Monkey See, Monkey Do: Videogames and Violent Behaviour

Chaos Reigns

As certain media outlets struggle to wrap their heads around the fact that Anders Behring Breivik, the murderous Norwegian responsible for perpetrating his country’s worst atrocity since World War II, is not, in fact, an al-Qaeda jihadist – a “bad guy” – and is instead a deluded, home-grown proponent of the virtues of medieval Christendom, scapegoats will inevitably have their udders milked dry to stave off accepting the revelation that Western culture is capable of inflicting acts of terrorism on itself.

To dwell on Breivik's gaming habits is to completely miss the point.

With the murderer confessing his crimes and motivations in a manifesto published online,  imagine my surprise when I stumbled across this article. In this sensationalist, almost nonsensical tirade, the author attempts to link the atrocity to Dragon Age II, a connection that smacks of simplistic conspiracy theory.  The Telegraph also jumped on the rickety and curiously smelling bandwagon, citing Breivik’s fondness for Modern Warfare 2, a game he claims he used as a combat simulator. Begin shock/horror. For anyone who has played even a few minutes of any Call of Duty game, it should be abundantly clear that realism is not the over-the-top franchise’s forté. The press of a controller’s plastic shoulder button does not equate to maintaining, handling, loading or firing a real weapon, and that in itself should render any argument of the game being an academic portrayal of combat moot. Modern Warfare 2 is a violent game; it only makes sense that violent people be attracted to violent things.

Let’s be clear here: Breivik is a psychopath. The horrendous killing spree he perpetrated is absolutely unjustifiable and crushingly tragic. It was an attack stemmed from a malicious mind incapable of empathy, one riven with deeply complex insecurities, phobias and prejudices, but one masked by a cool, friendly exterior. For news outlets with a sizeable and no doubt impressionable readership, the “burn the witch” attitude towards violent videogames will inspire a legion of hyper-anxious parents to tut and tsk in agreement, while eyeing their young child blasting away at aliens on that darned “games machine” (just a toy, of course, where age restrictions are of no importance), not really knowing if it is affecting them, but believing so. Instead of clearing the air for those concerned or unsure of the effects of violent videogames, these outlets have chosen to be vague, and it is precisely because of this misinformation that the industry was faced with the Brown vs EMA lawsuit, which thankfully ruled in gaming’s favour.

“A Dark, Dangerous Place”

Of course, the two articles above are nothing new. What about the Columbine Massacre, where Quake and Doom were pounced upon as the real instigators of a rampage that left twelve dead and twenty-one injured? Or the case of Briton Warren Leblanc murdering a teenager with a clawhammer having supposedly been obsessed with Manhunt, despite the fact he did not possess the game? Recently, Modern Warfare 2’s infamous “No Russian” mission – which involves the player’s character unwillingly massacring an airport to maintain his cover in an ultranationalist terrorist cell – has been targeted by rightist commentators after a recent shooting in a shopping mall in the Netherlands and, perhaps most shockingly, the Domodevo airport bombing by Islamist Chechens in Moscow earlier this year.

(Just what is it with Modern Warfare 2?)

Won't you think of the children, Rockstar?! Oh, wait. An adult's game. Got it.

This simplistic and, frankly, insulting blame-shifting will continue so long as mainstream journalism continues to disregard facts and view videogaming solely as the past-time of moody, impressionable teenage boys sat alone in darkened bedrooms.

Unfortunately, it appears to be a generational thing. The greying men and women in the editorial offices of some of the world’s most influential newspapers and news channels have most likely never played videogames, do not understand them and do not desire to. To them and, quite clearly, to a great deal of their similarly-brained readers and viewers, it is an unfamiliar, pointless time sink, characterised by machine guns, gore and balloon-breasted heroines engineered to appeal to rebellious adolescents, and as long as that attitude prevails, hyperbolic headlines will sell. As this generation grows up with videogames constituting the most profitable entertainment industry on the planet, the situation will conceivably change until blaming videogames for real-life violence is as unfashionable as blaming rock and roll music and video nasties is today.

Alas, we’ve still got a bit of waiting to do.


