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Bite the bullet: videogames don’t make deadly shooters

The supposed link between videogames and violence is riddled with holes. Rudy Lara

Is there an explicit link between playing violent videogames and becoming a deadly killer? If we are to take seriously a new study published in the journal Communication Research, there seems to be.

Cue tabloid headlines of the sort: “Is the Xbox Turning Your Child Into A Deadly Shooter?”

Maybe such articles will also casually mention the 1999 Columbine Massacre, in which 13 people were killed by two students who just so happened to play videogames.

Or maybe they’ll feature a photo of Anders Breivik because he mentioned playing Modern Warfare 2 (after all, we took everything else he said seriously, right?).

Such articles won’t feature any critical engagement or scrutiny of the actual complexities of videogame play – just more mind-numbing nods to another simplistic study, yet again seeming to prove violent videogames make players into killers.

Actually, this isn’t what the study – conducted by Jodi L. Whitaker and Brad H. Bushman of the University of Michigan – has shown at all, but it sure does sound good in a press release.

Which is probably what prompted several smaller science news websites to copy-paste the press release as “news”. One of those was accompanied by a photo of the game Modern Warfare 2, which actually has nothing to do with what the study actually found, as we’ll see below.

Another website bothered to find a third party who noted that the methods and findings of the paper are, at best, incredulous. Sadly, this insight was followed by a random reference to, yes, the Columbine Massacre. The story also featured an image of a young boy in camouflage with a plastic gun and knife. Classy.

To be fair, the headline of the study’s press release (put together by SAGE Publications, the publisher of Communication Research) set the tone:

“Violent video games turning gamers into deadly shooters”

This is only marginally more deceptive and slanted than the actual paper, which takes the quote in the headline, “Boom, Headshot!”, from FPS Doug, a fictional character from the fictional web-series Pure Pwnage (see video below). Somewhat ironically, the authors seem oblivious to the fact that Pure Pwnage is a show that satirises the popular image of the pro-gamer with exaggerated, self-conscious stereotypes.

Such (lack of) judgement doesn’t help me shake my initial suspicions that the authors were more concerned with proving their own assumptions about videogames and gamers than they were about expanding any particular body of knowledge.

Regardless of what the paper did or didn’t find, it comes across as construed and misleading. Unfortunately this tends to be the rule rather than the exception when it comes to research on videogames.

What the study actually found is far less exciting than the flourished press release would have us believe:

1) simulations with replicated hardware can help train mechanical and physical skills

2) players who play violent videogames are more likely to aim for the head when playing a game with a gun – be it digital or otherwise – than elsewhere on the body.

The first point hardly counts as a point at all. The second is interesting, certainly, but not the causal link to violent action implied by the study and the accompanying press release.

The authors had 151 college students spend 20 minutes playing one of three videogames: Resident Evil 4 (referred to throughout the paper simply as “a violent shooting game”); the target practice mini game in Wii Play (“a nonviolent shooting game”); or Super Mario Galaxy (“a nonviolent, non-shooting game”).

Afterwards, the subjects took 16 pot shots at a mannequin at a shooting range. The mannequin was placed close enough, the writers note, that the subjects would most probably hit whichever part of the body they chose to aim for.

Most significantly, the subjects who played one of the shooting games were split into two further groups. These sub groups played the game in question with two different types of controllers. One group played with traditional controllers with joysticks and buttons, while the other played with a light-gun controller. That is, a controller shaped like a gun that the player must accurately aim at the targets on the television in order to shoot them.

The findings are hardly surprising. Players that used a “real” gun controller to shoot humanoid enemies in Resident Evil 4 were more accurate at the shooting range than those using a standard controller. Likewise, those that played Wii Play with the “real” gun controller were also more accurate than those that played with a standard controller.

What is more interesting, though, is that those subjects that played Resident Evil 4 were more likely to aim for the head than those that played any other game, regardless of controller type.

Let’s deal first with the controllers. Videogames that use light gun controllers have existed for decades, and have been popular in arcades with series such as Time Crisis, Virtua Cop, and House of the Dead. Such games continue a much older carnival tradition of shooting galleries.

