Time to rethink the video games and violence debate
December 5th, 2013
09:22 AM ET

Time to rethink the video games and violence debate

Watch Global Lessons on Guns, a Fareed Zakaria GPS primetime special, this Sunday at 7 p.m. ET on CNN

By Julia Shaw, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Julia Shaw is a lecturer in forensic psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, U.K. The views expressed are her own.

Over-the-top violence in video games, with their glorification of killing and destruction, are a growing fact of life in our society. And they might also affect the way we view the world. But to what extent do these clearly fictional scenarios affect players beyond the games themselves – and are they resulting in growing violence, including gun-related deaths?

It’s a debate that has long generated much heat in public and academic circles alike. But the unfortunate problem for policymakers and a media that so often prefers clear cut answers is that complex behavior such as gun violence requires a complex explanation.

True, there is strong evidence to suggest a link between engagement with violent media and aggressive behavioral tendencies. Playing violent videogames has been shown repeatedly to be a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive thinking patterns, and aggressive emotions, coupled with a decrease in empathy. Together, these kinds of increased antisocial tendencies could certainly increase an individual’s risk for engaging in gun violence. But even this isn’t quite black and white, with some research finding no adverse effects from videogames on violence (or even pro-social effects), underscoring the complicated relationship on this issue.

But where does the link come in? The main explanation offered in recent years is the idea that playing violent videogames desensitizes players. This desensitization makes individuals less likely to feel shock or distress at scenes of suffering, violence, or cruelty because of overexposure to graphic images. Indeed, players of violent videogames have demonstrated physiological changes in how their brains respond to violence, a process known as neural desensitization to aggression.

Taking this line of reasoning a step further, diminished distress in the face of extremely violent or victimizing situations could make an individual more likely to engage in violence involving firearms – by removing the distress normally caused by extremely violent situations, we remove an individual’s natural tendencies towards empathy in such situations, emotions that would otherwise act as a natural barrier against causing harm towards others. Basically, violence seems an increasingly acceptable choice.

Games such as first-person shoot ’em ups may be a particularly important factor in gun violence, acting almost as virtual practice grounds for future behavior. It is no coincidence that first-person shooter simulators have been successfully used as part of military training to help prepare personnel for gun violence on the battlefield.

But defenders of video games have a seemingly compelling counter argument – the vast majority of individuals who play violent videogames do not actually engage in real world, criminal violence of any kind. In fact, despite the growing global popularity and engagement with incredibly violent videogames and extreme media portrayals of violence, violent crime rates in many Western countries have actually been falling over the last decade.

So, do those who point to declining violent crime rates to prove that violent media has no adverse effects on society have a watertight argument? Not necessarily – fluctuations in violent crime rates are clearly not exclusively related to media consumption habits, instead being the result of the complex interplay between education, culture, economics, law and order policies and demographics. This does not, of course, mean that media consumption habits are not relevant, it just means that they do not exist in a vacuum.

So what lessons can we draw from all these uncertainties? The most obvious is that greater research needs to be done, although any such research must be approached with extreme caution, especially when we are dealing with issues as emotional as those surrounding the mass shooting in Sandy Hook last December. Research launched in the midst of a moral panic over child safety in Western societies, when concern spikes for example over the perceived role that video games play in gun violence and school shootings, risks introducing bias, while distracting from potentially more important, broader issues.

The fact is that we need to be looking at the big picture, something that a responsible media can aid in doing. Sadly, too often the media doesn’t act responsibly. Instead of focusing on crucial, but in some ways “less exciting,” issues like health, education and social welfare, too much attention is paid to acts of violence, individual actions that distract us from understanding broader contexts and complexities. This constant focus on sensational acts can make violence feel almost mundane – and just another part of life.

The media’s fixation on whether violent video games cause gun violence is a symptom of all this – we are ignoring other incredibly important but more nuanced and complex factors that contribute far more to gun violence than any game ever will. Violent video games are merely a tiny piece of the puzzle in understanding violence in society. And these games only exist in the first place because society already glorifies violence and facilitates the creation, distribution, and purchase of such games.

It is therefore time to take a step back and rethink the way we even frame the question of whether video games cause gun violence. In fact, we actually have things backward – rather than wondering whether video games inspire greater acts of violence, maybe we should be asking why we have an environment that promotes violence in the first place, and why we give succor to a media and entertainment industry that sensationalizes rather than reports.

Ultimately, if we want to reduce gun violence in Western societies, we need to start with serious and balanced reporting of the issues, reporting that will allow us to better able understand the intricate web of factors behind violence in our society. Perhaps then we will be able to foster a more empathetic and informed culture, one more likely to shun violence in any form.

