Monday, April 23, 2012

Shall we prohibit violent video games?

Shall we prohibit violent video games? 
Sunny Huang

(Please read this essay critically.)

The potentially dangerous effect of video games on causing violent behaviour, particularly among children, has long been the focal point of many popular media. This article outlines that violence evolves through human history, and it is rooted in our male-dominated society. By comparing with the horror film, the essay also discusses the motivation of playing violent video games in modern society. Then it argues that it may be fallacious to build the causal relationship between exposure to violent video games and violent crime based on laboratorial researches. Following from that, a criminal case study has been introduced to inspect the environmental factor and the inner power behind the real violence. Finally, the essay justifies that the negative concern of video games can be defined as ‘moral panic’ (Ferguson, CJ et al. 2008, p.331) and more attention should be paid to the society itself rather than the video games.

Violence is our tradition. The connection between violence and games is a recurrent issue in human’s society. Since ancient Greek, violence has long been seen to be embedded in at least two forms:  war and games, or war and sports. In some cases, sports and games are the same activities, and full of warlike character, particularly after 776 B.C. when the Olympic Games were traditionally founded (Miller 2004, p.2). Cornell (n.d., p.31) addresses, in Greek and Roman antiquity, ‘boxing has always been a brutal activity, and in earlier ages bouts fought to a finish – that is, until one of the fighters gave in, or was reduced to complete exhaustion or knocked senseless’(Cornell, n.d., p.31). The gladiatorial games in Roman culture also indicate its essence of ‘warlike entertainment’ through ‘brutality of the arena and the cruel practices of Roman war-making’ (Cornell, n.d., p.34). Even Rome has conquered Greek; the Romans still use the arena to keep an atmosphere of violence by creating artificial battlefields for public amusement (Cornell, n.d., p.34).

To understand why our culture has embraced violence so much, a few factors must be pointed out. Firstly, in a male-dominated society, to remain the masculinity seems to have been favoured as the top priority, particularly in American culture.  And the masculinity is best shown via the exercise of power either through idea or through force to conquer, which is ‘the use of violence to get others to do what they want’ (Long & Wall 2009, pp. 276 - 295). Cornell (n.d., p.29) also stresses, ‘both war and sport have had an important social function as mechanisms for male bonding, for the social construction of masculinity, and in reinforcing and perpetuating male domination’. Secondly, competitive spirit has been penetrated into every corner of civil life since ancient Greek; both the battle and the brutal game were categorized to be competitive game with character of ‘agonistic spirit’ (Cornell, n.d., p.33). When the purpose is to win whatever a victory, or a prestige, the mean might be extreme. What we can interpret from such history is that violence plays a dominant role through human’s evolution; the major difference is only the form.

By comparing with watching horror films, we can also understand the motivation of playing violent video games. Zillmann (Oliver & Sander 2004) and his team conducted a research on why the horror film holds the top level of appeal among dating couples and romantic partners, and the result helps to explain what the violent RPG player might be looking for:

…that gender-role socialization, particularly as it relates to the expression of emotions, has historically encouraged bravado and fearlessness among males, and encouraged empathy and emotional responding among females. While historic times may have offered ample opportunity for males to play the role of “protector” and females to show dependence on males for protection, modern times are fortunately relatively lacking in horrific or violent situations that would allow for these stereotypical gender-role behaviours. Consequently, exposure to fictional fears, such as viewing a horror film in the theatre, can serve as a substitute that allows males and females to enact these gendered behaviours of “protector” and “protected”, respectively.
                                                                                   (Oliver & Sander 2004, p.248)

Modern society is a highly “organized” system which might lack of the hero being identified in Homeric poems, in which ‘the heroes are engaged in an incessant competition for honour and prestige both on and off the battlefield’ (Cornell, n.d., p.32). Entertainment somehow reflects what we are after in reality. To say it’s kind of nostalgia for modern people to experience ‘primitive instinct’ through either watching horror film or playing violent video games, might be exaggerated, but to some extents, it is like ‘catharsis’ (Mary Beth, 2004. p.247), also it is zero risk due to the violence in video game is safer than that in real world. Another analysis is captured in Gee’s description (2005, p.27) by using the example of game “Castlevania”:

Each of us human beings has a unique trajectory through life… Castelvania is a little second life, much safer, saner, more ordered, and more understandable than real life. The game offers the pleasure of making a life – of a making our own trajectory (but a virtual-real one) – without the fears and pains.                                                                                                                                            
                                                                                                      (Gee 2005, p. 27)

Despite such pleasure is widely accepted by game players, scholars, through laboratorial research, examines that playing violent video games, particularly among kids, will increase the chances of dangerous behaviour or even commit criminal behaviour through the harmful ‘wishful identification’, such as ‘I wish I were a warrior’ and ‘because in this game you can override people, kill people and shoot people, and I want to do that too’, etc. (Konijn, Bijvank & Bushman 2007, p.1043). However, this kind of ‘wishful identification’ is not compelling enough to be attributed to the cause of violent criminal behaviour in real world. C J Ferguson et al. (2008, pp.311 -332) has specified that the crux of the argument is to identify whether human’s behaviour is transformed into violent action because of exposure to violent video games, not merely being aroused or imagining violent scene.

