The debate around videogames and violence is getting seriously out of control – not least in the US. Just take this recent homepage on The Huffington Post:
Hyperbole aside, videogames are (once again) being used as a scapegoat by politicians looking for a simple answer to causes of violence. But despite how they skew research outcomes there is one undeniable fact: aggression is a normal response that is caused by many different triggers.
Jason Schreier, a writer at Kotaku, published an excellent article recently summarising what researchers have found about links between videogames, aggression and violence over the last 20 years. If you haven’t yet, I urge you to read it.
It highlights points for and against links between videogames and violence. But as with all other articles discussing the topic, it focuses on videogames and aggression – and therein lies the problem.
There’s no reason to believe the aggression videogames cause is any different or more severe than aggression from any other source.
A violent evolution
Let’s look at aggression from an evolutionary standpoint. Humans have long since responded aggressively when in competition, territorial disputes and disagreements, as doing so could provide an advantage. Throughout our development, individuals that responded aggressively in the proper contexts would have had more favourable outcomes, and therefore access to greater resources and mating opportunities.
In the same vein, one can see how too much aggression could be negative. Express this aggression at the improper time, or allow it to escalate, and you could find yourself in a potentially dire and/or life-threatening situation – clearly something natural selection would select against.
As a result of the above, individuals responding moderately and at the right times may have had the best success.
Although most individuals no longer encounter the same types of situations that require the aggressive responses of our predecessors, the physiological machinery remains and responds to situations that mimic historical confrontational challenges.
So should we be surprised that videogames can increase aggression? I don’t think so. But we should be able to scrutinise this link more closely to ask whether videogames make us more aggressive than other triggers and whether this aggression persists for longer.
Putting a finger on the trigger
Unfortunately, studies don’t often compare responses between different aggressive triggers (although the outcomes may be similar) and we don’t understand how aggression caused by videogames compares to other aggressive triggers. But we do have some insight into the duration of aggressive behaviours and thoughts after playing violent videogames.
Research suggests it can be less than ten minutes. It’s been estimated this timeframe can be increased by 24 hours if players dwell on the game: a common outcome when individuals continually reflect on what triggered the aggression in the first place.
As a result, it’s possible excessive gameplay could affect aggression over the long term. Studies looking for exactly that link do find effects of violent videogames on long-term aggressive behaviour.
But when researchers consider other social factors linked to adolescent aggression, it seems increased exposure to family violence and negative peer influences and less communication with their parents have greater effects. Violent videogames, it seems, may be an indicator, but there are clearly deeper issues at play.
Experimenting with aggression
I’d like you to imagine you’re driving your car, calmly, alone. As you’re cruising along, a car comes squealing by and cuts you off, meaning you have to swerve to avoid it as its speed away. If at that very moment you had a button in your car that would blast the driver with some of the most annoying sounds possible, would you press the button? And if so, how loud would you blast it?
This is an example of how studies examine the effect violent and non-violent videogames have on aggression. Two individuals play a game, and the loser receives an offensive noise blast. In general, studies show that individuals playing violent games tend to blast opponents with a louder noise.
There are other means to test aggression, such as word association or even hot sauce, but the point is that a pre-determined punishment is often used to assess aggression at that exact moment.
Let’s take a step back and look at this experimental design in a different light. Participants play a competitive game to determine which individual is better. Should we be surprised that individuals become aggressive in this scenario?
In many animals (humans included), winners often perform “victory displays” – a well-known behaviour used to reinforce a triumph. As the only way for opponents to communicate in the type of experiments mentioned above is through pre-determined punishments, the noise blast (or its equivalent) could perhaps be viewed as a dominance or victory display.
In such situations, does responding in an aggressive way make you a violent individual? Unlikely, as aggressive feelings will likely dissipate after time, as in the videogame study.
There are, of course, some individuals that do respond violently in certain situations. If we use driving as an example again, we’ve all heard of stories where road rage escalates into violence.
In such situations, it’s important to remember that these individuals may perceive and react to aggression differently. This doesn’t make their violent response acceptable, but does encourage us to try to understand why this variation exists. This is where it may be especially fruitful to combine evolutionary and psychological approaches that could help explain the variation in these responses.
In the same way, there may be a subset of individuals that are at a greater risk of the influence of violent video games. As videogames have many benefits, rather than demonising them, shouldn’t we use videogames to try and identify these individuals?
Unfortunately, I doubt the $10 million the US president pledged towards videogame research will examine that.
What needs to be done
The debate is already hijacked by rich, old, white politicians that are clearly misguided through outdated morals and NRA donations. But the biggest problem is the xenophobia about societal progression.
The introduction to the the book Grand Theft Childhood by Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson provides an excellent historical overview of how politicians have responded correspondingly to each introduction of new media starting from the dime novels of the late 19th century, to silent films, to movies and videogames today.
What’s needed is a lobby group as powerful as the NRA that stands up for gamers, and not the industry. Gamers make up a large proportion of today’s population and if each of them were card-carrying members of an organisation that critically and honestly examined the effects of videogames on children and adults, we might be able to have a proper discussion about their benefits and costs.
I’m sure gamers wouldn’t disagree with the idea, especially given that many of us are parents and have our own children’s safety in mind.