Games, Violence, and Today’s News
I’m going to take a break from animal training today in order to talk about a pressing matter that’s become more of a hot topic: violence and video games.
With the recent shootings in the United States and a sudden increase in the blame on video games for violent actions, I think it is also more important than ever to take a look at how video games interact with people from a purely behavioral point of view.
Be aware, this post is going to analyze what I believe is happening when one plays a game and how behavioral principles are interacting with the gamer. A lot of this is going to be conjecture supported with studies, but until more studies on video games are released, the best conclusion anyone should be able to get is that there isn’t enough evidence to show a link between video games and violent actions. Currently, the evidence suggests there is no connection between the two.
Games and Violence
I’ve had a debate with my psychology professor about this subject: do video games cause violence in youths?
My response has been “no, it does not.” His argument was “yes, it does.”
The reason my professor believed video games cause violence can be found in how behaviorism breaks down how and why we do the actions that we do.
Let’s take a look at his argument:
- Games have an environment where violent actions are rewarded.
- When actions are rewarded, you are more likely to perform that action again.
- Youth play games with environments that reward violent actions.
- The youth are also more susceptible to conditioning.
- Therefore, youth who play games will react more violently.
What he says isn’t wrong from a behaviorism point of view. Reinforcement of behaviors will increase the likelihood that a behavior will happen again. Children are also more susceptible to conditioning than adults. In games, players do shoot, stab, and murder one another for rewards. In fact, back in 2015, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) released a policy statement that pointed out that violent video games increased the tendency of violent/aggressive thoughts and behaviors.
However, I’ve found a majority of this argument unconvincing. In fact, the APA later released a review that pointed out the problems that come with studies that do support violence caused by video games. On top of that, the general consensus among the scientific field is that there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that violent video games cause violent behaviors. However, there has been a study that has shown that as violent video games have increased sales, violent crime has decreased.
But how do we make sense of the idea that video games apparently create an increase in aggression but also have a negative impact on violent crime?
Firstly, I believe that most players have a strong sense of discrimination. Meaning, as humans, we have a strong understanding of which environments/stimuli a behavior is viable to do and which environments a behavior is not. For example, if an angry cat scratched us, then we won’t develop a fear of everything fluffy. Instead, we would only develop a sense of caution around cats. In this sense, a majority of adults understand that they can act as aggressive as they want in a game, but the second the console is off, they are no longer in an environment where that behavior is tolerated. Meaning, you can punch and hit people in a game, but when you turn off the console it is not okay to punch and hit people.
While I know adults have a strong sense of discrimination, I couldn’t find a study that showed how well children discriminate between behaviors in a virtual medium and behaviors in reality. Hopefully, if this study is ever done, I can update this article in the future with the results and what I think about them.
Secondly, the behavior being reinforced isn’t just the violent action on the screen – instead, it’s the process behind the action that is being more heavily rewarded. Let’s take a look, for example, at the game League of Legends. Players in that game learn how to ambush and kill other players through a variety of spells and items. A person who is not familiar with games would look at this system and say “look, you’re being rewarded for murder!” But if you look closer, gamers are being rewarded with a “kill” – which in this sense, no longer means taking someone’s life – after strenuous amounts of teamwork, planning, prediction, and coordination. I would argue that “kills” in games mean you successfully outplayed your opponent to the point where they had no options left, and thus, a “dead” opponent. I personally see this as similar to checkmate in chess. In chess, you’re rewarded for killing the king right? Would you argue that chess reinforces the action of regicide? In a similar way to League of Legends, chess rewards the thoughts and processes that lead up to the checkmate, not the checkmate itself. In that same sense, the behavior gamers are being rewarded for are the strategic and tactical portions of the game where they had to out-think and out-manoeuvre their opponents. This concept of games rewarding and revealing these form of background behaviors (teamwork, planning, being courageous/selfish under pressure) is something the air force has started using in order to recruit new pilots. With all of this in mind, I find the idea the players are in an environment where violent actions are being rewarded to be dubious and instead, the actions behind the gameplay are the actual behaviors being rewarded.
Third, the action on the screen itself isn’t the action being rewarded, the action in real life is the action being rewarded. This is similar to the previous point but the idea here is that ultimately, the player is being reinforced for pushing a button, not stabbing someone or shooting someone. This is more of something I want to study, but I believe video games do not reward violent actions. I think video games are rewarding players for pushing buttons in real life. The button is associated with a violent action on screen sometimes, but there is still a degree of removal between the player and a true act of violence. For example, if a gamer decided to play Call of Duty for hours, do you think that person would make a great soldier? After all, if what my professor said is true, they’re being rewarded and conditioned to perform violent behaviors.
I, and the soldiers in this article, would argue that they would not.
The problem here is that the gamer doesn’t actually know how a gun works nor are they being reinforced for how to do a violent action. They know about recoil as a game mechanic, not a real-life phenomenon with guns. From the article, one of the soldiers being interviewed even points out that “my real-life combat training doesn’t really help. It’s more of how you can exploit the game’s mechanics to be successful than knowing any real tactics about war.” To me, this further highlights that there is a line between a game and violent actions, and that the behavior being rewarded isn’t pulling the trigger on a gun, but pushing buttons on a controller to exploit game mechanics.
Marine Lance Corporal Nicko Requesto from that article also points out that he’s bothered by gamers ‘”only when I meet idiots who don’t know how to tell fantasy from fiction. Everyone should understand these are just games, and everyone I play these games with are cool.” However, he adds, “once in a while I might meet someone who can only think about blowing someone up.”‘ Based on his statement, we can conclude that the majority of gamers aren’t being conditioned into becoming violent murder machines. Instead, we can determine that a small portion of the population are fixated on the violent act. It’s here that I believe more studies should be done to determine if games are giving this small portion of people a healthy outlet, or if games are being used to exacerbate the problem. Based on my own experiences in games, I’ve personally found the former to be more correct than the latter.
Returning back to our figurative gamer, let’s put this gamer into the seat of a drone pilot. Do you think our gamer would do better here as a pilot than on the field as a soldier? My opinion is that yes, they would. They don’t need to know about how the drone works, or how the gun works. The gamer intuitively understands what buttons control the up, down, roll and pitch motions. In fact, the gamer should be extremely adept at picking up new controls since gamers do that every time they play a new game. My guess is that the gamer would probably be extremely adept at piloting the drone in such a way that makes it durable to most forms of interference. While the science doesn’t wholly support me on this, it does suggest that gamers may have a toolset that could make them great drone pilots. However, the science does support the idea that gamers are good enough at pushing buttons and controlling a virtual character on screen well enough that they tend to be better laparoscopic surgeons. Both of these articles suggest again the behaviors on-screen are not being reinforced and instead, the act of pushing a button and reacting to pixels on a screen are the actual behaviors being reinforced.
Hopefully, I’ve made my own opinions in this piece rather clear – that there isn’t a connection between violence and video games, and that if anything, video games have been helping people.
But I also know that people will have different opinions, and I’m sure my professor would still disagree with me. If you do disagree, then please, leave a comment below. I’m always curious about people’s thoughts on this.
With all of this out of the way, I would just like to say that we’ll return next Thursday or Friday with more behavioral principles. If people want to see more articles like this, then please leave a comment below or a message to let me know!