Sometimes the targets are simple targets, but often the player takes the first-person role of a good guy running through corridors, gunning down bad guys. In such games the player’s character is normally pushed along a linear path with no control over movement (giving them the nickname “on-rails shooters”) and the player’s only task is shooting accurately and quickly.

Light-gun games have also appeared on home consoles, but to a far-lesser extent due to the need of specialist controllers and spacious living rooms. The Nintendo Wii, however, has been particularly well-suited for bringing the genre back as the native Wii-mote controllers already shoot infra-red lasers at the TV and only require a cheap gun-shaped plastic holder for the controller to be placed into.

These light-gun games are a perfect example of what I’ve previously labelled synecdochic controllers: the action the player performs in the actual world closely mirrors the action of the character in the fictional world – in this case, aiming and shooting a gun.

That synecdochic controllers such as light guns could train users in the use of firearms is hardly a surprise. You hold the gun the same way as a real gun. You aim and pull the trigger like a real gun. I know of no light guns that give players a realistic lesson in recoil, reloading, bullet-drop, flicking the safety switch, or other essential elements of effective firearm use, but it certainly wouldn’t be hard to design a light gun and a simulation that did teach these things.

Regardless, the current model light guns unarguably train users how to aim a firearm-shaped tool. It’s a replication and a simulation. Driving and flying schools have been doing this for decades. Attach a video simulation to the mechanical hardware you want the student to master, and you have a safe environment for them to practise.


The claim that light gun games can train players to better use firearms is hardly contentious. But I have a problem with the misleading conflation of “light-gun games” and “violent videogames”. This is a gross inaccuracy when you consider what a minor percentage of videogames actually use light guns.

In contrast to the synecdochic light gun, the vast majority of shooting games use metonymic controllers that are more metaphorical in their translation of actual-world action into the fictional world.

Guns are aimed with joysticks and buttons, or with keyboards and mice. You move the camera around until the crosshair overlaps with the targets, and then you press a button to fire. In most videogames that include shooting, the actual-world action of the player has little if any similarities with the functional use of a firearm (though this is complicated when the US Army starts designing drones with controls meant to replicate videogame controllers).

Perhaps replicated firearm usage can train more proficient firearm users, but that is hardly proof that “violent videogames” are turning players into “deadly shooters”.

Unarguably, shooting videogames that use metonymic controls can teach players theoretical things about combat and firearm usage – I wouldn’t even know what “bullet-drop” was were it not for videogames! (In case you were wondering, bullet-drop is essentially the effect of gravity on the fired bullet).

The US army uses its own custom-built game, America’s Army, to teach players how to work as a squad, how different pieces of equipment (from firearms to vehicles) actually work, and (most importantly) how to sign up and join the real army.

But beyond the theoretical or ideological, to teach a practical, physical, applicable skill with a videogame you would need a practical, applicable, synecdochic controller - a mechanical device which acts functionally similar to the real-world counterpart.

Considering that so few violent videogames use light guns (never mind the fact that not all “violent” videogames even depict shooting), it’s quite a stretch to say Whitaker and Bushman’s study proves any connection with violent videogames in general and firearm efficiency.

At worst, the accompanying press release – unlikely to have been written by the study’s authors – was a malicious attempt to grab some easy attention by hinting at a fraudulent but popular connection between violent videogames and gun crimes. At best, the study comes across as a lazy simplification of what videogames do, with little interrogation of how they actually function.

I personally suspect the latter and members of the videogames industry are deserving of at least some of the blame for such a persistently inaccurate depiction. After all, with the way videogames are depicted on television and in films, someone who does not engage with the culture could easily be forgiven for thinking that the vast majority of violent videogames put “real” guns into players hands.

Take this particularly absurd example (see video below) from the fourth season of AMC’s Breaking Bad. Id’s software’s game Rage for the Microsoft Xbox 360 is depicted multiple times throughout the season in what is almost certainly an intentional product placement campaign.

At one point, the character Jesse is shown playing the game, standing in his lounge room with a light gun, blasting mutants and having flashbacks from a real-life gun crime he committed, unable to differentiate the two.

