Are violent video games as harmful as people think?

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Alan Grant examines the claims of those who argue that video games cause violent behaviour in young people.

 

Like the majority of my fellow single men, I enjoy video games. I can usually find something to enjoy in everything from the sci-fi battlefields of Command and Conquer to the exquisitely crafted Bioshock. However, for all the sprawling landscapes, challenging levels and charming storytelling our kind has given the world, we gamers face much scorn and derision both from the media (who have never had a comfortable relationship with games, encapsulated for posterity by an excruciating episode of ‘Tomorrow’s World’) and non-gamers. Our media is heavily derided but no charge comes with as much vitriol as the one of corrupting impressionable youth with violent content.

The task of defending video games against the intellectual successors to the odious Mary Whitehouse is a broad one. For this reason, I propose the following. I shall endeavour to persuade the reader that video games are not a cause of violence in young people, and my second task will be to highlight the positive aspects of a healthy enjoyment of video games in that age bracket. In the latter part of this article, I propose to take the fight to the ‘Clean Up TV Brigade’ of the Digital Age by admitting that they are right – in some regards.

Those who suggest that violent video games cause violence in young people do so with the implicit claim that youth crime has risen since the advent of modern video games. However, even the most cursory glance at Western youth crime statistics suggest that juvenile delinquency varies at a constant rate; admittedly there are peaks and troughs, as there is in any data set, but the rise in youth crime required to prove a connection between the two factors in inconspicuously absent. Youth crime would exist even if there were no video games to ‘inspire’ it.

Maybe the accusation is more specific. Perhaps video games, in the words of the noted games journalist Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Crawshaw , ‘mess with the heads of underage, impressionable thickies’? If this is the case then it seems oddly self-fulfilling.

Successful games such as Grand Theft Auto IV or the Call of Duty Series sell millions of copies across the world and are presumably played by at least that many people. Many of those are in the ‘young person’ demographic. To blame video games for any violent crime committed would be to ignore peer pressure, biological imbalance, mental imbalance, extremist political ideologies, and the various other factors which go into creating a violent young person. This seems unfair, inaccurate and – most importantly – it seems to give poor parents and guardians a free pass whenever their child commits an act of violence.

On an encouraging note, it has also been suggested that video games, far from harming young people, actually help them develop problem solving skills, social skills, dexterity and concentration. Links have even been found between the violent content of video games and relieving levels of stress and aggression in young people. The academics behind such reports (such as Dr Cheryl Olsen and those at the University of Rochester) are credible and numerous, so perhaps it could be said that the attack on video games is based on either fear, misunderstanding or one other more sinister societal problem: poor childcare.

…video games, far from harming young people, actually help them develop problem solving skills, social skills, dexterity and concentration.

Earlier in this article, I suggested that I might take the fight to the anti-video games campaigners; that is what I propose to do now. For the purposes of discourse, I shall, for the moment, assume that the playing of video games with violent content has a direct causal relationship with violence committed by those still under parental supervision. For instance, Jimmy plays Grand Theft Auto Four and proceeds to leave his house in the morning, but rather than going to school he steals a sports car, drives at 100mph in the wrong direction while mowing down innocent pedestrians before picking up, having sex with and eventually murdering a prostitute with a knife. He does so directly because of what he has done in the digital world of Liberty City. Whose responsibility is this? It is surely not the game manufacturer’s any more than it is the individual who ground the steel into the knife? Jimmy’s parents or guardians are the ones responsible for what he is exposed to in his young life, and they are the ones who carry responsibility for the consequences of this exposure. They either deliberately or negligently allowed him to become exposed to such a dangerous catalyst of violence. They would have failed him, not the games industry. This would not be surprising. Abdication of parental or guardianship responsibilities is nothing new and a scapegoat is always found. In the fifties it was rock’n’roll, in the nineties it was ‘video nasties’ and now we have violent video games. If only parents learnt as quickly as their children do.

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