Video Games

Killing Pixels Is No More a Cause of Crime Than Reading Comics Turned Out to Be


Makes you want to kill? Really?

Our self-appointed betters have always deplored the corrupting influences of popular entertainment. For example, penny dreadfuls "were alleged to have encouraged anti-social attitudes and criminal behavior in the young during the last quarter of the nineteenth century." In his 1936 encyclical "On the Motion Picture," Pope Pius XI warned that the more popular the motion picture had become, "the more pernicious and deadly has it shown itself to morality and to religion and even to the very decencies of human society." In 1954, the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency held hearings on the the influence of comics on rising teenage crime. And let's not forget FCC chairman Newton Minow's 1961 critique of television as a "vast wasteland" where viewers are subjected to a "procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons." The claque of moralizing scolds now wants to ban violent video games.

In his take-down of New York Times columnist Joe Nocera's silly anti-videogame op-ed, my Reason colleague Scott Shackford points out that banning videogames to prevent violence makes as much sense as trying to prevent troubled employees from "going postal" by making it illegal to fire such people.

Instead of relying on folk epidemiological insights of parents, Nocera might have chosen to bloviate on another topic had he had read the article, "Shooting in the Dark," in today's edition of his own paper. That article reviews some of the recent research that finds that playing violent video games at least temporarily ramps up mild aggression in players. But does playing such games produce any detectable effects on society at large? Not really. As the Times article acknowledges:

The proliferation of violent video games has not coincided with spikes in youth violent crime. The number of violent youth offenders fell by more than half between 1994 and 2010, to 224 per 100,000 population, according to government statistics, while video game sales have more than doubled since 1996.

Even more tellingly, the Times article cites recent research by University of Texas, Arlington economist Dr. Michael Ward and his colleagues that finds that spikes in the sales of violent video games coincide the declines in youth crime and violence: 

"We found that higher rates of violent video game sales related to a decrease in crimes, and especially violent crimes," said Dr. Ward, whose co-authors were A. Scott Cunningham of Baylor University and Benjamin Engelstätter of the Center for European Economic Research in Mannheim, Germany.

No one knows for sure what these findings mean. It may be that playing video games for hours every day keeps people off the streets who would otherwise be getting into trouble. It could be that the games provide "an outlet" that satisfies violent urges in some players — a theory that many psychologists dismiss but that many players believe.

And why do "many psychologists dismiss" the theory that practicing fake violence may reduce the tendency to engage in real violence? Are there any data to contradict it? Not really, but once again our betters like Nocera just know better.

I suspect that the anti-video game researchers are largely succumbing to their confirmation biases. They should heed the advice offered by New York University sociologist Frederic Thrasher in his testimony at the Senate comic book hearings from way back in 1954:

"Expert students of mankind have always tried to explain human behavior in terms of their own specialities. This is particularly true in the field of adult and juvenile delinquency, where anthropologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists have been guilty of a long series of erroneous attempts to attribute crime and delinquency to some one human trait or environmental condition. These monistic theories of delinquency causation illustrate a particularistic fallacy which stems from professional bias or a lack of scientific logic and research, or both.

Most recent error of this type is that if psychiatrist Fredric Wertham who claims in effect that the comics are an important factor in causing juvenile delinquency. This extreme position which is not substantiated by any valid research, is not only  contrary to considerable current psychiatric thinking, but also disregards tested  research procedures which have discredited numerous previous monistic theories  of delinquency causation. Wertham's dark picture of the influence of comics is more forensic than it is scientific and illustrates a dangerous habit of projecting our social frustrations upon some speciflc trait of our culture, which becomes a sort of "whipping boy" for our failure to control the whole gamut of social breakdown."

Killing pixels is no more a cause of juvenile crime than reading comics turned out to be.

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  1. I’m having flashbacks to the insane heavy metal Congressional hearings. At least Dee Snyder kicked ass and took names back then. It was almost as good as watching that chick who was a victim in the Luby’s shooting in Texas rip Chuck Schumer a new asshole during the last round of gun control hearings.

  2. How about we ban intramural sports. How many soccer moms and hockey dads have either threatened or attacked coaches. How many parents have encouraged their kids to beat up someone on the opposing team?

    1. Just ban mini-vans, that should do the trick.

  3. Ron, everyone knows that we were a peaceful society until violent media came along. Before movies, comics, and video games, people were always nice and happy and never did anything to hurt one another! It was all sunshine and rainbows. But them violent movies, comics, and video games came out and now we’re all murdering each other. Kids are having to dodge bullets every day, and blood is flowing in the streets because of those evil weapons of mass destruction called movies, comics, and video games… and here you are defending them. THINK OF THE CHILDREN, YOU COLD HEARTED MAN!