Topics: Uncategorized

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. JASC92

    i personally do not believe that video games cause violence and violent behavior. i think its the opposite, violent or damaged individuals are attracted to violent video games.

    usually violence is present in those parts of society that can´t afford video games in the first place.

    December 5, 2013 at 9:37 am | Reply
  2. rightospeak

    A very good , much needed article. Violence breeds violence.
    Video games is advertising of violence and we all know why we are swamped with ads -they work and people make piles of money from it . Unfortunately , we are more like monkeys than civilized people that we claim to be so if one monkey beats another one over the head we all get excited and want to get in the act – IT IS HUMAN NATURE.
    It is my strong belief that TV and generally media violence contributes to the VIOLENCE in any society. It is like spam that we can not get rid of because the corporations have more to say than we do .

    December 5, 2013 at 9:45 am | Reply
    • banasy©


      December 5, 2013 at 11:55 am | Reply
    • HeyThere

      If I may ask, have you ever actually played video games yourself?

      December 8, 2013 at 7:43 pm | Reply
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    December 5, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      Partisan bickering gets us nowhere.

      December 5, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Reply
  4. bobcat2u

    I have argued the correlation of violent video games and the at itude of our young people many times. For my efforts to share my thoughts, I've been called stupid, ignorant and a multi tude of other names that I am unable to post.
    Say what you will, but the young mind is very impressionable and can be altered adversely when continuously exposed to this type of violence. It can cause a disassociation with compassion, much like what we who went through wars experienced. Back in my youth, the most violent thing we were exposed to was the Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons, which now have been deemed to violent by the children watch groups. When people see violence and death now, they seem unaffected by it as if were the norm. Why is that ? It's mainly because of the 24 / 7 instant image and information world we live with daily. What can one expect ?
    It didn't used to be like that. Sure wish we could find our morals again.

    December 5, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      And don't forget the Three Stooges.
      I think you are spot in. Further, I feel that the people who call you those names are the ones who play those games and are having a knee jerk reaction at being questioned at what they consider a "game."

      December 5, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      Lordy, how could I ever forget the 3 Stooges. Most violent thre esome ever. And I believe you're right. I must hit a nerve on some of them. But you know me, I have no problem putting it out there.

      December 5, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Reply
      • banasy©

        No, you don't, my friend.
        That, and we know who actually is responsible for much of the name calling here in CNN.
        It's all good.

        December 5, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • rightospeak

      Excellent comment , bobcat.

      December 7, 2013 at 9:18 am | Reply
  5. Gadfly

    My issue here is that the focus is only on video games whereas films and even music adds to the entire American medium of "entertainment" which focuses on suffering and misery for others to feel better about themselves. I am not defending video games but they are better than film and music in terms of being helpful to society if used correctly. Video games can teach multi-tasking, prioritizing and even be used in rehabilitation purposes but the content and manner in which it is delivered needs to put the user in control.

    The reason why video games are singled out because they do not contribute to the dems or reps much like other forms of media do and if we remember how much Hillary and Obama raised from Hollywood? millions if not billions and they wouldnt dare speak out against those but video games do not care for politics much instead its a model of entertainment whereas films and music often times have hidden messages.

    I've been a gamer since I was 7 and not once have I done anything physically to hurt others because I understand fiction from reality. Perhaps they need to focus on the fact that the average IQ is 105 and there should be IQ limits as to who can and cannot watch certain films, listen to certain music or play certain video games. If you're IQ is very close to 80 (which 81 and up is considered normal but in reality someone with an IQ of 85 playing Call of Duty compared to someone with an IQ of 125 will walk away differently from the gaming experience)

    December 5, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      You are correct about the usefulness of some video games Gadfly. Many of the games are designed to train and / or educate. That is all fine and well. But he issue here is the connection between the violent video games that glorify violence and are acted out in reality.

      December 5, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      It's the culture of glorifying violence in all aspects of media and entertainment that is the problem. Gaming is a part of that.

      December 5, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  6. Zeven

    It is an interesting topic for sure. I will try to keep this short. "and are they resulting in growing violence, including gun-related deaths?" Actually I would like to see the numbers, I am not so sure that has increased all that much if at all, one thing that has grown in the last 20 years is our access to the media and information. But that isn't to say a very small percentage hasn't been influenced in some way.... but then again that isn't necessarily saying that video games was the root cause at all. The fact is there are numerous top selling violent video games (millions and millions of copies sold to millions and millions of people and that data is easily obtainable. Sony just announced that 3 Billion zombies have been killed in Dead Rising 3 since the Playstation 4's release last month. They were not killed with kindness.) Violent video games have been around for 20+ years with a huge following. If video games really had an impact, we would be in a world of trouble... literally.

