Still working on the site, so for the moment here is a slightly updated version of the Violent Games and the Media post I wrote on Not Enough Shaders. Hopefully this will do whilst my hands are elbow-deep in these CSS and PHP files. Catch you tomorrow!
Correlation does not equal causation, or so they say.
There have been countless studies into the issue of violent video games on teenagers, children and impressionable adults. Billions of dollars of research has gone into the debate and whilst we can come away with some actual conclusions, the overall viewpoint is that horrid, ugly tangle of words that sends fear into the hearts of those doing their best to undermine the industry – “We don’t really know.”
For you see, in 2006 the Indiana University School of Medicine took the rather extreme angle and scanned the brains of a control group of children playing video games. The group was split into two halves – the first would naturally play a violent video game; at the time and in this case, that was Medal of Honor: Frontline. The other half would play a non-violent video game, Need for Speed: Underground (an odd choice but okay). Naturally, after they played the games there were significant differences in their prefrontal lobes and their amygdala (a section of the brain dedicated to memory and emotional response). Naturally, it came off really badly for Medal of Honor, so you’d expect that to be a relatively cut and dry case, surely? I mean, this is the sort of research that has some weight right?
The problem is that these changes in brain activity cannot and do not really demonstrate a profound or lasting change in a persons physical or mental state of mind. Nor, as I read, did the research continue to progress onto this issue, nor did it state the time frames that were involved in increasing that activity and it returning to a baseline ‘normal rate’. The problem with scientific studies like this are that they are often loaded, and have a predisposition to more or less harp the tune that the media and/or those funding the research want people to know. It’s all well and good to state a video game can invoke emotional responses and intensify memory whilst lowering inhibitions in a similar fashion to alcohol (without the getting drunk part), but it’s not nearly enough on which to base a conclusion. Most studies take years to come to fruition and tend to come away with few actual answers to the issue, focused instead on very few specific points and conclusions that distract from the overriding reality that the study may not have been altogether productive in the manner they anticipated.
Of course, the conclusions and discoveries drawn from these studies are not always negative – the emotional increase as well as a link to instigating memory have known therapeutic uses. We also know that video games can improve eyesight and visual reactionary times, as well as having proven pain-relieving benefits (I can attest to this one!). Video games can also help those with learning difficulties, and this is not limited to little test games either – RPGs in particular are heralded for their peculiarly beneficial properties on mental health. And of course, playing action-based games can improve your reflexes and manual dexterity considerably. We know all of this because they have been surprising conclusions from research into the effect of video games on our bodies. So again, if we know this, why not drop the whole issue of violence in gaming? Clearly there are plenty of pros to outweigh many of the cons. Again, the issue is that this doesn’t quite get to the nub of the issue.
This is because we’re talking about scientific, identifiable changes in the chemicals and active parts of our bodies. You see, the real problem is that the study of violence in gaming is often not one merely limited to scientific study; although it has its part to play. We also need to discuss the issue of psychology and psychiatry. The unseen changes in our mental state before, during and after games, as well as their effects on those with identifiable mental health issues.
The problem is that studies like this are incredibly hard to back up with data; because everyone is so different. Because of the diverse nature of the human psyche, fudging even the smallest bit of data can discredit an entire study. However, the gaming world has also been using psychology and the studies in psychology for many years. For example, did you know that the cry of Baby Mario in the Super Nintendo classic Yoshi’s Island was a deliberate inclusion? Studies had been suggesting for some time that a large portion of people would instinctively react to the cry of a baby, even if were not their own. There are many forms of crying when it comes to a baby and many sound-waves and timing issues can dictate the nature of the cry – yes, people have studied this, don’t look at me like that – so Nintendo went ahead and used a digital formation of a cry. It was rather effective as well, as many who played Yoshi’s Island can testify to. You can’t not react to his cry, either compassionately or in a drive to silence it. We are, somehow, wired to react to the slightest hint of a baby crying. It added a clever dimension to the game.
When it comes to the issue of psychology though, we do know from studies that playing against someone via a LAN, someone you know, might increase your more aggressive tendencies towards them whilst at the same time, the flipside is true; co-operating with people is more likely to help you co-operate, and if you know the person, can very much bring you closer together – “Those that slay together, stay together”, to pinch a phrase being muttered by a friend of mine. But there are rarely any positive correlations between the violence in video games having any lasting psychological impact on an individual that isn’t already at a disposition to be affected by it. This is where the term “Nature vs. Nurture” kicks in – are we governed by the actual physical changes that science can state take place when we play a video game, or are we governed by the nature of our upbringing, the moral compass that we learn and have naturally within us that tells us right from wrong? It is on this fundamental point that studies continue to drive a serious wedge between the two entrenched camps; because it is incredibly hard to tell with any degree of certainty. We simply do not know enough to make any serious accusations, only assumptions.
