genre rarely fulfilled its unique capacity to make users reflect on the morality of the choices they made.

Jenkins argued that videogames could spark a productive conversation about the motivations toward violence, and the fact that they rarely did was cause for concern indeed.

This is why the positions being taken by the Southington school system and the gaming community are so smart. Reviewers who are, in the end, part of a promotional machine that popularises the gaming industry, are exploring how they can become part of the solution by embracing a position as part of the problem.

By doing so, they enable a dialogue with people who are quite legitimately concerned about violent videogames – including parents and teachers in Southington.

Together, these groups have set a leadership standard for a debate on media and violence that might actually achieve something.