Some of us thought the debate about whether or not violent video games caused real-world violence was over. It's a subject that rears its ugly head periodically every few years or so, the way it did for heavy metal music in the ‘80s or rap in the ‘90s. Most of the time, the debate dies down as player after player speaks out about how they play Call of Duty or Overwatch or Duck Hunter (if you’re old enough to remember that one) and how it didn’t make them violent. This time, it might not die down as easily.
Mass shootings have been an epidemic for years now, but the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida seems to have made the country turn a corner. Whatever side you’re on in this debate, we can all agree that this time feels different. Students are marching and speaking out. Advertising has been affected. So, what does that mean for first-person shooters?
One of the things I wanted to ask experts in the field was about why we feel drawn to weapons as a culture. I’ve gone to a shooting range myself, and I've taken sword-fighting classes just to have the experience. I was curious about why we feel the need to do so when most of us would never use them to harm anyone in real life. When I recently moderated a WonderCon panel about the science of the HBO series Westworld, weapons expert and trainer Steven Huff discussed the "inner warrior calling" of our draw to weapons, whether it’s learning to use them or playing with them in video games:
“Just as there are some people who are more drawn to music, art, or whatever their passion may be, for me and for many of the people I know who are avid weapons practitioners, it is a deeply rooted drive — a calling, more or less. And when it comes to swords, I think there is also an element of the nobility of the blade — that sense of honor that is often associated with swords. It becomes a passion that is more about the perfection of skill over the ability to kill or harm the opponent.”
I asked Dr. Travis Langley, professor of psychology at Henderson State University and editor of the Psych Geeks Popular Culture Psychology series (full disclosure: I contribute to the series) about the research behind video games and whether they cause violent behavior. According to Langley: “A lot of research shows very brief, immediate increases in aggressiveness after doing things like that, but not long-term. No one has proven video games incite violence. As a matter of fact, violent crime rates tend to be lower when violent video game sales are higher. That's just a correlation, not proof, but it certainly runs contrary to the notion that the games might incite violence.”
Josué Cardona, founder of GeekTherapy.com, a site that celebrates geek culture and mental health, said, “Research doesn't seem to support that video games can make someone violent. Often, results indicating temporary rises in levels of aggression following a play session are misreported as an increase in violent behavior.”
Cardona also spoke about whether or not games like this can desensitize us to violence. “I think that a very realistic-looking and -sounding game could possibly, slightly desensitize someone to the sounds of gunfire, but not to the violence itself," he said. "Video games can't replicate the experience of being surrounded by, being witness to, or being the victim of gun violence. No matter how attached you are to NPCs or other players in the game. Even if the game had permadeath or inflicted permanent damage on characters or avatars, this would not resemble real-life violence enough to have an effect. All of the effects that make gun violence horrible are not present in video games."
In reality, there are positive uses for these games. “Digital and virtual simulations have been used as forms of exposure for the treatment of PTSD symptoms," Cardona said. "For example, to help a soldier who wants to get reacclimated with combat scenarios.”
I also spoke with Michele Morrow, the co-creator, EP, and lead actress of YouTube Red Original series Good Game. Morrow has adventured her way through the world of gaming as a TV presenter, host, VO actor, moderator and more for companies like Blizzard, ELeague, ESPN, Nerdist and SYFY, and is the founder of Under Pressure Productions. This lady knows her games. "I think society as a whole is desensitized to violence. Blaming behavior solely on video games is lazy, and always has been," Morrow said. "No video game will ever teach you how to truly shoot a gun. Water-guns and Nerf-guns have taught me far more about aim and control than a video game. Not to mention real guns have weight, recoil, deafening sound, and a sense of danger and/or respect when you're in their presence. Gamers obviously know the difference between a real life gun and an animated digital version of a gun. And if they don't know the difference, I would imagine they're also displaying behavioral issues in other areas of their life.”
My own experience is hardly research, but I love playing all sorts of violent video games. In real life, I won’t even squash a bug. I’ve covered games pretty extensively over the years, and I’ve heard story after story about how they've helped players learn to focus, fostered community with those they would never have met in real life, helped hand/eye coordination and even prompted some to join the military.
Will the deeper conversation about gun violence change the ratings system? “Just like an author cannot predict every single human who will read their book, a game publisher cannot predict every single human who will play their game," Morrow said. "That's why online games have EULA's and other disclosures and agreements that you have to make as a player. If parents do not want their children to play a particular game, they need to govern that in their own households after consulting the already established rating system, or by reading reviews and becoming familiar with gaming news sites.”
As someone who is involved in esports, Morrow told us that she doesn’t think it will affect the gaming arena. “Esports is defined by a wide array of genres, not just those that fall into the FPS category. More importantly, however, esports is a global phenomenon. So even if we are talking only about FPS esports, the political climate in America doesn't effect the unshakable fanfare behind games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.”
The other thing to consider here is feelings from game consumers. Will we see more non-shooters or different sorts of games going forward? “Game developers are always looking for ways to connect, reflect, and add commentary by infusing it into their games. They may not come to the same conclusions we all personally hold, but I do believe we're going to see many new perspectives join in," Morrow added. "Social commentary is all over gaming.”
Cardona said, “I imagine that a team considering a school shooting scenario in a video game might rethink it, either scrapping the scene or making a teacher with a gun the hero depending on where they fall on the debate. I wouldn't be surprised if, as a result of these kids fighting against gun violence, we saw some games adopting more pew-pew and less pow-pow."
Gun control is a fraught issue in this country. It can be uncomfortable to talk about, and gets people riled up on both sides. However, there are a lot of things that cause violence and blaming video games is clearly not the answer. The knee-jerk reaction to do so isn’t likely to go away, but hopefully a better understanding of the subject will help with the debate.