Tag Archives: Video game controversy

Violence & Video Games, Yet Again.

Manhunt (video game)

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While there is an abundance of violence in the real world, there is also considerable focus on the virtual violence of video games. Interestingly, some people (such as the head of the NRA) blame real violence on the virtual violence of video games. The idea that art can corrupt people is nothing new and dates back at least to Plato’s discussion of the corrupting influence of art. While he was mainly worried about the corrupting influence of tragedy and comedy, he also raised concerns about violence and sex. These days we generally do not worry about the nefarious influence of tragedy and comedy, but there is considerable concern about violence.

While I am a gamer, I do have concerns about the possible influence of video games on actual behavior. For example, one of my published essays is on the distinction between virtual vice and virtual virtue and in this essay I raise concerns about the potential dangers of video games that are focused on vice. While I do have concerns about the impact of video games, there has been little in the way of significant evidence supporting the claim that video games have a meaningful role in causing real-world violence. However, such studies are fairly popular and generally get attention from the media.

The most recent study purports to show that teenage boys might become desensitized to violence because of extensive playing of video games. While some folks will take this study as showing a connection between video games and violence, it is well worth considering the details of the study in the context of causal reasoning involving populations.

When conducting a cause to effect experiment, one rather important factor is the size of experimental group (those exposed to the cause) and the control group (those not exposed to the cause). The smaller the number of subjects, the more likely that the difference between the groups is due to factors other than the (alleged) causal factor. There is also the concern with generalizing the results from the experiment to the whole population.

The experiment in question consisted of 30 boys (ages 13-15) in total. As a sample for determining a causal connection, the sample is too small for real confidence to be placed in the results. There is also the fact that the sample is far too small to support a generalization from the 30 boys to the general population of teenage boys. In fact, the experiment hardly seems worth conducting with such a small sample and is certainly not worth reporting on-except as an illustration of how research should not be conducted.

The researchers had the boys play a violent video game and a non-violent video game in the evening and compared the results. According to the researchers, those who played the violent video game had faster heart rates and lower sleep quality. They also reported “increased feelings of sadness.”  After playing the violent game, the boys  had greater stress and anxiety.

According to one researcher, “The violent game seems to have elicited more stress at bedtime in both groups, and it also seems as if the violent game in general caused some kind of exhaustion. However, the exhaustion didn’t seem to be of the kind that normally promotes good sleep, but rather as a stressful factor that can impair sleep quality.”

Being a veteran of violent video games, these results are consistent with my own experiences. I have found that if I play a combat game, be it a first person shooter, an MMO or a real time strategy game, too close to bedtime, I have trouble sleeping. Crudely put, I find that I am “keyed” up and if I am unable to “calm down” before trying to sleep, my sleep is generally not very restful. I really noticed this when I was raiding in WOW. A raid is a high stress situation (game stress, anyway) that requires hyper-vigilance and it takes time to “come down” from that. I have experienced the same thing with actual fighting (martial arts training, not random violence).  I’ve even experienced something comparable when I’ve been awoken by a big spider crawling on my face-I did not sleep quite so well after that. Graduate school, as might be imagined, put me into this state of poor sleep for about five years.

In general, then, it makes sense that violent video games would have this effect-which is why it is not a good idea to game up until bed time if you want to get a good night’s sleep. Of course, it is a generally a good idea to relax about an hour before bedtime-don’t check email, don’t get on Facebook, don’t do work and so on.

While not playing games before bedtime is a good idea, the question remains as to how these findings connect to violence and video games. According to the researchers, the differences between the two groups “suggest that frequent exposure to violent video games may have a desensitizing effect.”

Laying aside the problem that the sample is far too small to provide significant results that can be reliably extended to the general population of teenage boys, there is also the problem that there seems to be a rather large chasm between the observed behavior (anxiety and lower sleep quality) and being desensitized to violence. The researchers do note that the cause and effect relationship was not established and they did consider the possibility of reversed causation (that the video games are not causing these traits, but that boys with those traits are drawn to violent video games).  As such, the main impact of the study seems to be that it got media attention for the researchers. This would suggest another avenue of research: the corrupting influence of media attention on researching video games and violence.

