Is Trump right- are video games training our kids to be killers?

In the wake of the Florida school shooting it seems that the gun control laws are in the spotlight again. And so are violent video games, in what a cynic might think is an attempt to shift the blame to an area that’s not directly funding the Republican Party.

Still, cynicism aside, it is worth asking the question of whether video games are training our kids to be killers in a fair and objective manner, even if the common sense approach might be to think that participating in video game related violence might at best desensitise one to violence, at worst lead one to act out the content of a violent game. Common sense is all very well but it really does need to be backed up and supported by empirical research if we’re going to base policy on it.

This is the cherry picked highlight reel of violence in video games that the White House put together. I would strongly suggest if you are of a squeamish disposition do not watch it.

All the games featured in the clip are 18 certificate games and are not meant to be played by people under that age.

The White House also released the following statement:

The President acknowledged some studies have indicated there is a correlation between video game violence and real violence. The conversation centered on whether violent video games, including games that graphically simulate killing, desensitize our community to violence.

None of that seems initially unreasonable does it?

There are however several problems with such a line of reasoning.

Firstly America is by no stretch of the imagination the only country where these games are sold. Some of the games featured in that clip have been worldwide hits, some of them have sold poorly, and then only on the back of the controversy they’ve sought to create. If these games do act as a primer and lead to real violence, why is that violence only evident in America?

Secondly for a retailer to supply these games to a minor is a criminal offence (a fine of up to £5,000 in the UK). No ifs or buts, these games are not suitable for children. In fact sales statistics show that overwhelmingly the people buying and playing video games are in their mid 30’s. It makes sense- these were the kids that grew up playing Playstation, Wii and Xbox and they’ve not packed their hobby in just yet.

As an aside, the industry body, the ESA, releases an annual sales demographic and usage report every year. You can read last years here.

Some interesting highlights are:

  1. the average age of a gamer is 35;
  2. more women over 18 play games than boys under 18;
  3. Under 18 boys only make up 18% of the market; and
  4. 89% of games are suitable for teens or younger kids.

I’ve written before about video game certification in the UK in the past, if you want my longer in depth thoughts on that, you can read them here.

Thirdly, and this is the biggie, brace yourselves people; there is very little in the way of modern academic study that shows a causal link between violence in video games and violence acts in the real world.

This seems counter intuitive doesn’t it?

There is an up to date academic paper that is very readable on the subject here that goes into some considerable detail why the General Aggression Model (GAM) doesn’t really hold water, and how the results of older studies that may have shown a link could be significantly flawed.

This isn’t new though, a study in 2014 showed the same, and in fact other publications have referred to the Moral Panic around video game violence. Although it is worth pointing out that there are also other studies that suggest a link, it’s also worth bearing in mind that there have been concerns about video games causing violent tendencies as far back as the 1970’s.

As a parent there is a constant tension between what I am happy for my kids to play and what their friends parents are happy for their kids to play- the two don’t always overlap, and I quite often seen a plethora of 18 certificate titles in the friend’s stream of my son. In some instances, through research and experience of the game, I consider overruling the rating (Star Wars Battlefront 2 is a 16, mostly because the dead Storm Troopers stay there as bodies, it’s no more violent than Overwatch, which is a 12- see my piece on it here) but by and large I tend to agree with the ratings and we stick to them.

Returning to the cynic who suggested that Trump was seeking to blame shift youth violence from the gun culture to the video game industry, I hear he is also muttering that the games industry itself, like a lot of creative industries, is broadly left in it’s sympathies. How odd that the right would suggest attacking something with an opposing leaning, the cynic whispers.

None of this of course removes the fact that if you did watch the shock reel the White House published on YouTube and I’ve embedded, you are probably, er, shocked. Violence removed from context is often as unsettling, although for different reasons, as contextual violence. That’s fine, I found it a bit disturbing too. I don’t choose to play many violent games; the 18 certificate Tomb Raider titles or the Wolfenstein reboot games are probably the most violent I’ve played in years. I’ve become squeamish in my middle years but just because I don’t like them, doesn’t mean I don’t want other people to enjoy them- that’s what being an adult is about.