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Outrage Against the Machine

by: theinkandpen (Robert Mullon) ; edited by: Michael Hartman ; updated: 4/17/2012 • Leave a comment

The meteoric rise of the video game medium, and its shift from fiddlestick-novelty to cultural phenomenon, has lead to questions regarding its influence in society much like Film and Television. Do video games, particularly violent ones, really have an effect? We attempt to find out in this article.

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    New Medium, New Prejudices and Old Inquisitions

    Donkey Kong Coin-Op  

    Another coin-op frenzy-filled Saturday; must get Tiki out of this level, get the “Extend" extra life and maybe even the fire-staff. The blue and red buttons get pounded mercilessly, much to the imprecations and waved fists of the arcade owner, and gradually nothing else exists outside of the raster display feeding my soaring pixel-fever. A well dressed figure enters the flickering halls, seeking shelter from the rain, standing out like a sheep in a wolf’s den; ‘God, don’t you kids have better things to do? Surely these will be the end of you…’ The cortege assembled gives him blank looks. I figure I've got enough coins for Beast Busters next.

    Memories of a video-gamer, when back in the 90’s more time was spent clocking “New Zealand Story" and “Street Fighter 2" than on anything else. Yet, back then, the medium was still in its infancy, being regarded as a passing fad without much cultural or sociological impact. Cue surging popularity, newer consoles/systems development and a blue hedgehog becoming a household name, all to Ralph Baer’s nodding approval, and this thing is here to stay. Then, cue releases like “Postal" or, more significantly, “Grand Theft Auto," and this thing is subject to scrutiny by politicians, psychologists and lynch mobs.

    And so we find games allegedly responsible for a kid’s inexplicable outburst, the inability to function on a social level or, on a graver scale, a tragedy like the Columbine massacre. A few days ago Mong The Xuong, a Vietnamese kid, killed a seven-year old girl and stole her earrings with the idea of pawning them for cash to spend on “Swordsman Online." He played in an internet café.

    Are these the effects of violent video games? Are games, like movies, the latest victim of a 21st century Malleus Maleficarum or is there some truth to it all?

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    Cases Linked to Video-Game Exposure

    The Original Doom Game Box   Columbine is the earliest case where games have faced outright blame for oozing hostility, on the part of Harris and Klebold. The pair was known for playing “Doom" for long periods of time, and it was speculated they even designed a level to mimic the school. A psychiatrist named Dr. Jerald Block believes that Harris/Klebold acted out a fantasy due to being banned, by their parents, from playing the game.

    Initially psychologists, and media sources, were convinced that the “vivid" portrayal of violence, and repeated exposure, was one of the crucial elements in shaping the killers. Eventually, some of the victims’ families even went on to sue the game company. Peter Langman, author of “Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters," does not mention “Doom" at all in his book and firmly believes there were other major contributing factors.

    The case against Dustin Lynch, convicted of murdering JoLynn Mishne, is notable for involving Jack Thompson, attorney and renowned game-basher, and marking the beginning of the “Grand Theft Auto" controversy following the defendant’s insanity-plea. It did not stand and Lynch was charged but Thompson has made numerous other attempts, in various cases, to prove the detrimental influence of GTA, Manhunt and other “killing simulators."

    The Virginia Tech massacre called “Counter Strike" into question. An article in the Washington Post briefly cites the influence of CS and other games, while attorney Thompson eagerly launched into a diatribe, disguised as an expert, denouncing the ill-omened nature of the medium whilst completely disregarding other blatant inadequacies.

    A Chicago Tribune article, regarding the abhorrent acts in the Northern Illinois shootings, begins with ‘He wanted video game-style bloodshed’ whilst not citing a particular gaming title. The main culprit, again, is “Counter Strike" and, as you may have guessed, Jack Thompson was quick to spout more uninformed bile regarding the effects of violent video games.

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    Scientific Research

    AACAP Logo   The cases above are all school-shootings, hence scientific research is particularly focused towards youth and repeated exposure to games. Not all claim that games are heavily contributing to violent behaviour.

    Craig Anderson is one well-known researcher who maintains that games cause an increase in arousal, aggressive thoughts and behaviour. His various journals and publications for the “Center for the Study of Violence“ focus on increased aggression through exposure to violent media in general, including films and television, and results from his meta-analysis see continuous exposure greatly contributing to physically aggressive behaviour against others. Though he equates the effects to those of prolonged smoking, this research is still hypothetical and such an assured stance is not entirely credible.

    An article from the “American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry" is less specific regarding scientific data, but simply offers common-sense advice. It does not discount the popularity of video-games, and focuses on the medium’s interactivity as the main danger. Whilst recognizing that some games are instructional, improve responses and motor skills, the article also warns against prolonged use leading to ‘aggressive thoughts and behaviour’ amongst other causes. It would be difficult to dismiss or ignore this advice completely, since the publication strongly advocates monitoring your child which is sound advice regardless.

    A study published in the “Journal of Pediatrics" (A Multivariate Analysis of Youth Violence and Aggression) focuses on risk-factors determining violence in youth, including exposure to television and video-games. The publication excludes games and media as major contributors and considers family surroundings and delinquent peer-association as two main contributing influences.

    Theorists like Zillman and Brad J. Bushman focus on the nature of arousal in media and desensitisation to violence (i.e. the Aestheticization of violence) in any kind of violent media, with no particular focus on games. Most still remain theories (though research is on-going) largely unproven or discarded as obsolete much like Bandura’s “Bobo Doll" experiment.

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    Writer’s Thoughts

    Though newspapers and the media are quick to jump on the “newest kid on the block" one can see that there is no conclusive research on media-effect, and results are particularly dismissive when general social conditions, background and family-life are favourable.

    I could continue to write endlessly, or add new theories and journals as they are published; though the article may seem long no amount of research, particularly involving something as tenuous as psychology/psychiatry, could determine whether the effects of violent video games are detrimental to behaviour, or even if there are any at all. Nature vs Nurture? Perhaps: the doom-made-me-do-it argument seems a bit of a “twinkie-defence" to me. It’s much like saying Charles Whitman was a murderer because of a miniscule brain tumor found during the autopsy, completely disregarding his background and social inadequacies.

    As one amidst the video-gaming culture as it progressed, I would be inclined to say that playing “Doom" or “Counter Strike" hardly made me go on killing-sprees; in actual fact, seeing the medium smirched and scorned saddens me somewhat. However, the old adage of “too much of something" comfortably applies even here; being stuck to the screen for endless hours, especially when constantly isolated from outside activities (i.e. sports) cannot be good. But nor is it exclusively tied to playing video-games.

    I’m off to play Far Cry 2 kids, after tipping my hat to Jack Thompson.



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