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Video Games, Movies & Violence

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Each time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, there is an effort to determine the causes (or lay the blame). This process generally follows a predictable script. Those who hate guns, blame the guns. Those who love guns say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Those of the cult of pop psychology appear on the news shows to discuss whatever “theory” they are currently selling in their self-help books. Those who study the workings of the mind present their latest theories. And, of course, there is the ritual blaming of violent video games and violent movies. This time around, the National Rifle Association explicitly blamed Hollywood while proposing that the United States should post an armed guard in each school.

While I have written often about video games, movies and violence I clearly have my own small part in the scripted play and here I am writing about them again.

The archetype argument for the claim that the arts (in this case video games and movies) can cause people to behave badly is based on Plato’s argument in the Republic. In that work, Plato contends that the arts can corrupt the soul and cause people to give in to feelings such as lust, anger and humor in ways that they should not. In the case of mass shootings, the basic idea remains the same: exposure to violent content in video games and movies can cause people to engage in real violence, such as engaging in a mass shooting at a movie theater or school.

The idea that violent video games and movies can affect people is not implausible. In fact, I have my two standard arguments in support of the claim that violent media can play a causal role in actual violent behavior.

First, repeated exposure to game or movie violence can condition a person to accept violence as normal. This is because people generally base their conception of normal based partially on what they generally experience. So, if fictional violence becomes a normal part of a person’s life, it makes sense that she might become desensitized to violence (or accustomed to it) and thus less more likely to give in to violent impulses.

Censoring such violence would reduce the exposure of people (or certain people) to virtual violence and thus they would presumably be less likely to be violent.

My second standard argument is based on the idea that the violence of movies and games is a curriculum of virtual violence that often teaches that violence is an effective and acceptable solution to problems. Popular video games such as Halo 4 and World of Warcraft are focused on violence, albeit in the context of science fiction and fantasy. There are also popular first person shooters, such as the Call of Duty series, that involve engaging in violence against other virtual humans. There is also the infamous Grand Theft Auto series of games in which one plays a bad person doing bad things. In the case of movies, even movies such as the Avengers and the Hobbit include considerable violence. Given the lessons taught by these movies and games, it makes some sense to think that people exposed to them might be more inclined to consider violence an option, perhaps in emulation of the games or movies. As such, perhaps some blame can be placed on video games and movies.

While a reasonable case can be made in favor of being suspicious of violent video games and movies, there is the rather important matter of sorting out the extent of the influence. That is, working out the causality of the matter.

Obviously enough, exposure to violent movies or games is not a necessary condition for a person engaging in violent behavior. A necessary causal condition is a condition that is required for the effect to occur. Put another way, without the necessary condition, what it is necessary for cannot be the case. For example, the presence of oxygen is a necessary causal condition for human life.

While humans have been engaging in violence since there have been humans, movies and video games are rather recent inventions. As such, exposure to them cannot be a necessary cause of violence. After all, there would have been no violence until they were invented if this were the case.

Naturally, it could be claimed that any violent art (such as a story about war) or violent games (like chess) can cause people to be violent and these are rather old. However, the obvious counter is that humans were probably killers before they were artists and gamers.

Equally obvious is the fact that exposure to violent movies or video games is not a sufficient cause of violence. A sufficient causal condition is such that it will bring about its effect by itself. For example, decapitating a human is sufficient to cause death.

Millions of people (including me and many of my friends) have played violent video games without ever having engaged in acts of significant violence, such as murder or mass murder. Also, billions of people have probably seen violent movies without engaging in such violence. As such, exposure to violent movies or video games is clearly not a sufficient condition.

As might be imagined, sensible people do not claim that such exposure is a necessary or sufficient cause of violence. However, there are other types of causal connections.

One plausible type of causal connection is that exposure to such video games or movies is a contributory cause. That is, such exposure is one more straw on the camel’s back and the weight of various causes can result in that final break. On this view, merely seeing such virtual violence would not cause someone to engage in violence. However, it does contribute to the person’s tendency towards violence and hence is a causal factor.  As might be imagined, determining the contribution of a contributory cause can be challenging—especially if the contribution is fairly weak.

