Why we still argue whether video games cause violence, and how to finally end the debate
Do video games cause violent behavior by the people who play them? This generation Call of Duty is often held up as entertainment that inspires real-life gun violence, the generation before, it was Grand Theft Auto III. Before that, there was Mortal Kombat, and before that games like Death Race made people uneasy with their portrayals of violence.
Death Race, by the way, looks like this:
Why does the debate continue? Why, after a Supreme Court decision that marked games as protected speech under the First Amendment, do we still argue about whether there is a causal link between video games and violence, and what to do about them?
Batman is bad for you
Fredric Wertham was an established and well-respected researcher in the scientific community. He was published in Reader’s Digest, Newsweek, and Ladies’ Home Journal. The New York Times called his observations and research “careful” and “commendable.” He testified before the US Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in the mid-‘50s to help inform policy with regards to youth violence and crime.
He also argued that Batman and Robin were secretly gay lovers, that Wonder Woman was a lesbian, and that comic books were a major cause of juvenile delinquency. It sounds ridiculous, but only by today’s standards. Disney is now part of the comic industry, and a movie based on The Avengers grossed over $1.5 billion. What used to seem like strange counterculture is now family entertainment.
Wertham’s anti-comics crusade was specifically cited in Brown v. EMA, the US Supreme Court decision that led to video games being labeled protected speech as an example of activist science . “And, of course, after comic books came television and music lyrics,” the Court’s decision reads.
Chris Ferguson, Associate Professor of Psychology and Communication at Texas A&M, was also cited in the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v. EMA. You might remember when The Report spoke to Ferguson regarding the planned – but later canceled – game collection and destruction in Southington, Connecticut, as well as the problematic nature of video game psychological research.
Ferguson addressed the latter point with a new report, recently published in the American Psychological Association’s official, peer-reviewed journal, American Psychologist. The report discusses what Ferguson refers to as “moral panics” – times of exaggerated fear that often follow a large-scale or widely-acknowledged tragedy.
Ferguson points out in his paper that moral panics also often follow the introduction of a new media as well. Dungeons & Dragons and the Harry Potter books, for example, both inspired waves of criticism that these new mediums inspired Satanism or devil-worship. And of course, there’s that troublesome history with Wertham and comic books.
“We can look back on that and see how absurd those kinds of claims are, and even laugh at them a bit, but then we’re, to a large degree, doing the exact same thing today. We have this inconclusive and oftentimes very shoddy science that’s being repackaged as if it’s an absolute certainty,” Ferguson told the Report. “I think when eventually, we all look back, these kind of claims are gonna look ridiculous. It’s a little bit embarrassing as a scholar to be a part of this.”
I asked Ferguson what he thought needs to change. Why is the gaming debate still running, 30 plus years after Death Race, and more than 20 years after Mortal Kombat? The answer isn’t salacious or exciting, but it’s one everyone should pay attention to: We need to calm down, and stop fighting.
Ferguson’s warnings are meant to be a “bucket of ice water,” he told me. “It’s hard if you go out and you make these extreme claims, it’s hard to back away from them. The whole point of science is it’s supposed to be open to new data, but if you make these extreme claims, ‘video games are as bad as smoking and lung cancer,’ stuff like that, it’s hard to go ‘oops!’ 10 years later and say ‘maybe we exaggerated, maybe we were wrong.’ You’re really invested in a particular message at that point.”
Of course, it’s easy to point the finger, but what about ourselves?
We gamers often point and laugh, or sit and fume, when we hear a supposed “expert” on TV lambast games as a cause for violence. We respond by calling them stupid, review-bombing their books, and placing disclaimers at the beginning of an article that warns our audience: you may want to hit your head against something hard after reading this.
“I see these things in the gaming press – and I’m paraphrasing here – but I’ll see things like, ‘there have been hundreds of studies, and none of them show any correlation!’ Well, that’s not exactly true,” Ferguson said. “I think we all have to be wary of making these sweeping generalizations, that it’s black and white, all or nothing. We get sucked into this debate where video games have no effect or they’re digital poison, and there’s no middle ground.”
“There’s almost this sort of opposite and equal reaction, where one group of people says one thing, the other group feels they have to one up what the other people said, and it makes it very hard to sit around together,” Ferguson said. “It’s really come down to World War I with people shooting at each other across the trenches.”
I asked Ferguson if he’d ever seen someone change their mind. He paused, and sighed. “Not that I’m aware of.”
Power of the people
I admitted my skepticism to Ferguson. If his report is published in American Psychologist, a scientific community, and the scientific community is making exaggerated claims while leaving itself closed off to the possibility of changing their minds, isn’t addressing them a futile endeavor?
“It can be disappointing because you reach out to someone, think you’ve gotten a bit of a bridgehead there, and the next day they turn around and say something absolutely ridiculous. It’s kind of a one step forward, two steps back sort of thing,” Ferguson said.
Part of the problem, Ferguson said, is there’s not enough pressure to change within the scientific community. The researcher who says, “I don’t think video games do anything, can I have $1 million to study that” is likely to be laughed out of the room, while the researcher who says “I think video games cause mass shootings, can I have $1 million to study that” can find political backing. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Ferguson said that things are set up as they are because we allow it. The general public tends to be reactive instead of proactive, and that means less pressure on the scientific community to perform thorough research.
“I think if people band together and say ‘enough’s enough, we’re tired of this crap science, it’s just fueling political agendas and taking advantage of national tragedies to fuel culture wars,’ I think the scientific community will listen,” Ferguson said. “Just like anything else, I think these groups will respond to being shamed. They’re sensitive to their credibility. When they see their credibility is on the line with the general public, I think the behavior will change.”
“It has to be pointed out to them. That’s the thing. Just like with the comic books, I don’t think that was pointed out enough. People need to be able to look at this and say, ‘This was embarrassing, you’re doing it again… stop it!’”
A neverending story
The violent games debate may never go away. Things may get worse. Ferguson admitted his optimism has been shaken, and he’s not sure we’ll ever get to the point of being able to have rational discourse. The question “do violent video games cause violent behavior” lingers because it’s a question that’s tainted on all sides:
Politicians call for and fund research with specific results in mind, the scientific community is rewarded and given time in the spotlight for junk science, gamers and games journalists over-generalize as much as those they disagree with, and the general public sits in the background, casually absorbing what information they’re given instead of demanding information they need.
It won’t matter if more research is done, more experts are called, or more hearings are held. This endless debate will continue to be endless until we can learn some humility and talk to one another.