Video Violence = Real Violence?

Blast, bomb, and strafe in peace


"It's the worst in a series of violent and gruesome games that lower the common denominator of decency," thundered Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) last week. Schumer is apoplectic over the new video game 25 to Life. The senator wants retailers to refuse to sell it and Microsoft and Sony to cancel their licensing deals with British gaming publisher Eidos Interactive, which is issuing the game later this year. The Entertainment Software Rating Board has given 25 to Life an M rating for mature players citing the game's blood, gore, drug references, intense violence, sexual themes, and strong language. M rated games are for players who are 17 years old or older.

Of course, this is far from the first time that politicians have denounced violent video games for corrupting the youth of America. Earlier this year, the Washington D.C. city council considered legislation that would impose fines of $10,000 on retailers that sell violent games to teenagers. Politicians and parents evidently believe Plato's observation that "children cannot distinguish what is allegory and what isn't, and opinions formed at that age are usually difficult to eradicate or change; it is therefore of the utmost importance that the first stories they hear shall aim at producing the right moral effect." Or as Sen. Schumer pithily put it, "You certainly don't need a degree in criminal justice to understand that when you make sport of behavior that is dangerous and destructive you reinforce it."

Sen. Schumer and his fellow moral crusaders can point to recent research to back up their fears. In 2000, psychologists Craig Anderson and Karen Dill reported two studies of college students that found playing violent video games heightened aggression. In one study, the researchers surveyed 227 college students about their game playing habits and their aggressive behaviors. The study found that "students who reported playing more violent video games in junior and high school engaged in more aggressive behavior." A second study involving 210 students allowed them to "punish" competitors with a loud blast of noise after completing a game. Players of violent games blasted their opponents with longer and louder blasts of noise.

And now researchers are probing the brains of gamers seeking the marks left by digital savagery on their gray matter. German researcher Klaus Mathiak earlier this month reported a study in which he used magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of 13 male players while they played a game in which they rescued hostages from terrorists. He found that as violence became imminent, that emotional centers in their brains shut down while their information processing frontal lobes became more active. This pattern of brain activation and inactivation is also seen in the brains of people who are asked to imagine acts of aggression. Mathiak told New Scientist that he believes that playing video games are "training for the brain to react with this pattern."

Curiously the frontal lobes are the seat of the executive functions of our brains. They are generally involved with foresight, planning, judgment, decision-making, and monitoring and managing social relations. This leads to the counterintuitive speculation that playing violent video games seems to stimulate cold calculation rather than inflamed tempers.

Given the fact that sales of video games have more than doubled since 1996, rising to $7.3 billion last year, one might think that brain-addled gamers would soon turn our city streets into free fire zones. Not so.

First, keep in mind that video games featuring extreme violence are a relatively small part of the gaming market—83 percent of all video games are rated "E" for Everybody or "T" for Teens. Still, notoriously violent games such as Halo 2, Mortal Kombat, and the Grand Theft Auto series do sell well. But even as violent video games have proliferated, rates of violence have been ebbing in the United States. As the Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization Survey shows violent crime has been declining since 1994, reaching the lowest level recorded in 2003. In another series of data based on crimes reported to the police, violent crime peaked in 1991 at 578 violent offenses per 100,000 people, falling to 475 per 100,000 in 2003, which about the same level as in 1977.

Even fighting among teenagers is waning. The National Center for Education Statistics reports, "Between 1993 and 2003, the percentage of students who reported being in a fight anywhere declined—from 42 percent in 1993 to 33 percent in 2003. Similarly, the percentages of students who reported fighting on school property in these years declined-from 16 to 13 percent."

Of course, lone wackos with a tenuous grip on reality will doubtlessly be inspired by video mayhem to try their hands at the real thing from time to time. But if violent video games are producing hordes of kids desensitized to death and destruction, it is not at all evident in our crime statistics. Schumer and other moral nannies may not be able to distinguish real from fantasy violence, but it seems that the vast majority of joystick jockeys do not have that difficulty. While it is certainly OK to criticize their taste in entertainment, there seems to be no compelling reason why gamers should not be left in peace to blast, bomb, and strafe as many pixels as they want.