    December 6, 2013 at 9:20 am | Reply
    • Caleb F.

      Dead rising 3 is on Xbox only.

      December 8, 2013 at 7:59 pm | Reply
  7. kaadian

    Guns lead to gun violence.

    Video Games lead to obnoxious teens using profanity while playing CoD.

    Two very different things.

    December 7, 2013 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  8. killbill

    eh humans are violent. We have been killing each other for a long time, before there was technology to let us do it virtually. Besides there are plenty of different kinds of games out there that don't involve shoot'em ups. It just so happens that violent video games sell better than less gritty adventures like Pikmin. The Romans had the Colosseum, now we have our sports and video games to entertain the masses. In the end we will always have deviants in our society that choose to commit murder.

    December 7, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  9. Thomas

    Personally I think this article is dead wrong. When I was younger I had temper issues. I got into disagreements and almsot fights but when I started playing video games I found an outlet for my anger. In high school I only had one fight but it was justified when I saw a guy hit a girl I gave him his much deserved beating. But any other time I felt my temper flare I played a violent video game and released my anger in a heathy manner. One where I hurt no one except a digital construct. Nowadays I'm an extremely laid baxk guy who never even has an arguement, even with my brother. Violent video games don't create violent people. They are just drawn to the games.

    December 8, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  10. southern

    In their continued push of their anti-gun sentiment, CNN will allow anyone who can come up with any absurd theory to support the anti-gun agenda to write an article.

    December 8, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Reply
  11. ultima fule

    I played so much Zelda as a youngling that now I have an insatiable urge to kill with swords. and I do. also I got surgery to make my ears pointy. also played so much Mario that now I smash bricks with my head and eat flowers and mushrooms in the back yard. I played so much Call of Duty that I built a time machine and joined the allies in the fight against Nazi Germany. video games will destroy your life. kids, turn off those boring games that teach you nothing but violence and go read the bible and listen to opera 'cause those do not promote violence and will make you a better person!

    December 8, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  12. Blah blah blah

    We're not tough enough on crime. There is no shortage of violent movies, video games, or music out there. The proof that we aren't tough enough on crime can be seen with this, "Knock out game" kids are playing. The consequences aren't emphasized enough to serve as a reminder that you can get punished for wrong-doing. Fear of the consequences isn't hard enough, or substantial enough to deter the crime. Perhaps we should start beating criminals with a cane like the Singaporeans. If you feared getting your bottom tenderized with a long reed, you'd probably think twice before doing something stupid. So keep your violent venues, but if you break the law, should should get your butt beaten.

    December 8, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  13. Abraham

    The issue of the effect of media related input on the human mind is a fact that has to be faced, researched and acted upon for the benefit of our societies. Video games is one component of this important field. This issue has been living with us and fostering in our lives ever since we saw the light. Propagating ideas, including violence, through media is corner stone of our western system. It is utilised and backed up by powerful parties that are not about to tailor its use so as to reduce "violence".

    However, the issue of "violent" video games has been used by the pro gun groups in the USA , represented by the NRA, as a red herring, during their argument to resist any control on gun ownership, especially during recent gun shooting massacres committed in public places such as supermarkets, theaters and schools.

    Yet another red herring that is advertised by them is the issue of mental illness. The real worry here is that while such issues are real , serious and need attention, one should not lose focus of the real problem, which is the final act of killing is done by small force applied by one finger on an instrument that causes the end of life of another person who is in most cases is totally innocent and his only problem is the fact that he happened to be in the line of fire when the act took place.

    Do we have problems that need analysis and attention to rectify ? Yes we do. But we have to state the facts and come out with logical conclusions. We must not let ourselves get lost in the complexity of other issues and blame violence on them while the killing with guns is going ahead unabated. Yes we need to resolve our violent video games issues. Yes we need to do a better job on the mental health issues. But these issues are not unusual or unique to the USA, what is unique to the USA is that the person who is mentally disturbed, and I use the word "disturbed" in a very general sense here, can have easy access to lethal gun that can be used during those moments of mental disturbance to life destructive and irreversible effect. This is what is UNIQUE to this country.

    December 15, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Reply
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    March 4, 2014 at 7:52 pm | Reply
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  16. Riccardo

    Pray tell... what video games were our ancestors playing since the dawn of man?

    June 27, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  17. wallstew

    I believe not all children are affected by what they play because they may not get to play it often or long periods of time. But then you have some children who see things over and over again, and in their head it seems that it is okay and exciting for them to see others hurt and oozing out blood and guts. Then you have the teachers who fear their students because they display aggressive behavior and do not know what violent access that child has in the home.

    April 30, 2015 at 12:00 am | Reply
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