According to the general aggression model in Bushman & Anderson’s 2002 study (Ferguson, CJ et al. 2008, p. 314), exposure to violent video contents such as video games generates the ‘aggressive cognitive scripts’ (Ferguson, CJ et al 2008, p. 314) automatically saved in human’s memory thus individual will rely on such scripts to provoke aggressive behaviour. The hypothesis of this passive model is originated from the social learning theories and to exclude other influences including genetic, personality and family environment and assumes no one is able to immune to the violent stimuli (Ferguson, CJ et al 2008, p. 314). This model implies that the exposure to violent media reaching certain threshold may cause violent behaviour.

A more dynamic model called “the catalyst model” is introduced by CJ Ferguson et al. (2008, p.314-315) as an alternative theory relying more on biological motivation. CJ Ferguson et al. argue that genetic factor shapes children’s personality together with the environmental factors such as family violence, etc. (Ferguson, CJ et al 2008). This model explains:

…individuals who have an aggressive personality are more likely to engage in violent behaviour during times of environmental strain. Thus, although the environment does not cause violence propensity, times of stress may act as catalysts for violent acts for an individual already prone to them. Such environmental strains could include financial and social problems caused by divorce, legal troubles, and similar events.
                                                                   (Ferguson, CJ et al. 2008, pp.314-315)

If we follow this track, we will agree that there are actually many factors correlated to the violent behaviour; The media violent plays as catalysts merely when an individual already lives in the ‘violence proneness’, the typical result is this individual may imitate those violent actions in the video games; CJ Ferguson et al. (2008, p.315) draw the robust conclusion that ‘video game violence does not cause violent behaviour but may have an impact on its form’.

An appalling but also heart-broken atrocity like Columbine massacre in 1999 could be an example to further the analysis here. Popular media may blame violent video games because one of the two killers, Erich Harris, used to be a fan of violent game Doom. But given that there are many other underlying reasons may have effect on violent behaviour, such as, the culture of discrimination and favouritism in Columbine High School causing bullying and revenge; the personality issue that Erich might be an either sociopath or a psychopath (Marsico 2011), so the accusation to violent video games seems not to be convincing enough.

Both Eric and Dylan used to be quite active kids in Columbine High School at spare time, but later  on each of them professed in the journal with such expression ‘the lonely man strikes with absolute rage’. Despite the victimisation is not worth to be sympathized, one can still sense from the above claims that the violent behaviour is actually kind of last cry for help, although from two desperate boys. Columbine High School is a ‘place of cliques and the athletes were the biggest, toughest group’ (Marsico 2011, p.17). A clique-filled school environment might be worse than a broken family particularly for teenagers who are always striking for identifying themselves at this critical stage, because they eventually need to fit in the society. Also the loneliness caused by social isolation, or even philosophical depression would be the much deeper and powerful motivation to push the people over the edge and none of these motivations come from violent video games. Funk (1982) analyses as following:

All isolation is experienced as a threat to vital interests and produce anxiety. Resistance to such anxiety normally provokes an aggressive attitude toward the threatening objects, and if this attitude is not overcome (as, for example, when such objects turn toward the individual with love), the individual develops an inclination toward destructiveness that becomes constant and governs all his relations to life.

                                                                                    (Funk 1982, p.41-42)

We might have to arrive at an understanding of a relatively neutral perspective on human nature, that is, human was born with certain primitive power. During the process of socialization also civilization, the initial power may end up with two different orientations, one is successfully achieving self-actualization, which is constructive; and another way turns out to be the destructive power due to the frustration encountered. This has been elaborated by Funk (1982) as following:

…it is only through the productive orientation in the process of assimilation and socialization that an individual can realize the possibilities and capacities that lie dormant within. Productive relatedness to the world simultaneously implies and evokes the individual’s relatedness to himself and to others and is an essential factor in the process of individuation.
                                                                                                (Funk 1982, p. 37)

 In Columbine massacre case, Erich Harris’ dream in real world was about to enlist in US Marine Corps but then he was rejected. His real dream is not about being a killer as any prototype in violent video games, although he confessed in his journal that he only had “hatred”, but at least he does not hate to be a marine. In fact, both the bullying from school and the rejection from US Marine Corps symbolize frustration in real world; People like Erich Harris who certainly possesses more inner power and a young heart without experience to tackle frustration, will only choose extreme way. Hodge (2011, p. 6) argues that ‘violent rivalry is used to fill the hole created by the human inability to pacifically come to terms with the other, resulting in a violent mechanism that builds distorted identity’. Apparently, if Erich is lucky, his life path might follow a productive orientation to actualize his dream. By contrast, only when Erich cannot make the real dream come true, he then turns to those destructively fantasy dream which might have been rehearsed many times in violent video games – to execute his killing spree. 

