Violence and Video Games... Again

Video game violence is back. Again.

It is inexplicable that a crime with clear factors of gun control, mental illness, school safety, parenting and the like instead brought the effects of violent video games into the limelight.

I recently talked with an unnamed journalist who wanted me to be the voice of "video games cause violence" for a newscast. The interaction was so interesting that I'll include an abbreviated version here:

Broadcast Journalist: "So do you think video games cause the kind of violence we saw in Connecticut?"
Greg: "I'm not a media effects scholar but research has not substantiated that video games cause any kind of violence."
Journalist: "Oh... I really need someone who can say that video games make people violent. So you're saying they don't make people violent?"
Greg: "As a sole factor? No, we haven't found that."
Journalist: "Oh, we have a lot of people who say that already. We're having trouble finding someone who says video games create violence."
Greg: "Probably because there's not much to support that. The most we can say is that some video games can cause some sorts of short-term aggression, but aggression isn't violence. Video games are a unique storytelling medium and there's still a lot to learn."
Journalist: "So can you say that? Or do you know someone who can say that?"
Greg: "What? About aggression? Or about video games being a storytelling medium?"
Journalist: "That video games cause violence."

In the disordered chaos that is our information environment, information about media effects has included the insipid, the brilliant and the factually untrue. In the cacophony of information out there, I hope to present a little of what we do know. Also be sure to see ProCon and ESA for some of their data.

Here's the 101 on media effects. There are two basic theories that inform what we know about the effects of media.

-"Direct Effects Theory" argues that you take in a media message and it makes you do something. You play Grand Theft Auto and it makes you go steal a car. This theory has been all but disproved.

-"Limited Effects Theory" argues that media messages can have some affect over some period of time in some circumstances with some people. Advertisers like this theory. In other words, if you watch enough television and take in enough Coke ads, you might eventually feel like buying a Coke. There is some evidence for this theory, but what this effect looks like and what the circumstances are can be hard to pin down.

The problem is that it's hard to remove all of the factors that confound study of violence in gaming. Yes, the Columbine shooters loved The Matrix and played Doom. But there were a number of environmental, social and mental factors at play as well.

So we know a few things based on this academic approach.

*That violence in video games can create short-term aggression -- but aggression isn't necessarily violence.

*We also know that kids who already have violent tendencies tend to be attracted to video game violence.

*We know that not all violence is created equal. For instance, Mario kicks around turtles and pounces on Goombas and you do have to sling-shot birds at pigs in Angry Birds. But that's not typically what people are referring to when they discuss violence in games. They mean blood -- and usually human blood.

*But video game violence also plays different roles. In Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, the game forces you to kill an unbelievable amount of demons and vampires in your quest to hunt down Satan. But in the process, your character becomes a less appealing person and, in short, becomes evil. Like The Godfather, which was also a violent film, the brutality of the tale works to question the violence itself. In short, not all video games present gratuitous violence just to present gratuitous violence.

For whatever reason, the National Rifle Association thinks that Mortal Kombat is more dangerous than assault rifles and armor-piercing rounds. But if that's the case, as Michael Rougeau notes, where were they in the landmark Supreme Court case last year? You'd think they would have applied some of their considerable resources to support Sen. Leland Yee's lawsuit to criminalize the sale of violent video games to minors.

Top Image: A screenshot of Call of Duty 4. Courtesy of Gamespot.
Bottom Image: A screenshot from Mortal Kombat II. Courtesy of Fighters Generation.