Sorting out such weak casual factors typically requires relatively large causal scale studies (or experiments). In such cases, the goal is to determine the effect of the alleged cause on the population in question. When talking about causation in a population, the bar is set fairly low (but sensibly so). To claim that cause C causes effect E in population P is to say that there would be more cases of effect E in population P if every member of P were exposed to C than if none were so exposed. This does make sense. After all, if C does bring about a difference, even a tiny one, it would be a causal factor.

On the face of it, it is not implausible to claim that exposing everyone on the planet to violent video games or violent movies would result in some (more than zero) increase in violence. However, this is no doubt true of many other things—even seemingly innocuous things like refined sugar or Justin Bieber’s music.

Even if it is assumed that such exposure can have a causal role in actual violence, there is the rather obvious concern about the extent of the casual role and to what extent (if any) this warrants controlling people’s exposure to these violent movies and video games.

As noted above, people who were never exposed to violent video games or movies have engaged in violence over the centuries. Also, the overwhelming majority of people who have been exposed to violent video games or movies have not engaged in unusual acts of violence. As such, the causal connection (if there is one) seems to be extremely weak.

Given such exposure could play a causal role it might be tempting to support the censorship of such violent works. After all, reducing the chance of violence might be regarded as worth the infringement of the freedom of expression. As might be imagined, when people are still emotionally reeling from a terrible event there is often a desire to do anything that might lower the chances of such a thing happening again. Of course, making a rational decision requires considering the matter properly and this involves considering the potential harms and costs of such an approach, however well intentioned.

Obviously enough, human societies typically operate in a way that involves tolerating things that cause harms based on the perceived benefits of those things. For example, although tens of thousands of people die each year in events involving automobiles, we tolerate automobiles because of their benefits. As another example, we allow drugs with awful side effects to be legally sold presumably because of their benefits. We also tolerate war because of the alleged benefits. We do, of course, ban some things because of the harms they do (or could do). For example, people cannot legally sell contaminated food. As another example, I cannot legally own biochemical weapons.

Sorting through the various things that are banned or illegal, it would seem that we are generally willing to tolerate a considerable amount of harm provided that there are some benefits (typically profits). Consistency would, of course, require us to apply the same principle to violent movies and violent video games.

As such, one way to look at the matter is to imagine that violent movies and video games were pharmaceuticals, foods or automobiles and apply the same basic standards used to assess whether such things should be banned.

As noted above, millions of people are exposed to violent video games or movies. These people typically enjoy them and most of them certainly seem to be unharmed. In fact, people seem to be in far more danger from the junk food they typically eat and drink at the movies or while playing video games. They are, obviously, vastly less dangerous than automobiles in terms of the body count generated—even if we assume that such exposure does cause people to behave violently. Video games and movies are also big money makers.

Violent video games and movies also seem to have far fewer negative side effects than many legal medications—even those sold without prescriptions. Also, there are reasonable grounds to believe that people can, as Aristotle argued, experience an emotional catharsis by being exposed to the arts. As such, while some people might experience negative side effects from such exposure, other people might be “medicating” themselves by exhausting their violent impulses in art rather than reality.

As such, if censoring video games and movies would be warranted because of the alleged harms, then consistency would require that we also ban many other things that are clearly far more dangerous. After all, if the goal is to prevent harm and death, it hardly matters whether those who die do so because of a bullet, a car, a pill, or a Big Gulp.

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Violent Video Games (Again)

I have been using my budget-cut based summer break from teaching to do various home improvements. The point of mentioning this is that I have been alternating between baking in the Florida sun and being exposed to “second hand paint fumes” (as opposed to directly huffing the stuff) as such, my writing might be a bit off. I have checked for any obvious weirdness (well, weirdness beyond the usual sort), but I apologize in advance for any heat/paint induced lapses in logic. I blame the flying frogs that seem to be infesting my house now. In any case, down to business.

The supreme court recently ruled that California’s law banning the sale of  video games to minors that “depict serious injury to human beings in a manner that is especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.” The ruling was, of course, based on the first amendment.