So, what are the facts? Will playing a violent game really drive you to crime or desensitise you enough to consider murder? Will shooting your way through a frantic deathmatch with friends compel you to kill as if you were under the pendulum of a hypnotist? The answer is no, absolutely not. To paraphrase Morbo, “VIDEOGAMES DO NOT WORK THAT WAY.”  However, many psychologists and sociologists would share their doubts, and for every study demonstrating an absence of negative effects on the human mind, others will bluntly state the contrary, and it is these which tend to garner media interest. The world of the empirical intelligentsia is often not a blinding beacon of uniformly accepted truths and enlightenment: objectivity in research is challenging to attain, as researchers bring their own agendas and prejudices to the worktable subconsciously. Confirmation bias – which is not a rarity – brings about the skewing of evidence to fit a hypothesis. Knowing anything, especially in the psychological and sociological realms, can be difficult.

A trio of researchers undertook a study on the experts involved in the Brown vs EMA case. Of the 115 signers of the Gruel brief (those who believed videogame violence is harmful), 37% had published work on media-influenced violence in comparison to only 13% of the 85 Millett brief signers (those who believed videogame violence is not harmful). On top of that, signers of the Gruel brief had published their work (not exclusively on media violence) in top-tier journals 48 times more than the Millett brief signers.

Does that mean the signers of the Gruel brief were right and videogames are harmful? No, it doesn’t mean anything of the sort. All it says is that they’ve published more work in a prestigious journal than the signers of the Millett brief. Neither’s work is undermined in any way. Rather, the very existence of this study suggests a sort of unsubtle elitism and favouritism in the peer-review system, a latent bias. Equally, that is not to say that top-tier journals are inherently crooked or untrustworthy. The default mindset in approaching such a delicate matter should be scepticism so that evidence can be weighed up freely before conviction. Common sense can be the most valuable tool.

"Remember, we're not a socially accepted art form yet."

What are these people saying, then? Do videogames make us aggressive? Are younglings most at risk? Many papers argue that interacting with scenes of graphical violence increases and encourages aggression. One study asked a group of subjects to play a violent videogame for 20 minutes and another group a non-violent one; half were told ruminate on their games for 24 hours. Those who had pondered strats and uber-micro for their next violent gaming session tested more aggressive than those who did not. Women proved non-aggressive regardless of whether they had ruminated on a violent game. The researchers, as a sidenote, added: “[It is] reasonable to assume that our lab results will generalize to the ‘real world.’ Violent gamers usually play longer than 20 minutes, and probably ruminate about their game play in a habitual manner.”

So, with that said, does that mean gamers are actually aggressive during and after play of violent games? It’s possible, if you go by this study alone. Of course, the researchers have left things rather vague. The concluding unscientific assumption takes a huge leap of faith in “assuming” that lab results will be of the same potency in the outside world, wherein a large number of external factors are at work. In a sense, the very fact that women were not aggressive suggests that the reason this “aggression” was still prevalent amongst testosterone-fuelled males was because they were asked to ponder testosterone-fuelled imagery for an entire day – it seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Would they expect a group of hormonal males tasked to think about sex for 24 hours to return as celibate priests? What about a violent book or violent music? Even the wording “violent gamers” hints at a snide insinuation: why not “violent videogame players”? Indeed, another study “linked” violent videogame-inspired aggression to the rapid input of aggressive words via a keyboard. This sort of decontextualised, laboratory assessment – which treats every subject as a defenceless, sponge-like consumer, without taking into account far more profound variables – seems pointless in a grander quest for answers, and when used as ammunition against videogaming, it is simply misleading.

In 2007, the American Sociological Association (ASA) undertook a meta-analysis (basically, an analysis of lots of other analyses) of every study on the effects of videogame violence on the mind undertaken to date, a figure numbering in the hundreds. The result was that no single study – not one –  had found any direct causal evidence to suggest that videogames inspired aggressive or violent behaviour; at best, any studies that did presume a connection relied upon correlative results, in that the researchers observed that the phenomena of violent videogames (A) and aggression (B) existed together. It would be a logical fallacy to presume that because A occurs with B, A is the cause of B, much in the same way it would be wrong to infer that because someone drank chicken soup/a tot of whiskey/honey and lemon/green tea/orange juice/other-traditional-recipe for the duration of their cold, it was because of that their infection finally disappeared, not the virus simply running its course. The ASA study’s accompanying article, Do Videogames Kill?, gave a similar example, correlating an increase in homicides in the United States in the mid-twentieth century with the increase in television ownership, meanwhile overlooking deeper, structural causes, like unemployment, governmental dissatisfaction, war and the civil rights movement.