The thing is, Rage doesn’t use a light gun. At all. There is no version of the game that does. At some point, Microsoft, Id Software, or the game’s publisher, Bethesda, must have OK-ed this scene, knowing Rage would be depicted as using a light gun even though it only ever uses a typical controller. Worse is the fact the scene would claim the player, Jesse, couldn’t differentiate between shooting mutants and actual people.

It’s obvious why the show wanted a light-gun version of Rage – Jesse sitting on his couch with a controller would be far less involving, far less emotive. The viewers want to see Jesse actually doing what he is doing in the game.

But still, when a videogame company apparently agrees to have its game misrepresented as something done with real guns by meth addicts who can’t differentiate gameplay from gun crime, who can blame the mass media or the psychological studies? The videogame industry and culture shoots itself in the foot. Or, perhaps more appropriately, the head.

Which brings us back to the one interesting (and perhaps chilling) finding the study in Communication Research does make. Not only were those subjects that used a light gun more accurate than those that used a traditional controller, those that played Resident Evil 4 (either with a light gun or with a traditional controller) were more likely to shoot at a mannequin’s head than anywhere else on the body. This seems to suggest that the game’s temperament of rewarding headshots influenced which part of the mannequin subjects subsequently aimed at.

It’s true, as the study notes, that many shooting games do reward the player for aiming at the head. Sometimes this reward is intrinsic: maybe enemies die quicker from headshots (thus allowing a player to conserve ammunition) or maybe their heads explode in a visually satisfying way.

But headshots also often result in extra in-game points or medals. The 2010 entry in the Medal of Honor series, for instance, while attempting to treat (western) soldiers with respect and sobriety (the movie opens with the sombre “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old” verse from Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen”), it rewards players with a medal every time they shoot an enemy in the head.

It’s a weird, jarring design choice which only seems to be there because videogames need to acknowledge headshots.

Perhaps the proliferation and glorification of headshots in videogames can be situated in a much broader media context, where films, television series, and novels have all romanticised and glorified firearm accuracy generally and headshots specifically.

Many action films, such as Bad Boys II (warning: graphic video), end with the good guys dramatically and stylishly ending the bad guy with a headshot, while the depiction of Legolas’s accuracy with his bow in Lord of the Rings is treated as nothing less than poetry. It speaks to both the majestic, superhuman aim of the shooter and the utterly conclusive death of the victim.

Whitaker and Bushman’s study certainly seems to show that players took their motivation to aim for the head from the videogame to the shooting range. Still, I am not convinced this proves what part of the body these subjects would aim at if confronted with a situation where they had to shoot at a real human. Perhaps they saw the shooting range as just another (non-digital) game with humanoid targets.

After all, if a shooting range has human-shaped targets, it’s not uncommon for those targets to have bullseyes on the forehead. It’s unfortunate the study’s authors didn’t also get subjects to practise at the shooting gallery for 20 minutes, too, to compare this with the subjects’ skill transferal from playing videogames.

My issue with the article (and even more so its accompanying press release) is its unethical presentation, its seeming eagerness to hide its actual findings beneath a rhetorical perspective that reaffirms and strengthens the inaccurate and simplistic view the mass media loves to perpetuate that videogames are evil murder simulators.

As the writers themselves admit, hidden right down the bottom of their conclusion like a murmured confession, the findings of the study do not in any way show any connection between the playing of violent videogames and a likelihood of committing gun crimes or any other violent act:

“Playing the violent shooting game facilitated the learning of shooting behavior but does not necessarily make it more likely that the player would actually fire a real gun.”

They merely show practising with a replicated gun might improve a subject’s accuracy if the situation arose where they had to fire a real gun. But this is a conclusion far removed from the flamboyant press release’s call to “deadly shooters” or the fictional gamer’s cry of “Boom, headshot!” that crowns the article’s title.

Understanding how players engage with videogames and violence that is simultaneously depicted and enacted is a crucial avenue of enquiry. But videogames are complicated things. No less than films. No less than novels. No less than any other form of media people engage with.

It’s about time researchers acknowledged this instead of seeking easy, linear and lazy cause-and-effect models that insult the multitudes of people that play videogames.

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