Being both a gamer and an ethicist, I have thought (and written) a fair amount about the banning video games. On the one hand, a very reasonable case can be made for placing age based restrictions on video games. While studies of the impact of virtual violence on children are hardly conclusive, it seems reasonable to accept that exposure to virtual violence can have an impact on how the child thinks. As Aristotle has argued, people become habituated by what they do. Children are, of course, even more likely to be influenced. They are more receptive than adults and tend to lack the cognitive resources that adults are supposed to possess. As such, it seems reasonable to keep young children away from violence-even the virtual sort.

On the other hand, there are reasonable grounds for rejecting such bans. First, there are reasons for doubting that such games have a significant impact on children. The psychological studies are open to question and, of course, humans seem to be naturally prone to violence ( the stock “we like violent games because we are violent, we are not violent because of the games” argument). When I was a kid, long before violent video games, we spent a lot of time playing war. While the effects were not very special (cap guns), we certainly did act out killing each other. When violent video games came along, they simply allowed me to do what I had done as a kid (play at killing) only with ever better graphics and effects). As such, banning violent video games to protect children from the influence of violence seems like something that simply will not work, thus making such a law unnecessary.

Second, there is the matter of freedom of expression and consumption. While minors do have a reduced right of freedom of consumption (they cannot but alcohol, tobacco, guns or porn), imposing on their freedom only seems justified when it protects them from a significant harm in cases in which they lack the judgment to (in theory at least) make an informed choice. Even if violent video games have a harmful impact, it can be contended that the harm is not on par with that of adult vices such as alcohol or tobacco but rather on par with junk food. So, just as it is sensible to think that children should not eat junk food, yet also think there should not be laws banning children from buying candy bards, it seems sensible to think that although young kids should not buy violent video games, there should not be laws against doing so.

Third, there is the matter of what is fit for the state to control and what is fit for parents to control. There are, obviously enough, matters that should be handled by the state and those that should remain a matter of parental choice.  Alcohol, guns and tobacco are so dangerous that it seems reasonable that the state has a interest in keeping children away from these things by force of law. There is also a category of things were the state should aid parents in making choices, such as diet and exercise, but where the state should not intervene except in extreme cases. As noted above, I am inclined to put violent video games in the category of junk food. As such, parents should be informed about what the games contain (which is already done by the rating system) and the choice of whether or not their children play the games or not should be up to them. Naturally, children who lack parents or whose parents are dangerously incompetent will fall under the domain of the state, but these would be relatively rare cases.

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Virtual Violence & Children

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
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While there is more than enough real violence in the world, the Supreme Court of the United States is turning its attention to a law suit regarding California’s law that regulates the sale of violent video games to minors.

Being a gamer, I am well aware of the sort of extremely violent content of certain video games. I am also aware that games, like movies, come with a rating that makes it fairly clear as to what sort of content the game features. However, the age based rating system does not actually prevent younger people from buying the game. So, for example, a nine year old could walk into a game store and walk out with a video game rated for mature (17+) audiences and then spend the rest of the day killing virtual hookers and stealing virtual cars. Assuming, of course, that he was allowed to do so by his parent(s) or guardian. Not surprisingly, this possibility does raise some legitimate concerns.

The focal point of the conflict is between free expression and the notion that the state should protect children from possible harm.

On the side of freedom of expression, the concern is that imposing restrictions based on the content of video games would be a form a state censorship and thus an imposition on the legitimate rights of game makers and their customers. Since there are very good arguments for freedom of expression and freedom of consumption (as usual, I defer to Mill here), the case against restricting the sale of violent video games to minors seems to be rather strong.

Of course, those who favor such restrictions can also make a strong case. After all, there are legitimate concerns that violent video games can influence the behavior of children and have other negative consequences. Perhaps the strongest foundation for banning such sales is that children are generally regarded as lacking the same rights as adults when it comes to consuming potentially harmful products. To use some obvious examples, children cannot legally purchase tobacco, alcohol or pornography. If violent video games fall into the category of being harmful and suitable only for adults, the arguments against allowing children to buy smokes, booze and porn can thus be employed against violent video games. In general, a reasonable case can be made that children should be subject to more restrictions than adults-even Mill takes this view. At the very least, children are far less capable of making rational decisions and tend to be more vulnerable than adults (of course, adults can be irrational and vulnerable as well).

