So, over on The Well-Red Mage, a question was asked: Do video games cause violent behaviour? For once, I figured that I’d have a crack at writing a response. You see, the topic of whether video games cause violence has been around for as long as I can remember. Much like when certain polarising entertainers – such as Marilyn Manson for example – get labelled as the root cause for atrocities, I honestly don’t think that it’s a simple topic to unpack. But, can we actually attribute violent actions to violent video games? There are going to be many people who approach this subject with all sorts of evidence garnered from various studies over the years, and to be honest with you, they’ll do a far better job of presenting that than I would. Instead, I want to give my argument based on a mix of personal opinion and studies that are not focussed entirely on gaming.
Simply put, violent behaviour has many causes. That much should be apparent to most people, I think. But what sort of things can cause violent behaviour? Well, I want to approach this from a specific point in time: a person’s childhood. While writing for the British Medical Journal, child and adolescent psychologist Stephen Scott carried out a review of research into childhood conduct disorders. Herein he found that children with anti-social parents were far more likely to adopt similar behaviours themselves. When taking this at face value, it becomes very easy to say that environmental factors play a major part in this. And on that, I agree. If a child is raised watching parents behave in certain ways, they will of course imitate their actions.
Were we to apply that thinking to the video game argument, it seems reasonable to conclude that exposure to violent video games is a major factor in producing violent behaviour. Indeed, the joint study by Columbia University and Mount Sinai Medical Centre in 2010 is sometimes used to show this very point. What is interesting here though is that the findings of said joint study were not a concrete case of violent media equals violent behaviour, but that adolescents who viewed more than one hour of television a day were more likely to commit violent acts as adults.
Of course, this doesn’t disprove the video game link either. Without knowing exactly what the children who were studied watched, it is hard to tell how much of a factor content played. My personal opinion, based on a discussion that was held many years ago when I studied psychology, is that over-exposure to violent imagery can cause desensitization. Therefore, if a game either glamorises violence or simply portrays it often enough, those playing the game may find that violent acts lose their impact. Once they lose their impact, they become less taboo. This does not automatically create a scenario where violent behaviour will manifest mind you, but it could explain in part why certain acts garner little response from those who perpetrate them.
We should also consider here that overexposure to electronic media can cause other issues too though. Those who suffer with certain medical disorders can only maintain constant screen viewing for a limited time before it begins to affect their health, with some symptoms including heightened aggression. It could also be argued that getting lost in gaming media (or indeed any other form of entertainment) could cause withdrawal, which can lead to things such as depression or a decreased level of understanding of real world interactions. When you take this into consideration, it appears that violent video games are not the pure cause of violent behaviour, but something that may interact with other issues.
Returning to Stephen Scott’s research, he found that children whose parents displayed antisocial behaviour were more likely to engage in such behaviours themselves, even if raised in an adoptive home. This is particularly important to consider as it is a clear indicator that there are genetic factors at play here. When combining this with the points above, we can see that both underlying issues and hereditary traits can have a bearing on adult behaviours.
So, we’re looking more at nature than nurture here, right? No, not really. The same study also showed that certain parenting practices could lead to later behavioural issues. Harsh discipline, a lack of supervision, rejecting the child and taking a limited interest in their play activities all show signs of creating an environment where aggressiveness is both encouraged and rewarded. Not to mention the countless studies that show how things such as messy parental splits and poverty can have a negative affect on a child’s future behaviour.
In particular, the lack of supervision is an important one here. Every child is different, of course, and what effects them (and how) will vary from person to person. For example, I myself was allowed to play any games that I wanted as a kid, but my parents did take an interest in them, even though they weren’t playing them themselves. What this meant was that I raised in an environment where although I was exposed to some violent media I was also taught the difference between reality and fiction, right and wrong, and so on. This meant that I was able to experience the games that I wanted to without seeing it as a guide to how to behave. Had my parents taken a less interactive approach to it, would I have turned out differently? I don’t know. I grew up around kids with parents who didn’t seem to take an interest in them, and they certainly were more aggressive. The thing to note here though is that as a child at the time, I did not know the entire story for them. There’s also the argument that their outbursts were used to gain attention, rather than being a part of a video game influenced rage.
So, in all, I believe we’re looking a combination effect here. If we want to look at a famous case of both nature and nurture applying to behaviour we need only look to the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Depending on the sources that you read, Dahmer was either starved of attention by his parents, or he was doted on but saw his mother behaving in a manner that was argumentative, tense and based around attention focussed greed. When he first started to display negative behaviours – in this case related to wanting to understand how dead animals fitted together – he no doubt received attention from his friends. When he then asked his father how to preserve animal bones, his father reinforced this as a positive, and spent a great deal of time showing his son how to do so. Why? Because he was concerned about his child’s behaviour, and when he saw this, he thought that it was a purely scientific interest. He wanted to connect with his child and inadvertently encouraged the negative behaviour in doing so. Now, this all points to the nurture side of the argument, with environmental factors coming heavily into play. Jeffrey Dahmer was also later diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, schizotypical personality disorder and psychotic disorder though. Whether these developed later or were also present during his early days I do not know. However, I do not doubt that they did play a part in his future crimes.
The thing is, Dahmer was not a hardcore gamer. He committed violent acts, and they could potentially be attributed to factors both external and internal, but gaming didn’t come into it. Of course, that means that my comparison here is not like-for-like in terms of the argument, but I do believe that it’s relevant. If you could prove that water caused a reaction for one chemical, it would be logical to assume that it potentially could also cause a reaction in others, right? The same applies here. No gaming does not equal a scenario where the underlying thinking cannot be applied to the gaming argument.
So, after all this rambling, what point am I trying to make here? Well, I do not believe that video games are the root cause of violent behaviour. They can however be a contributing factor to such behaviours, working in tandem with a plethora of other issues, all of which combined can lead to some terrible results. Some people will naturally be aggressive, others will have lower tolerance levels relating to what they are exposed to, and others still will have all sorts of other things going on. Each person is different, and so to place one thing as the underlying cause of a behaviour seems narrow minded to me, not to mention dangerous. Scapegoating helps no one in the end, and simple serves to create stigmas that reduce the likelihood of identifying the real causes.
But what about yourselves? What do you think?