A short comment on computer games, violent and otherwise

She’d got Gawain on to the military campaigns of General Tacticus, which were suitably bloodthirsty but, more importantly, considered too difficult for a child. As a result his vocabulary was doubling every week and he could already use words like “disemboweled” in everyday conversation.
“Hogfather” by Terry Pratchett

A few days ago, I listened to a presentation about ‘violent’ computer games. What I gathered from this presentation was that short priming effects exist. Play a ‘violent’ computer game and you act more aggressively afterwards. But these effects last only for a short while — about fifteen minutes.

Other findings weren’t that impressive either. Many of the effects are temporary. Some of the dependent measures look to me more like manipulation checks than actual measures for aggressiveness or violence. Some of the actions of the participants classified as “more violent” were actually rational choices in that situaton.

Talking about the presentation afterwards, one comment I heard was that it’s the violence that makes these effects ‘sexy’. Otherwise you’d say: Yup, short term priming effects, so what?

But with aggressiveness or ‘violence’, it’s different. It’s sexy, it attracts attention, it gets used. I’m critical of this kind of research — and using it to condemn ‘violent’ computer games.

Unfortunately, that happens a lot. At least in Germany, whenever there’s a discussion about ‘violent’ computer games in the media, most of the people who talk about it aren’t scientists — no matter their backgrounds. They are lobbyist, and worse: populists. They sense the tendency to see ‘violent’ computer games as bad and they use that prevalent attitude to push their agenda.

And it’s one thing to push an agenda, e.g., for all-day school and extensive sports programs (so boys learn to be ‘a man’), but quite another to try to argue with research that does not support their views.

Even worse, condemning ‘violent’ computer games might be more detrimental to children than these games ever could.

Because let’s face it, for many children school is hell (and sports is that very special place). If not all the time, then at least part of the time. And the way children are infantilized, and teenagers are treated like children, does its part too.

But in games, and especially computer games, the players can achieve an autonomy, competence and relatedness that is hard to achieve at that time in their life. And autonomy, competence and relatedness are important determinants of motivation (cf. Deci and Ryan, self-determination theory).

After all, even ‘violent’ computer games where players kill thousands of people (or aliens, or zombies, etc), allow the player to feel an autonomy, competence, and relatedness that might otherwise be missing in their lives. They decide what to do and when to do it (autonomy). In playing the game multiple times they learn and improve, they develop skills and achieve mastery (competence(*)). And even if they aren’t playing with or against other human players, the story and gameplay let’s them experience a relatedness to the (virtual) characters who depend on the player.

Where else do many children and teenagers have that kind of autonomy? But sure, isn’t the price to high if they kill and dismember virtual characters? Couldn’t they play something less ‘violent’?

Actually, I don’t think so. People are getting shot or dismembered, so that game is seen as ‘violent’. But that’s a very superficial view. Frankly, the most brutal game I ever played was “The Sims” — probably considered by many as a model of a ‘nice’ game. But you could immure people, watch them panic, wet themselves, and then die of starvation. The only other game that came close to this level of brutality was “The Walking Dead” (iOS), when the choice was to hack someone’s leg off or let him be eaten by Zombies. I think if there’s a problematic effect of any computer game, it happens in the interaction between the player and the game. It depends on why the player plays this game. The motivation. What the player imagines while playing. The most cooperative and nice game can be used in a violent way — just lose deliberately.

But in many ‘violent’ games, even if characters are dying, it’s actually a game of skill — and it is played that way. Tactic, good reactions and control counts. The more competent player wins, not the one who is most violent. Charging into a room and violently hacking on anything that moves is a quick way to get killed. In ‘violent’ games, death is just a way to quickly and easily convey importance and punish sloppy playing.

What’s more, many games offer good story lines with moral choices the player has to face. And they let players experience the consequences of these choices. For example, in an rather old game, making the decision to either help or extinguish an intelligent new race of lizard people (Fallout 2). A race that could one day crowd out the human race, so stopping them might be a good idea. But doing it would essentially be genocide. What’s the right thing to do? Or whether to rewrite a large group of artificial intelligences to make them agree with another, more friendly fraction (Mass Effect 2). It would keep those artificial intelligences ‘alive’, but it would strip them of their freedom to decide for themselves and essentially brainwash them. Better to kill thousands of sentient beings or take their freedom without them knowing it?

