In the wake of tragic Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Connecticut, the game industry finds itself under scrutiny yet again. This isn’t the first time video games have been fodder for government agencies and special interest groups looking to deflect blame from themselves. It certainly won’t be the last. Being an avid gamer myself, I’m usually one to vehemently defend the industry. I do not believe that video games have played a significant role in any of the massacres that have occurred in the last two decades. There is very little, if any, reason to believe the contrary. Yet, I think it’s time the game industry gets a little introspective and begins to evaluate their role in the ever increasing hyper-aggression in adolescents.
The fact is this: Most of today’s big-budget videogames involve gunplay and/or violence to a significant degree. That’s fine. The median age for gamers has now climbed well into the 30s, so there is definitely an audience out there for these games that can handle their mature content. The problem is that there is also a huge audience out there of significantly younger gamers that are just discovering their love for gaming, and they are also playing these games.
Sure, we have the ESRB, the kinda-sorta regulatory organization that is supposed to prevent children from playing these games, but it isn’t enough. Venture into any of today’s popular online shooter communities, and you’ll no doubt find them populated by swarms of prepubescent tweens screaming endless strings of obscenities towards one another.
Instead of admitting that maybe, just maybe, video games are at least somewhat at fault for triggering this destructive behavior, the industry has stood defiant and unwilling to accept any responsibility in the matter. By opening a dialogue with other concerned parties, the business would finally be able to diminish the bullying it has received from organizations such as the NRA, and could instead become a contributor the solution rather than a catalyst to the problem.
The proliferating fallacy on both sides of the issue is that videogames have very static and universal effects on all gamers. This completely ignores the fact that younger gamers, whose behavioral patterns are considerably malleable, are far more susceptible to the negatively effects of gaming titles featuring violent content. In 2006, for example, researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine split a small group of adolescents into two groups: one played a Need for Speed title while the other played an early entry in the now infamous Call of Duty series. After 30 minutes, the children received MRIs so that the researchers could attempt to pinpoint what areas of the brain were affected by each type of game.
The results, while not earth-shattering, were enough to establish a link between videogame violence and aggressive behavior. The MRI results showed increased activity in the amygdala, which is responsible for emotional stimulation in the brain. Not only that, but there were also decreases in activity in areas related to self-control and inhibition. Yes, this is only one study. The sample size was relatively small. We would be making a mistake, however, if we dismissed its findings on those grounds.
I’m sure that you’re curious as to why someone who devotes so much of their life to gaming culture is so willing to criticize the industry on such an issue. This controversy is about so much more than videogames. It’s about creating a safer world for future generations. It’s about cultivating mentally healthy and socially adept children that will not have to resort to violence as a method of emotional expression.
I’m just going come out and say it: videogames are part of the problem.
It’s time to stop protecting our own interests and lifestyle choices and begin to work towards a resolution that will protect society as a whole. I’m not singling out the gaming industry by any means. If we’re really going to make any significant progress, everyone needs to be on board. The finger pointing and mudslinging needs to come to an abrupt halt. Significant research must be performed so that we may further understand the links between violence in entertainment and mental health. The wheels are now in motion for more of this type of research to be done as the United States government looks to overhaul its policies on firearm distribution. But what can the game industry do to kick-start reform on their own?
It all starts with developers. In my opinion, the use of weapon-based violence has become a crutch. While these elements can be used to craft a quality narrative, they are more often used as a lazy way to distract gamers from the lack of creativity present in most of today’s triple-A titles. The gluttonous appetite for bloodshed that we have acquired has given these developers the freedom to forgo much of the artistic sensibility present in early games and in its place injecting copious amounts of gratuitous brutality. Shock value has superseded innovation in many cases. If we are to truly look to rectify gaming’s reputation among the general public, developers need to reverse this trend and search for alternative methods of character and story progression.
I’m not advocating for the complete eradication of violence in interactive entertainment, but something has to change. Though the links between digital violence and real-life aggressive behavior are minimal, we should begin to find ways to minimize children’s exposure to it nonetheless. I find it comical that the same people that complain about all the angry, foul-mouthed kids in their Halo deathmatch sessions are part of the same crowd that furiously defends gaming’s innocence in instigating that kind of behavior. The fact is this: Gaming is a huge business that unquestionably affects those who consume it. I firmly believe most of those effects to be positive. Is it really that unreasonable then that they could also have a few adverse effects?