The Truth About Violence in Video Games

[The information that inspired this post came to me second-hand without sources. I trust the research of my source, so I’m sharing my thoughts on the matter without spending too much time backing up the facts. What I have found, however, seems to indicate that the military statistics that follow come from a book published by Back Bay Books (November 1, 1996), written by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, titled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.]

The past week has been inundated with tragedy. Three separate shootings in schools have claimed the lives of innocent children, and the death toll is still climbing. My prayers go out to the families of the bereaved, that God may grant them comfort and solace in such a horrible time.

As the media swirls the details and speculation of the horrific events in front of us for the next several days, I guarantee that we will hear the name Columbine. And with that, will be some modicum of societal self-examination, and possibly a cursory mention of video games and other violent media. What do those entertainment media say about us, our culture, and the way we live our lives?

Video games have been under fire for violent and sexual content for years now, the contemporary of scapegoat Dungeons & Dragons. Gamers have grown weary of the endless political pandering by people who apparently know nothing of the industry to parents who also appear ignorant of, not only the video games their children play, but parenting in general. The gaming industry seems like it is always in a courtroom somewhere, defending its first amendment rights. Both sides of the argument throw around statistics and conjecture supporting their positions. And ultimately, just as with television and the movies, I think that video games will continue to exist as a self-regulated industry. But the principle regulatory rule will continue to be, as it is with all commercial ventures, what will make the most money.

I’m stepping off on a bit of a tangent, but let’s look at the movie industry for a moment. Think back on the various comedies from the 70’s and early 80’s… Do you have your favorites in mind? How many of them have some gratuitous T&A? Probably all of them. Now, assuming you have some favorites from the last decade, any nudity in those? Probably not so much. Why is that? Has our society become less tolerant of sex and pornography in the last twenty years? Obviously not. I saw a commercial on tv last week for… I’m not sure what it was for, perfume? cologne? …anyway, it was a sensual, black and white ad that probably would have fit right in with Friday night programming on Cinemax. So no, society is at least as sexual as it was when hair-pie was served at the movies. What is the difference? Ratings. The PG-13 rating was created in 1984, which generally prohibits sexual nudity, leaving that to R rated films. Perhaps not much of a difference, as far as R movies were concerned, but it created a market shift. More money can be made on a comedy by making it PG-13 than by making it R. Video games also tend to strive for the Teen rating as opposed to the Mature rating.

But my real aim in this post is to discuss the reality of how violence in video games affects us. Oh sure, I can sense your defensive posture. “It doesn’t affect me,” you retort, “I know the difference between fantasy and reality, and I only let my kids play games that I know they are ready for.” Good for you. But I submit that the affect is insidiously subversive. It affects you whether you realize it or not, especially if you spend hundreds of hours immersed in it.

Psychology is an amazing, powerful thing. Advertisers take advantage of it to manipulate us into purchasing their clients’ wares and services. Don’t tell me that advertising doesn’t work on you, either. At $2 million per 30-second ad during the Super Bowl, it sure as Hell is working on somebody. And based on my very limited understanding of the circumstances of the three school shootings this past week, I suspect that they are connected by psychology – and the media. A study was done on plane crashes a while back. The results showed that long periods of time would elapse without a crash, and then there would be several. Then another gap, followed by a cluster of crashes. What researchers discovered is that depressed and suicidal pilots who were teetering on the razor’s edge, would be tipped over the edge by reports of the first crash. Inspired, they would then take themselves out, along with their passengers. I imagine, that the seemingly random shooting in Colorado triggered the man in Pennsylvania, and perhaps even the kid in Wisconsin. But that’s just my conjecture.

In World War One, the United States Army sent thousands of troops to the European theater. Right off the boat, 90% of the soldiers were unable to pull the trigger in their initial combat situation. They had been trained and hardened, but once they had another human in their sights, they couldn’t fire their weapons. Besides self-preservation (inability to harm oneself), normal humans seem to be wired to not kill other humans. Unfortunately, such behavior is detrimental to those on the battlefield, and puts fellow soldiers at risk. The army reevaluated its training methods.

The army replaced the traditional bullseye targets on the shooting ranges with human silhouettes. The idea being that soldiers would be accustomed to the human form nestled in their crosshairs and be less restricted when the time came to use lethal force. In World War Two, only 50% of initially deployed soldiers were unable to fire their weapons. The training tactic appeared to have worked, but results needed to be better.

The army then created a simulator to train soldiers against “virtual” humans – a video game. When troops were deployed to Vietnam, nearly 100% of the soldiers were able to fire on the enemy in their first combat situation. The army had succeeded in reprogramming its soldiers to be “comfortable” (for lack of a better word) with shooting other people.

Now we have games in our living rooms – games that tout themselves for the realism of their graphics and rag-doll physics – that mimic battlefield conditions. Sure, Metal Gear Solid 2 discussed the differences between virtual training and the real deal, but the point is, if you’ve been playing SOCOM, hours a day, since you were ten, your brain is no longer going to know that it shouldn’t pull the trigger if you wind up pointing a gun at someone. Of course, the issue at that point would be ‘why are you pointing a gun at someone?’

The age old battle of nature vs. nurture is losing ground to manipulation. And we need to be aware of it. In the end, we each must be held accountable for our own actions. But we need to be aware that our way of life is stripping away the natural safeguards that are suppose to protect our society. Otherwise, we will be unprepared when we find ourselves in a situation where we need those safeguards, and find they have long since been trampled into the dust.

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