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Video Game Fantasy Continues To Be The Easy Scapegoat For Violent Reality

Video Game Violence

After the two recent mass shootings in Ohio and Texas, politicians were once again quick to blame video games as a cause of the violence. During an appearance on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures” program, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said that video games could be contributing factors to the horrific crimes in that they “dehumanize individuals.”

“The idea that these video games that dehumanize individuals to have a game of shooting individuals. I’ve always felt that it’s a problem for future generations and others. We’ve watched studies show what it does to individuals, and you look at these photos of how it took place, you can see the actions within video games and others.”

President Trump expressed similar sentiments the next day by singling out “the gruesome video games that are now commonplace” to blame for creating “a culture that celebrates violence.” Of course, if they really tried to “get the all facts”, as McCarthy claimed he was interested in doing, they would find that studies have failed to demonstrate a link between video game violence and real-world violence. In 2013, The New York Times looked at research on whether games negatively affect long-term behavior and came to the following conclusion:

A burst of new research has begun to clarify what can and cannot be said about the effects of violent gaming. Playing the games can and does stir hostile urges and mildly aggressive behavior in the short term. Moreover, youngsters who develop a gaming habit can become slightly more aggressive — as measured by clashes with peers, for instance — at least over a period of a year or two.

Yet it is not at all clear whether, over longer periods, such a habit increases the likelihood that a person will commit a violent crime, like murder, rape or assault, much less a Newtown-like massacre. (Such calculated rampages are too rare to study in any rigorous way, researchers agree.)

In fact, much of the research shows that time spent playing video games reduces the amount of time that young men can get into trouble. In 2011, Scott Cunningham of Baylor University, Benjamin Engelstätter
od University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt, and Michael R. Ward of the University of Texas at Arlington conducted a quasi-experimental study to identify the short and medium run effects of violent game sales on violent crime using time variation in retail unit sales data of the top 50 selling video games and violent criminal offenses from the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) for each week of 2005 to 2008. They found that a one percent increase in violent games is associated with up to a 0.03% decrease in violent crime.

The most recent studies show that despite video games being widely available in in Europe and Japan.

Video game revenues vs violent gun death chart (source: Vox).
Video game revenues vs violent gun death chart (source: Vox)

Unfortunately, blaming real-world violence and crime on video games is hardly new. In every mass shooting since Columbine, pundits have pointed to video games as being the real culprit. Even back in the 1940s, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia of New York argued that pinball was “dominated by interests heavily tainted with criminality.”

What’s especially sad to me about this is not that video games are being used as a scapegoat, but how easily our leaders look for simple solutions to complex problems. Violent crime in the United States is a real problem, but finger-pointing to get one through a press conference or appease constituents is not taking the problem seriously. As gamers know better than anyone else, it takes dedication to achieving a goal, observation of the complete situation, innovation in finding a solution, and patience and perseverance in applying that solution that is the proper methodology to fixing a problem.

Are Video Games Really Addictive?

As much as people enjoy playing video games, there is a negative stigma attached to them.  According to some critics, they are a waste of time, they can lead to obesity, they cause violent behavior. Perhaps the most frequent attack made against video games is that they are addictive. Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health.

So, are video games addictive? It depends on how you interpret the word “addiction”. Physical addiction is a biological state in which the body adapts to the presence of a substance so that the substance no longer has the same effect, otherwise known as a tolerance. Another form of physical addiction is the phenomenon of overreaction by the brain to drugs (or to cues associated with the drugs). Video games are not physically addictive.

However, most addictive behavior is not related to either physical tolerance or exposure to cues. People can compulsively do an activity in reaction to being emotionally stressed, whether or not they have a physical addiction. For some people, playing video games is one such activity they may engage in compulsively when they are stressed.

Yet many players do spend a great deal of time playing video games without suffering from either of these two types of addictions. They play games to avoid or put off less pleasurable activities or chores, or they just can’t resist the lure of playing “just one more turn”.

This phenomenon is called “flow”. Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. When players experience flow, time stops, nothing else matters and when they finally come out of it, they have no concept of how long they have been playing.

Video games are indeed designed to be sufficiently engaging to create a state of flow for players, and players can become so engaged in video games that they ignore their other responsibilities. But players can become engaged in an activity, even to the extent that it may be harmful to other aspects of their lives, without games being addictive in a psychological or physiological sense. In such cases, players may say that they are “addicted” to games, whereas “obsessed” is a more accurate term.

When someone is so obsessed with video games (or anything else for that matter), that their relationships with family or friends, obligations at home or work, opportunities for growth or self-fulfillment, or health begins to suffer, that’s when it’s time to put down that controller or push back that keyboard and spend your time doing other things.  There is nothing inherently wrong with playing video games, but too much of anything can be bad for for you.