Future Tense

We Do Not Need Yet Another “Conversation” About Video Games and Violence

It comes up after every school shooting—but it’s just a distraction.

Two young men playing video games.
Aleksandar Pirgic/iStock/Thinkstock

Within 48 hours of the Parkland, Florida, shooting, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin blamed the 17 deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on entertainment and video games. “It’s not the gun” that’s responsible for the murders, he said. As Bevin repeated his obtuse theory over the ensuing days, President Trump echoed it, saying Feb. 23 that he is “hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.”

It came up again at Trump’s roundtable discussion Wednesday about school shootings. There, Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, citing “young moms” she has spoken to, said that “we need to … look at entertainment and the video games, the ratings system, the movies, how things are, are approved, and what children are being exposed to.” Trump agreed, saying: “The video games, the movies, the internet stuff is so violent. … I have a young, very young son, I look at some of the things he’s watching, and I say, ‘How is that possible?’ ” And now Trump reportedly plans to meet with video game execs to discuss the “ongoing debate over school safety.”

Trump’s main solution to homogenize media-enriched kids appears to be a rating system for movies and video games—a baffling idea, since movie ratings were instituted in 1968 and video game ratings in 1993. Bevin, for his part, warned that we have to be careful with what we “put in the hands of our young people” and wants us to have a “conversation” about video games, which he blames for the violence.

But I have great news for these politicians, news that will save them lots of time and research money. We’ve already had this conversation. We had it after Springfield. We had it after Columbine. We had it after Sandy Hook. We’ve had this conversation so many times that it has become predictable: A shooting occurs. We learn that the suspect played video games. News articles remind us of just how violent video games are today, with screenshots of computer-generated bodies riddled with bullets. And then we look at the extensive research, which currently suggests that video games do not, in fact, lead to violent behavior. But by the time that predictable conversation winds up, we’ve been distracted from the gun issue—exactly, one would imagine, what Bevin, Trump, and other firearms enthusiasts hoped. So let’s skip right to the end, shall we?

As game designers, my colleagues and I are involved in this conversation from the inside: We enter the dialogue from a maker’s perspective. We build worlds and fill them with characters acting out stories. We spend years doing research, writing, designing, working on teams with talented and dedicated artists, engineers, musicians, people who love playing and who want to give other players an immersive, engaging experience. Here’s what the political conversation is ignoring: Video games are games. They involve turning on an electronic device, picking up a game controller, deciding what to play, and playing.

The stories I hear about violent video games are quite different than the frightening stories from Trump and co. I once worked on a first-person shooter video game intended to teach engineers how to design in 3-D CAD. A fourth-grader found his dad’s copy—and used it to learn how to design Star Wars-–worthy spaceships. I know a teenager who led his video game team through winning military campaigns, then pulled his teammates together in the real world to support one of the players who lost his wife to cancer. A young man once told me that he was suicidal until he started playing one of the “10 most controversial violent video games of all time,” Doom. He joined forums, became part of a modding community that invited him to local meetups, and met a young woman who loved the game as much as he did. “Doom saved my life,” he told me. Should we have taken his video game away?

These, of course, are just anecdotes—but there is strong research to support the idea that games do not cause violence, thanks to a $1.5 million grant that resulted in a report issued to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. What started in 2004 as a two-year project for Harvard psychiatrist Cheryl Olson and her team turned into an all-consuming decade of Olson’s life researching, mining, analyzing, and sharing the data gathered from interviewing 1,254 kids and 500 parents to determine the connection between violence and video games.

A majority of the kids in the study played one of the most violent and publicly castigated titles in the history of video games—a game that, technically, many of the subjects were too young to buy themselves: Grand Theft Auto. Grand Theft Auto could be regarded as the Gold Standard of violent video games. It’s also the highest-selling video game in history. The latest version, GTA V, released in 2013, brought in $1 billion in sales in its first three days of release. As of December 2017, 85 million copies have sold. Olson’s big research question, and the one she answered for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, largely came down to this: Does playing Grand Theft Auto turn our children into marauding delinquents?

Nope. It turns out that kids actually know the game is pretend.

Critics love to point to realistic graphics as a reason why games could flip a murder switch in kids. But they’re also a nonissue. Olson told me that within about an hour, realism gets stale and players don’t notice it anymore. “Kids in focus groups, we see them with their arm ripped off the 10th time in a game, and they get desensitized to that violence in the media, but we haven’t seen good evidence to show that that would translate—to show they would not get upset if their friend gets hit by a car,” she said.

It’s also important in this conversation for politicians to understand that we do have a baseline for normative behavior. “There’s so much basic information out there on what’s normal,” says Olson. “If you don’t know what’s normal, you don’t know what’s abnormal and you worry.” The baseline for normal is that kids play violent video games. “Not only is it normal for young teens today to play electronic games; it’s normal for them, especially boys, to play violent video games.” And like many adult game players, kids sometimes play aggressive games to help them cope with stress.

According to her study, the top five reasons kids play violent games are: “1) It’s just fun. 2) I like to compete with others and win. 3) The challenge of figuring things out. 4) It’s exciting. 5) It’s something to do when I’m bored.” Olson found no cause-and-effect relationship between aggressive or violent behavior and video games. Her team delivered their findings in the 2006 “Final Project Report to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention,” which ultimately morphed into the excellent book Grand Theft Childhood.

That information came in handy in 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on video games, violence, and kids in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. Its decision: California could not lawfully forbid the sale of “ultra-violent video games to players under 18, because the demonstrable effects [of video games on children] are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.” While this was largely seen as a First Amendment case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out during oral argument in November 2010, “One of the studies … says that the effect of violence is the same for a Bugs Bunny episode as it is for a violent video [game].”

When it comes to the conversation of video games and violence, Olson’s message to parents is this: “Don’t let the politicians frighten you. If your child plays video games and they’re not exclusively violent, and they have one good friend, and they take out the trash the third time you ask, your child is probably fine. … The kids I worry about are the kids who are experiencing real violence in their real lives.”

What we do need to understand as part of this conversation is that from a public health perspective, we need to study and understand gun violence. Not pretend digital gun violence, but real gun violence.

The conversation has come to a definitive close—or as definitive as something involving research can be, at least. To paraphrase Bevin, let’s be fully aware of the actually lethal things we’re putting in children’s hands.