Too tough for children or teenagers? Perhaps. And perhaps even for adults. Because perhaps there are not right answers to these questions. But why protect children from these questions? Or from the virtual violence? Complex yes. Brutal yes. But compared to the reality? The reality they see on the news and witness in conversations?

Even more, I think the issue goes beyond what are children/teenagers confronted with. I think the questions are whether we trust children’s/teenagers’ ability to handle it, and parents’ ability to guide if necessary.

I think that’s the real issue when it comes to so-called violent computer games. Whether it’s the violence on screen or the tough choices, apparently the view is still that parents are useless and children/teenagers are passive vehicles that cannot adapt, cannot stop for a while, cannot cope, and cannot learn to deal with it and grow. It’s akin to an old view of learning where learners were passive vehicles that just reacted to what was presented to them.

And yes, for some children/teenagers ‘violent’ computer games will be a problem. There will always be problem cases. People who would have tried to walk on water if they had read the bible. People who lose contact with reality and play in a way not intended by any game developer. And we should look closely at these people to find out why they react this way, how to identify them, and how to stop them losing contact with reality.

But this is a tiny, tiny minority.

As one colleague said, if most of children and teenagers play computer games, and a lot of these games are ‘violent’ games, then it’s reasonable to conclude that many children/teenagers cope very well. If ‘violent’ computer games really had a large effect, the streets would look differently. (Sure, we don’t know if the ‘violent’ games are equally distributed across all players, but let’s assume that many play at least a handful of so-called violent computer games. Strangely enough, it’s not “Lord of the Flies” out there.)

But unfortunately, parts of our society seem to be looking for the lowest common denominator and try to hide these games from children and teenagers. Computer games, esp. ‘violent’ ones, are a nice scapegoat (now that horror videos are passe and we actually want children to read books). While I like children’s/teenager’s chances to bypass these restrictions, it adds additional, unnecessary pressure.

If I were a child/teenager today(**), I would play these ‘violent’ computer games as well. Not only because I would love to play interesting story lines and deal with complex moral dilemma. But also, because I would likely need the autonomy, competence and relatedness games provide. Need it to — literally — survive as a child/teenager.

And actually, I did need it. The games I played as a child/teenager were simpler (Commando Libya, Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, etc.), but they were considered ‘violent’ at the time.

Looking back, the really damaging things in these years were not computer games. They were things that happened in school. And while computer games probably aren’t a solution(***), I think they are a good crutch until children/teenagers can experience the autonomy, competence and relatedness that games can provide in real life.

If thousands and thousands of virtual characters have to die for it, I’m fine with it.

(*) Nicely put on the last page of “All You Need Is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. While being predictable and violating the limited perspective of the characters to do an omniscient explanation of the invasion (meh!), it’s an interesting short sci-fi book (okay, I think it would take far more than the 170+ loops to reach that level of mastery).

(**) Sure, I’m not a child/teenager. And although I’m in my thirties like the ‘average’ gamer, I rarely play computer games these days. Okay, last year, “XCOM” took a few weeks out of my life, and “Neverwinter Nights 2” is still a time sink whenever I copy it back onto my computer. And after watching a couple of walkthroughs of the Mass Effect series, I strongly consider buying an old Playstation 3 to play it myself. But currently, programming is my computer game. I’m an amateur in programming. My background is in psychology (esp. mobile media, critical thinking, and reflection) and that gives me an interesting perspective when it comes to developing iOS apps. But while programming is a hobby at the moment, it provides me with — for me — tough challenges that are fun to solve. And with products I can use. Currently better — for me — than any game. Okay, almost any game.

(***) Not so sure what happens when the implementations of serious games and gamification become better. That would open up interesting avenues to provide life with more autonomy, competence and relatedness.

1 Comment

  1. Violence in video games is a hot topic and not as much for adults as for children and adolescent. While a grown up individual can easily differentiate between reality and fiction and should have basic anger management skills, same is not valid for teenagers. Obviously access to such content should be controlled, and this is not because necessarily the games will make our children violent, there are many aspects, starting from anger and fear and going through the child simply getting used to see something it shouldn’t be used to.

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