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In the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting the media once again pounced on video games, an easy target and frequent scapegoat. As usual, gamers were not very thrilled. Many gaming sites wrote scathing condemnations of the obvious idiocy of Jack Thompson, Dr. Phil, and company. Joystiq, however, chose to do something positive.

The site posted a declaration titled “What I know about violent video games” that partially reads:

– I know the difference between right and wrong.
– I know the difference between fantasy and reality.
– I know where the game ends and real life begins.

The declaration has a spot for a signature and is meant to be given to loved ones who may be concerned about your gaming habits. It’s nice to see an attempt to counter the negative media attention given to games that doesn’t resort to calling Jack Thompson an ignorant fascist, which he is. But in the preamble to the declaration there is a problem.

“We think it’s a given by this point that most regular Joystiq readers know that playing violent video games will not suddenly turn you into a violent killer, or even make you any more likely to commit a violent act ever in your life.”

What Joystiq claims to know is not actually fact. Unfortunately, it seems like the evidence is to the contrary. In a recent Slate article, three studies linking games to hostility were analyzed and the conclusion seems unavoidable — games affect us.

This scenario reminds me of arguments I once had with a girlfriend. She believed that science should not seek to understand the physiological difference between men and women. Her position was that it’s one thing if brain dead religious conservatives believed women should be home all day cooking, but if real science supported sexism it would be seized upon and used to subjugate women.

It’s a valid fear, but in the name of knowledge science must be free to understand everything, political and social consequences be damned. We as a society have the responsibility to not allow our understanding of nature to lead to sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, what is is not necessarily what ought to be.

Back to video game violence. Gamers fear the implications of games being tied to hostile behavior because they do not want to face the social consequences. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for us, reality and what people choose to do in light of reality are separate things. We cannot assume games do not affect us because we don’t want them to. We can’t argue they have no impact when we don’t actually know this to be scientifically true.

I am not saying games have a huge impact on how we behave or advocating any specific social or governmental mechanism for dealing with violent games. Still, gamers should shift their focus away from arguing something they are unequipped to argue. We are trailer park creationists with fifth grade educations arguing against evolutionary theory. We don’t practice science and what we want to be true is not necessarily true.

Instead, let us focus on how to deal with the implications that games may make us violent. All media seem to have some affect on people; games are not unique in this regard. Luckily, America was founded on the principle of freedom of speech. Why not place our efforts on rallying behind the Bill of Rights instead of scientific assumptions? You don’t need to be a Constitutional scholar to understand the First Amendment.

7 Comments

  1. christian said on May 11, 2007:

    A couple of ideas to play around with in this discussion. First, while I hate to sound like I’m wearing a tinfoil hat, first amendment rights aren’t exactly as iron strong as they should be these days.

    Second, I really ought to take a look at some of these studies that link games to violence. Its not that I don’t believe them, but I would like to see what their methods are. The sad truth is I’ve heard countless people say “Studies have shown…”, and then investigated the study in question, only to find it was not very scientific at all, or that the actual interpretation of the results were skewered by whatever news outlet reported on it. Also, lets not forget how many studies in the IT world are often funded by companies (Mircosoft, etc.) in order to push an agenda. There definitely are some tough issues to tackle, but first we gamers need to make sure we have the right tools and the best knowledge.

  2. matt said on May 13, 2007:

    What’s very interesting about this whole thing is that some people equate anger with violence and murder. When I play a game, I sometimes get very upset that I can’t beat it. I’ve broken so many controllers in my day that I’ve effectively lost count. And I know a lot of people that do the same thing. This is inevitable, and where scientists focus their studies. I remember listening to a Next-Gen.biz podcast where they interviewed one of the scientists on this study. He says, yes, gamers get angry when they play video games. The levels of chemicals in their brain signify they are getting upset and angry. But that still doesn’t mean we will kill someone, or that we learned how to use a gun. Most people seem to think that the anger is where it all starts, but there is nothing to connect the two. People need to start realizing there are two aspects to this situation, and not just say they’re the same thing. Everyone gets angry, but there isn’t a billion murderers running around. So, in reality, people don’t read correctly, or just want bigger ratings on their publications. The scientific results say just anger, but everyone assumes the worst. There are just some psychos out there. And you know, psychos have been around a lot longer than video games. We do know this right? I’m not the only smart one in the world, right?

  3. GoldenJew said on May 13, 2007:

    Video games do affect us. As does TV, the media, etc. That in mind, most studies are going to be able to show a correlation between video games and violence. Correlation is not causation. After an event like this, people inevitably are A) looking for answers B) using it to push political agendas. The anti-video game regime will always be there, and they will always use every excuse they can to push their political agenda, often shamelessly. The best thing we can do– as a demographic– is make our views clear, and work the system the way they do: write letters to your political representation, make sure your friends do– exercise your right to vote. Without sounding stupid and pro-democracy, the fact is old people vote, so they get what they want. Until we do the same (or become old), it’s not gonna change.

  4. Shota said on March 5, 2008:

    There is no movie, book, piece of music, or game, that will ever have a greater impact on anyone then the personal (perental) relationships in their lives, especially during their formative years. Any discussion about the ways in which any media effect us is mute.

    Art and reality are not, and will never be, the same. Ergo, the discussion must end here.

  5. jay said on March 6, 2008:

    No, the discussion must not end anywhere based on pure reasoning. The discussion should be focused on real experimentation and then how we as a society should deal with whatever those experiments reveal.

  6. Shota said on March 6, 2008:

    I think you missed my point. I was arguing that our attention is focused on the wrong thing. Or maybe we have over focused on it. Its like invading Iraq when the issue is Afganistan. People get into frenzied arguments about what it is that art/media does to our children, and here you are calling for more studies on the “effects” of games when this nuclear fucking elephant of the effects of early childhood and adolescence vis a vis human (not digital) relationships is standing right in the middle of the fucking room while everyone ignores it.

    What is done to our psyches by our interaction with figures of authority during childhood is so much vaster, deeper and more important that barking about the effects of media seem silly to me by comparison.

  7. jay said on March 6, 2008:

    I call for more studies because while I agree with your logic neither of us will really know if we are correct until someone studies it properly. You are ultimately making the exact same argument I am against in this article – without doing any actual research you have a conclusion. Again, I think you conclusion is very likely the truth but until you start your own lab the issue isn’t for you to settle.

    If your point is that funding used to study the effects of media can be better used elsewhere I don’t necessarily disagree with that either.

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