One obvious concern is that if censorship is permitted on the basis of violence (something Plato would agree with) then this opens the door to more restrictions. For example, I am looking at the warning label on Wrath of the Lich King and it warns me that in addition to blood and gore the game features suggestive themes and the use of alcohol. Perhaps the next step will be to limit games that have such content. Then the next step might be to restrict movies or even books that mention such things. This is not, of course, a slippery slope argument. Rather, it is a matter of precedent: if the sale of video games can be restricted based on content, then this would seem to extend logically to other media, such as books.

Of course, video games do differ from other media in that they are interactive and this might entail that they have a stronger influence on children. So, for example, being the one to virtually run over hookers in a stolen  car would have more impact than merely reading about a person running over hookers. Or seeing a story on the news about people being killed for real. Or living in a violent world. This interactivity might provide the basis for a relevant difference argument and a way to prevent (if desired) a slide from video games to other media (such as books).

Another avenue that the video game censors have gone down is that of pornography. As noted above, minors cannot legally buy porn. If it is right to ban the sale of porn to kids, then the arguments for this can probably be modified to argue against allowing kids to buy violent video games. Not surprisingly, Plato argues for banning material relating to both violence and lust. His argument, oversimplified a bit, is based on the corrupting influences of such material. Of course, Plato argued for a comprehensive ban and not just a restriction on selling to minors. This does lead to the obvious question: if something is too harmful to sell to children, then might it not be too harmful for adults as well? Of course, the usual counters are that adults should have the liberty to harm themselves (as per Mill) and that adults are better able to resist the nefarious influence of such things (or that it is okay for adults because they are adults).

I am somewhat divided on this issue. On the one hand, I am for freedom of expression and consumption. Hence, my general principle is to oppose such censorship/restriction on the basis of liberty (availing myself of Mill’s arguments). On the other hand, having played video games such as the  Grand Theft Auto games I am aware that some games feature content that strikes  me as inappropriate for kids. For example, a friend once asked me if she should get Grand Theft Auto III for her son. Without hesitation,  I said “no.” My reasoning was that a young kid lacks the intellectual and emotional development needed to confront such violent and sexual content. I did see the irony in this: a person should be mature before playing what might seem like a morally immature game. However, I believe that I gave the right advice and would follow the same approach if I had kids of my own. Not surprisingly, things change a bit when one switches from rights in the abstract to what, for example, your own child will be playing.

There is, however, still the question of what the state should do. After all, there is a distinction between what I would suggest to my friends who have kids and what I would want to be a matter of law. For example, I think that kids should not eat junk food all the time, but I would be against a law banning the sale of junk food to kids. Rather, this is something that the parents (or guardians) should handle. While junk food is not healthy, the danger it poses is not so immediate that the compulsive power of the state is required. Rather, this seems best suited for parental control. In short, the burden of proof rests on those who would extend the power of the state.

In the case of video games, I take a similar view. While I do recognize that video games can (like junk food) things that are not so good, they do not seem to present a clear an immediate health threat that requires the imposition of the compulsive power of the state. Rather, this is a matter that seems to be more suited for parental control.

It might be replied that some children do not have adequate supervision and hence might just buy violent video games and play them. However, I am inclined to be more concerned that the children lack such supervision than with them playing a violent video game. In fact, if that is the worst they do, then things could be far worse.

It might also be argued that children would simply buy such games and play them without their parents being aware of it. Hence, making the sale of such video games illegal would provide an extra barrier between the kids and the content of the games. While this does have some appeal, kids can easily bypass this. After all, if they have their own money to buy video games, they can buy them online or get someone else to buy them. As such, the protection value of such a ban would seem to be rather minimal if the parents are, in effect, unable to supervise their children.

As such, I hold that the sale of such video games should not be restricted by law. However, I do think that making the nature of the content clear so that parents (and others) can make informed choices is a good idea. I also hold that parents should male responsible choices about what games their kids play. Of course, what counts as a responsible choice is a matter for another time.

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