But to most of people, what a game, even a violent game, offers is an escape from routine life, but being a sensation seeker does not necessarily mean being a violent seeker in real world. People will be interested in looking for unusual, extraordinary experience in game world, and the line between virtual violence and real violence still remains very clear. Holm Sorensen and Jessen assessed (Goldstein 2005, p.345) that Danish Kids were capable of drawing the line between fantasy and reality:

The children in the investigation, including the youngest who were five years old, are fully aware and can account for the difference between computer games as fiction and computer games as reality...It is also important that this exact feature [interactivity], which is usually described as a problem in relation to violent computer games – the fact that the player himself must conduct violent deeds – actually makes children aware that their actions take place in a fictitious universe. For children, computer games are in fact “games” with their own rules. From an early age, they are aware that these rules do not apply outside the realm of the game, with the exception that children can include elements and rules from the games in their play.

                        (Holm Sorensen & Jessen 2000, cited in Goldstein 2005, p.345)

Immersing in the game world looks like being an actor or actress in the movie, when the game (acting) is over, most of people are able to know it’s time to go home for either cooking dinner or doing homework, being a mafia or an assassin for 45 minutes or so only means a 45 minutes escape from a probably boring daily life. And this is supposed to be the function of entertainment. The key point here is how to educate people to play video games critically and reflectively (Gee 2005, p.5).

Actually, the fear to the popularity of video games can be related to ‘moral panic’ (Ferguson, CJ et al. 2008, p.331). McRobbie and Thornton (1995, p.561 - 562) emphasizes that authorities always want to ensure that there is a functional leadership from government body by intervening the sphere of public opinion through acting as moral guardians. However, such panic ‘is tempting to conclude that a difficult problem is caused by an easily remedied issue’ (Ferguson, CJ et al. 2008, p. 331). With regard to crime issue, Gee (2005, p.5) argues that the 20th century was less violent than the 19th century, back then when we actually did not have any video games to play. Cornell (n.d., pp.29-40) also notes that ‘when the gladiatorial games were at the height, the Roman world was largely at peace and the spectators in the arena had no direct experience of war or military service’. Gee(2005, p.5) suggests that the more efficient way to lower violence is to care more about those contexts ranging from family issue to social or cultural conflict rather than monitoring kids getting excited for video games.

As CJ Ferguson et al. (2008, p. 331) summarise, ‘yet one generation’s violent media becomes the next generation’s literature, and our fundamental biology, innately aggressive as it sometimes may be, continues.’ If such a conclusion based on human instinct sounds too desperate, we absolutely can condemn the malfunction of entertainment to seek any possible solution in society, but before that, we need to reflect on our education, parenting, policy making and value system, as entertainment production is merely the mirror of real world, it should not become the scapegoat. (END)

*This is my school assignment.


Cornell, TJ n.d., ‘On War and Games in the Ancient World’, Sixth International Symposium for Olympic Research, pp. 29-40. 

Ferguson, CJ, Rueda, SM, Cruz, AM, Ferguson, DE, Fritz, S & Smith,  SM 2008, ‘Violent video games and aggression: causal relationship or byproduct of family violence and intrinsic violence motivation?’, Criminal Justice and Behaviour,  American Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology, vol.35, no.3, pp. 311 – 332. 

Funk, R 1982, Erich Fromm: the courage to be human, Continuum, New York.

Gee, JP 2005, Why video games are good for your soul: pleasure and learning, Common Ground Publishing Pty Ltd., Australia.

Goldstein, J 2005, ‘Violent Video Games’, in Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein eds., Handbook of Computer Game Studies, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MASS. & London, pp. 341 -- 357.

Hodge, J 2011, ‘Why do humans commit violence?’, Compass, vol. 45, no.3, pp. 3 – 12.
Konijn, EA, Bijvank, MN & Bushman, BJ 2007, ‘I wish I were a warrior: the role of wishful identification in the effects of violent video games on aggression in adolescent boys’, Development Psychology, American Psychological Association, vol. 43, no. 4, pp. 1038 – 1044.

Long, P & Wall, T 2009, ‘Media power’, Media Studies: Texts, Production and Context, Pearson Education, Harlow, pp. 276 – 295. 

Marsico , K 2011, The columbine high school massacre: murder in the classroom, Marshall Cavendish, New York. 

McRobbie, A &  Thornton, SL 1995, ‘Rethinking ‘moral panic’ for multi-mediated social worlds’, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp. 559-574.

Miller, SG 2004,  Ancient Greek Athletics, Yale University, U.S.

Oliver, MB & Sander, M 2004, ‘The appeal of horror and suspense’, The Horror Film. Ed. By Stephen Prince. New Brunswick: Rutgers Up, pp. 242 – 259.

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