It’s important that we have the ability to understand that science and psychology cannot come to any actual consensus on the issue, “We do not know” is not a cheap cop-out as many claim because there are often outside influences and changes that can dictate our own reactions and motivations – influences that can wildly alter the data being collated, from stress at work to family issues, from falling in love to simply having a good day. It’s incredibly difficult to get an actual baseline when each person and their state of mind is as individual as the next, as unique as the next person, and can alter on a day to day basis.
There were also suggested studies in the 80’s and 90’s which looked into whether or not children who were raised in abusive circumstances grew up to be abusive themselves; and it was found that the nature of coming to a conclusion can be as damaging as the effects themselves, sometimes indicating that some details are best left unknown and remain down to the individual; their own circumstances and state of mind dictate their overarching view of the issue. If you believe that is in you, then it will be in you, a self-fulfilling prophecy that troubled those whose academic interest was beginning to take on noticeable and serious consequences in their subjects. For it is not difficult when you know the tricks of the human mind to lay the seeds of doubt, to form the idea, “Inception”-style, in a person’s subconscious. Derren Brown has, after all, made a career on his knowledge and ability to manipulate perception and the human mind.
You see, it is important that when we discuss video games we must also be aware that video games are not alone in the criticism; movies, TV shows, music and comic books have all been similarly maligned for their ability at some point to influence the impressionable, and again it is always when we discuss the more extreme events such as Sandy Hook that criticisms of entertainment mediums happen. Because it would be nice if the answer was so simple, no? That we could flick a switch and fix the mindset of individuals who may have a leaning towards this kind of thing. But if anything, such accusations do little more than cheapen the discussion; they are the Godwin Effect of this particular line of discussion. We talk about the home lives of the person, their upbringing, their mental state, their medical state, their mental health… and when there is nothing left, or when it becomes clear that resolving the issue may mean pointing the finger at larger academia or medical professionals, they strike to make a claim that is hard to get around. Because we don’t know. When we have trawled through the facts, all that is left is the supposition of untruths, an accusation that leaves us uncomfortable because there simply is no easy or factual answer to give except, “Well, it’s not proven, is it?” They know it’s not proven either way. And that’s how they get away with dropping the issue. It generates a polarising discourse, which is exactly what THEY want. Because the psychology of it denotes that we will argue over it because we want to justify our viewpoints, and how we are, and what we do. We do not, as gamers, want to be seen as violent people. But similarly, those who believe video games do inspire violence do not want to be wrong either, to justify their opinion and illusion of having a moral high-ground. It’s clever – but it really serves no useful function, save to stir up controversy and traffic from both camps, eager to do intellectual battle on the frontline of the nature of the subconscious.
And that’s kind of depressing, that we can still be so easily manipulated by such basic and obvious psychological triggers. Because it serves no higher function; it won’t undo the tragic events of Sandy Hook. It won’t enlighten us any more than we have already been enlightened by it, exposing arguably shocking lapses in responsibility by various people and organisations. It won’t lead us any closer to understanding why Adam Lanza did what he did, or how we can change the way things are in order to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. It was a perfect storm, in psychological speak – a disaster waiting to happen, and one which should have been obvious to even the most casual of bystander in their lives.
But what good will blame do? What good do these facts do us now? It happened, and nothing we can do now will change that. What the families need is time and the space to grieve, the compassion and love and understanding that they are going through hell right now and that every article (including this one, I am loathe to admit) that revisits it in some capacity only serves to open up wounds that are a long way from healing just yet.
The danger we currently face is not the psychology of video games, the violence contained in our media, nor the mental state of the killer. It is missing the importance of the psychology of the victims, the survivors and the families who have lost loved ones. That we become so innately focused on trying to understand the mindset of Adam Lanza, that we forget the victims in the process and the importance of letting the discussion rest for a while whilst they mourn and grieve and come to terms with that has happened. That we spend more time studying the killer than respecting and supporting those victims of the killing spree. Because we want to know. We crave the simple answers. We can fix those. Fixing those indelibly marked by the tragic events at hand… that’s HARD. It takes time. More time than we or the media are prepared to give them. We reach for the easy answers so we can move precariously onwards to the next major event, believing we’ve learned something, or changed something, even when we’ve barely scratched the surface.
Video games shouldn’t even enter the equation. Because they stifle any meaningful progression of understanding and discourse, and callously so; wheeling it out as a full stop, rather than a comma before leaping into the next sentence. The issue of violence in games currently has no beneficial property to the discussion, and has no real overall message or lesson to be learned. It offers nothing, save to cheaply and cynically generate traffic to their websites.
Truth be told, if there is anything we should be condemning right now, it is that cynical attitude.