With every school shooting, or other disturbing youth crime, the link between fantasy and real-world violence becomes the subject of heated debate.
When assessing human aggression, there are a variety of factors which need to be considered; and there is growing concern that these factors go unnoticed while youth culture, music and film are scapegoated. It’s time to turn the conversation to how and why the behaviours which lead to tragic events like Columbine or Parkland actually occur. What are the root causes of youth aggression, displacement and mental illness, and how can society aid in directing struggling individuals away from criminal behaviour?
There are numerous studies which dispute the claim that video games cause violence. In 2013, over 200 scholars of different fields like psychology and criminology signed an open letter to the American Psychiatric Association after it claimed, “research demonstrates a consistent correlation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behaviour.” The group of academics, which included professors from Harvard and Cambridge Universities, felt the APA’s statement “delineated several strong conclusions on the basis of inconsistent or weak evidence.”
A series of experiments was conducted by researchers from the University of York on over 3,000 subjects. The 2018 studies “found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.”
In 2019, Professor Andrew Przybylski published a further study in the Royal Society Open Science saying, “there are a lot of things that feed into aggression [but] video game play didn’t really seem to matter here.” Prof. Przybylski emphasised the need to focus on other factors like “frustrations [and] family life or circumstances,” in identifying causes of aggressive behaviour.
Psychologist Christopher J Ferguson also writes, “despite decades of research, no scholarly consensus has been achieved regarding the potential impact of video games on youth aggression.” Scientific evidence to the contrary is often weak and has been repeatedly dismissed by reputable researchers and institutions.
Despite the evidence, there are those who believe strongly in the negative impact of violent video games on anger and hostility in children. Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia claimed in 2005 to have found that video games create an urge in children to punish others and emphasise a need for conflict, contributing to a greater likelihood of bullying between children.
There are also crimes on record which are said to have been directly influenced by games like Grand Theft Auto and Doom – which gained attention as a favourite of Columbine’s Eric Harris. The 1999 massacre itself even sparked a controversial independent game release in the form of 2005’s ‘Super Columbine Massacre RPG’. The game was later said to be a leading influence in the 2006 Dawson College shooting.
Since the 1990s, however, as video game sales have increased, youth crime statistics have simultaneously decreased. Rather than causing trouble on the streets, kids are now preferring to stay indoors for an online or multiplayer match with friends.
For many players, gaming acts as a release, not a motive. Immersing into a different world can actually be beneficial to those struggling with mental health issues, offering a temporary escape from reality in much the same way as a good book or TV series might. Video games can be a helpful way to cope with difficult emotions, and act as a safe coping mechanism to those who may be struggling with behavioural issues.
There are, in fact, great advantages to video game play, even in those which expose players to graphic violence. Despite previously concluding that video games were a factor in aggressive behaviour, a more recent study by Iowa State University found that there were ‘prosocial’ benefits to playing games such as engagement by children in more cooperative and empathetic behaviours. Other research has found that video games can improve vision, reactions and can even correct problems with dyslexia.
Many games, particularly when played online, focus heavily on team concepts which can be useful in a variety of areas like building communication skills, strategic thinking and problem solving. Gaming, therefore, can prove particularly beneficial to those struggling with depressive conditions or social anxiety.
The notion that video games cause aggression entirely ignores the fact that gamers are able to tell the implications of real-world violence against fantasy violence. Research demonstrates that direct participation in immoral acts within games can induce feelings of guilt and remorse. Many games involve difficult moral choices with varying results, and a plethora of well-developed, fan-favourite characters to whom players develop legitimate attachments.
With such evidence to suggest that video games can improve cognitive and behavioural function, it is delusional to claim that gamers are ignorant or stupid enough not to realise the consequences of violent conduct. As children, we encounter fantasy violence all the time: in fairytales, nursery rhymes and film franchises like Harry Potter or the MCU.
In the US alone, 97% of 12-17 year olds play video games. To suggest that those children will be inclined to depraved and dangerous behavioural issues on the basis that they are desensitised by fantasy violence is baseless and wrong. Historically, children have been forcibly desensitised by real-life acts of brutality against themselves and others. It is hardly fair, therefore, to conflate blowing things up in a video game with exposure to real, inescapable physical violence.
Humanity has always required a scapegoat to avoid getting to the core of a particular issue. Once upon a time the entirety of the Jewish population was cited as the cause of an ailing Germany’s wartime failures. In the mid-twentieth century, comic books and their authors concerned a generation of parents who feared the negative impact on their children’s behaviour and youth criminality. Formed in 1985, the Parents Music Resource Centre aimed to increase parental control of children’s access to music, gripped by the fear that violent or sexual themes were influencing youth to partake in blood rituals, Satanism and gang culture.
“In a world with major pollution and guns ablaze,” said John Lyndon of the Sex Pistols, “they have to pick on someone using foul language.”
People will always create a culprit in order to escape open-mindedness when confronting societal issues. It is far easier to blame digital violence for an onslaught of armed criminals and displaced youth than it is to engage with a generation about what makes them tick or how to alleviate their frustrations. The discussion on the link between video games and violence serves only to harm the reputations of those who continue to preach the message, and does nothing to decipher what triggers the aggressive behaviours leading to the horrific tragedies unfolding before our eyes.