Finally, let’s consider crime: Has the rise of videogames led to an explosion of muggings, carjackings and homicide? No. A mantra often uttered by gamers is “if violent videogames caused violence, we’d all be murderers”; though inelegant, it rings true. In America, violent crime is at its lowest in decades and youth crime statistics are similar; in the UK, the rate of first offences amongst young people has generally fallen from 2001-09, but tellingly, the areas burdened with most of these first-time offences are also the poorest.  Did videogames decrease violent crime? No. That would be a purely correlative, fallacious assumption. Clearly, however, the rise of realistic violence over these years did not bring about an epidemic of bloodthirsty berserker 12-year-olds.

Clank, the loveable robot where "significant aggression" only applies because of how badly I want to hug him.

Monkey See, Monkey Not That Bloody Stupid

Unless a study conclusively proves a causal link between violent videogames and real-world violence, one that would justify the rallying call of an army of hidebound technophobes screeching “Ban these evil games!”, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that your escapist past-time is shrinking your brain into a raging husk of hateful hormones or misfiring neurons to your uncontrollable, angry caveman centre. (Of course, you already knew that.) Studies that do find increases in aggression depend on flimsy correlative links and decontextualise their subjects from the real world, disregarding wider social implications.

Another correlative study found “significant increases in aggression” in college students after playing E-rated games with mild fantasy violence. The law of common sense applies here: anyone seriously concerned by these alleged increases inspired by the likes of the cartoon capers of Ratchet and Clank or Crash Bandicoot might as well consider sealing themself in a bubble for the rest of their overly neurotic life, lest they be mauled and cannibalised by gangs of rabid, street-roaming adolescents high on Mario, or even better, caned to death by Tom and Jerry-snorting senior citizens.

If a hoodlum assaults an old woman and steals her handbag, should we look to the copy of Saint’s Row in his bedroom for motivation, or perhaps consider the fact that he lives in a tenement block with his drug-abusing, unemployed mother? If a seemingly normal young man walks armed into a school and opens fire on his fellow pupils, should we burn his and everyone else’s copy of Black Ops, or assess his mental health, his problems with bullying and his relationship with his parents?

Unfortunately, we seem to prefer to do the former in each of these circumstances, citing the superficial as reasoning for the immensely complex. It’s not healthy, either. Serious issues, like bullying, domestic abuse and mental health, are understated when they should be of paramount concern. Instead, the public erroneously chases after the bogeyman, the videogame, claiming he is the source of our woes, claiming he is the one that drives our youth to reclusiveness, aggression, violence and crime, when all he wants to do is build a ranch in Montana.

Exonerated by the scales and the hammer of law, the analysis of science and, perhaps most importantly of all, the rational common sense that we all possess, it is fair to say that the videogame’s +500 Armour of Incredible Resilience is still intact. Until this armour is broken by the Spell of Definitive Proof, I think it’s about time the anti-videogame mob put down their torches and pitchforks and enjoyed a sporting game of Team Fortress 2 with their friends and a round of Wii Sports Resort with the kids.

– – –

Update, 30 July 2011: In the wake of Breivik’s attacks, retailer Coop Norway has removed 51 game titles from its stores, including Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops, Homefront, Sniper: Ghost Warrior and Counter-Strike: Source.

3 Responses to “Monkey See, Monkey Do: Videogames and Violent Behaviour”
  1. Chad M. says:

    I considered writing an article on this subject but I doubted I could have handled it tastefully (and certainly not as soundly or elegantly as you’ve managed). Good job!

  2. Michael Enger says:

    The studies done are always trying to find a link between violent video games and aggression, which is something I find a bit confusing. Of course violent video games lead to aggression, but only while you’re playing it. When I’m facing a hallway of enemies in Counter-Strike and the rest of my team is dead you can be sure that testosterone and adrenalin are pumping through my veins; it’s why I play action games in the first place. But I see no credence to the claim that the learned/controlled behavior of aggression I exhibit when playing a game wherein quick reflexes are rewarded is somehow transferred to other areas of my life. I probably have a faster reaction time than a non-gamer and perhaps my problem solving skills and attentiveness is improved, but this is not the same as me wanting to shoot everyone around me.
    Searching for a correlation between violent video games and aggression to then turn around and claim that this is evidence of a systemic problem seems to me as a completely brain dead approach to the issue and, at worst, done with ulterior motives. I’m aggressive when I play violent video games, that’s how you get good at them, but when the game is turned off the only thing I take away from it is a greater ability to recognize and react to dangers, if even that.

  3. Gregg B says:

    I’ve nothing to add but fantastic piece Declan.

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