    1. The Barbarian hordes and the Monguls who were responsible for all the carnage over wide swaths of Europe and Asia, centuries ago, were only violent because aliens were supplying them with PCs and violent video games.

      Historians have been involved in a vast conspiracy to cover this up, for decades now.

      1. “Tonight on H2: Ancient Aliens at the first Thanksgiving Mongol invasion of China!”

        1. Darn. I thought it was the follow-up about how the Minoans stole all of the copper from the Michigan U.P., 5000 years ago, and that is the real story of why Detroit is broke now.

          1. You have to admit the Minoans had awesome fashion sense though.

  4. The idea that fiction or entertainment or rhetoric drives people to kill is just part of the gross overestimation of importance that journalists place on themselves. They’d give their eye teeth to write something that anyone cared enough about for it to drive them to kill.

    1. I’d agree with you, Suge, except that there is one thing they could write that would drive people to kill, and that’s mockery of Islam.

      And they’re too gutless to do that.

      1. Nothing is served if they are the one that gets killed. It’d ego that drives them, not artistic martyrdom.

        1. Got it. They want the twisted ego buzz of provoking someone to kill somebody else.

  5. This morning, before work, I killed three Deathclaws.

    Once at work, this probably saved a couple of jackasses from the beatings they so richly deserved.

    Also – I blame video games for the lower teen pregnancy rate. Who wants to bang some whiney chick when they can shoot stuff. Not teen boys apparently.

  6. Obama kills with robots, what games does he play?

    1. He’s a luddite, the guy who puts the mouse under his desk and wonders why the foot pedal isn’t working like it should be.

      And honestly, he doesn’t seem like the kind of person with enough intellectual curiosity to even want to look at a game.

      He probably spends most of his free time looking in the mirror with his nose up in the air, wondering what the next magazine cover will look like.

    2. The deadliest?

    3. I don’t think he does anything he thinks he has a chance of not winning at. I would like to imagine this severely limits his activities, but I’m sure he surrounds himself with enough sycophants that let him win all the time.

      1. but I’m sure he surrounds himself with enough sycophants that let him win all the time.

        Do you know who else…

        1. Warty? SugarFree?

  7. Why are they on video games again? That already belongs to the late 90s and early 2000s. Sane people would think better than touching the tardedness of that again.

    New music is definitely not living up to the “edginess” of decades ago so I guess they need something.

    1. Why are they on video games again?

      Something about dogs and vomit comes to mind.

  8. Why are they on video games again?

    They are running out of stuff to ban. They have to recycle now.

  9. Here’s another link to Pius XI’s movie encyclical from 1936, courtesy of the Vatican (which also has Latin and Italian translations):…..ra_en.html

    It devotes a lot of attention to the U.S., mentioning the Hays Code and praising the Legion of Decency, which is credited with raising the moral tone of American movies. Pius said that movies remained good despite all the moral uplift, and since this era is considered part of the Golden Age of Hollywood, he may have been right:

    “Although in certain quarters it was predicted that the artistic values of the motion picture would be seriously impaired by the reform insisted upon by the “Legion of Decency,” it appears that quite the contrary has happened and that the “Legion of Decency” has given no little impetus to the efforts to advance the cinema on the road to noble artistic significance by directing it towards the production of classic masterpieces as well as of original creations of uncommon worth.

    “Nor have the financial investments of the industry suffered, as was gratuitously foretold, for many of those who stayed away from the motion picture theatre because it outraged morality are patronizing it now that they are able to enjoy clean films which are not offensive to good morals or dangerous to Christian virtue.”

    1. Also note the praise for the improvement in the movie biz:

      “Because of your vigilance and because of the pressure which has been brought to bear by public opinion, the motion picture has shown an improvement from the moral standpoint: crime and vice are portrayed less frequently; sin is no longer so openly approved and acclaimed; false ideals of life are no longer presented in so flagrant a manner to the impressionable minds of youth.”

      So it would be misleading to say that he was simply ranting against the movies of his time, predicting horrible results which didn’t transpire. He was saying that movies had gotten *better* and more morally uplifting (without sacrificing quality). Who knows what he’d say today.

  10. “And let’s not forget FCC chairman Newton Minow…”

    Anyone seriously named “Newton Minow” should be forgotten as soon as possible.

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