Video Games and Violence

Medal of Honor screenshot

Medal of Honor screenshot

How much does the culture we consume impact our values? Perhaps more importantly, how much does it impact our behavior? It strikes me as undeniable that cultural products can be a trigger for already-unstable personalities—your John Hinckleys, your Mark David Chapmans—but, on the whole, it is difficult to say just how much films, books, plays, music, etc. do to inspire evil.

Video games, we are often told, are different. They are interactive. They are generally aimed at younger (and thus more impressionable) audiences. Spending 10 hours with Of Mice and Men isn’t likely to drive you to violence, but spending 1,000 hours killing people in a war simulator like the Medal of Honor series? That’s a horse of a different color, no?

Well, no. Not necessarily. There is simply no definitive proof one way or the other that violence in video games desensitizes young people and leads to violence on the streets or in our schools. The New York Times has a handy roundup of the data. It is conclusively inconclusive.

A burst of new research has begun to clarify what can and cannot be said about the effects of violent gaming. Playing the games can and does stir hostile urges and mildly aggressive behavior in the short term. Moreover, youngsters who develop a gaming habit can become slightly more aggressive — as measured by clashes with peers, for instance — at least over a period of a year or two.

Yet it is not at all clear whether, over longer periods, such a habit increases the likelihood that a person will commit a violent crime, like murder, rape, or assault, much less aNewtown-like massacre. (Such calculated rampages are too rare to study in any rigorous way, researchers agree.) …

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.

In a working paper now available online, Dr. Ward and two colleagues examined week-by-week sales data for violent video games, across a wide range of communities. Violence rates are seasonal, generally higher in summer than in winter; so are video game sales, which peak during the holidays. The researchers controlled for those trends and analyzed crime rates in the month or so after surges in sales, in communities with a high concentrations of young people, like college towns.

“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.

As I said yesterday, I’m more in the Alan Jacobs camp than the Teju Cole camp when it comes to the civilizing effects of literature. It’s slightly nutty to think that just because one is well-read one is more moral (or more likely to act morally). Similarly, it’s slightly nutty to think that just because one is well-read—or well-acquainted with films, or immersed in video games—that one is less moral (or more likely to act immorally). As Jacobs notes in a follow up post, culture can certainly play a role in our lives and our conception of the world. But arguing that culture plays a defining role—or to suggest that we can parse the effect of books vs. films vs. television vs. movies vs. video games—is less empirical thinking than wishful thinking.