In an effort to curb the recent surge in gun violence, President Obama is planning on spending federal money to research "links between video games, media images, and violence", once again putting video games on trial for violent crimes in the US. And while many argue there's no real evidence that links violence in video games to violence in real life, proponents are already getting behind the President's plan and even taking it one step further by demanding that all violent video game production be stopped.
But are violent video games really the issue? In the shortest possible answer, maybe.
Unfortunately, there's just not enough hard data to simplify the equation down to say that violent video games do or do not cause violent behavior, which ends up being a snag in the plans of government officials who wish to see them outlawed. Such was the case in a 7-2 Supreme Court ruling that nixed a 2011 California law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors, the majority citing a lack of sufficient research linking violent video games to spontaneous aggressive behavior:
"Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively. Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media." -Supreme Court of the United States - Brown, Governor of California, et al. v. Entertainment Merchants Association, et al.
The Supreme Court went on to address the hypocrisy of restricting violent video games while violent programs were still played on television and in movies with little to no resistance from California's legislature. Since all three are considered protected under the First Amendment, the Supreme Court implied California's actions may be seen as targeting an easy scapegoat rather than seeking to protect children, as the state was claiming it was:
"Since California has declined to restrict those other media, e.g., Saturday morning cartoons, its video-game regulation is wildly underinclusive, raising serious doubts about whether the State is pursuing the interest it invokes or is instead disfavoring a particular speaker or viewpoint." -Supreme Court of the United States - Brown, Governor of California, et al. v. Entertainment Merchants Association, et al.
Finally, the Supreme Court went on to state that current measures taken within the gaming industry by means of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or ESRB, already covers much of what California was attempting to do, even implying that responsibility for children's exposure to violent media fell on the parents themselves:
"California also cannot show that the Act's restrictions meet the alleged substantial need of parents who wish to restrict their children's access to violent videos. The video-game industry's voluntary rating system already accomplishes that to a large extent. Moreover, as a means of assisting parents the Act is greatly overinclusive, since not all of the children who are prohibited from purchasing violent video games have parents who dis- approve of their doing so. The Act cannot satisfy strict scrutiny." -Supreme Court of the United States - Brown, Governor of California, et al. v. Entertainment Merchants Association, et al.
Although the Supreme Court cited a lack of evidence linking violent video games to real violence, it isn't for lack of trying. Studies have been conducted for the better part of two decades attempting to link the two, however according to researcher Chris Ferguson, a professor at Texas A&M International, they have been "quite inconsistent". Ferguson was a part of a 2011 study that involved 165 subjects and concluded that violence in video games was not linked to violence in real life. Instead, factors like depression, anti-social traits, exposure to family violence and peer influences were better predictors of violent behavior. Ferguson also noted that while video games have become more popular and more violent, youth violence has declined.
While there may be an insufficient relation between virtual and real violence, researchers have found that violent video games may increase desire for aggressive behavior, although the tests have been notoriously hard to replicate and data wildly inconsistent. A 2011 article regarding a German study showed that while non-violent children may not be swayed to murder, children already showing aggression tend to display increased aggression and hostility in regard to playing a video game. Researchers noted that among the 324 children examined, "openly aggressive children tend to intensify their preference for games with a brutal and bloody plot over time". Another 2011 study suggested that another factor may be to blame, concluding that "competition, not violence, may be the video game characteristic that has the greatest inﬂuence on aggressive behavior."
There are still many that believe violent video games may be a greater threat than we are currently aware. Professor Brad Bushman of Ohio State University was a researcher in the study above linking competition to aggression rather than violence, however he still warns that violence in video games shouldn't be dismissed so easily. He points to a 2002 paper for the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The paper states that violent media does increase aggression and aims to look into why it does by testing whether violent media created what they referred to as a "hostile expectation bias". Subjects played either a violent or non-violent video game, then read vague stories involving interpersonal conflict and were told to write what they expected the character to do, think, feel and say as the story continued. The subjects exposed to the violent video games gave the character much more aggressive feelings, thoughts and actions than did the players of non-violent games, even after only 20 minutes of exposure.
The unfortunate truth is that, given all the studies and arguments both for and against the sale of violent video games, psychology is, at its best, an inexact science. Each video game is going to have different combinations of interactivity, competition, and violence and each player is going to interpret and respond to it differently. The studies will continue, as they always have, and just like how the link between cigarettes and cancer took nearly half a century to come to light, perhaps too in time will come the link between virtual violence and real violence. So maybe it was for the best that President Obama didn't come out and demand violent games be outlawed, instead opting for more funding to be put into researching their effects on young minds. In the meantime, video game sales will also continue, and parents are left with the choice of whether or not their children are mentally equipped to handle them.
To learn more about the current video games rating system, check out the ESRB's breakdown of game ratings.