The Violence in Games Debate, or Here We Go Again
First of all, let me say that I have nothing but the deepest sympathy for those affected by the horrible tragedy that happened in Newtown. I have no words to express the feeling of sadness that I feel regarding this event. Even if I did, there are people out there who have said all that can be said, in a much better way than I ever could. Instead, I’m going to move on to what I’m actually here to discuss, which is violence in video games. More precisely, I’m here to retell an experience I had with regards to this topic.
Several years ago, I was one of the subjects in a study meant to discern whether or not teens were more excited while playing violent video games than when playing non-violent ones. I was given a heart-rate monitor and told to play the violent game during a specific time period, take a short break, then play the non-violent game for the same amount of time. The people performing the study would then check during which period of time my heart rate was higher.
So, I did as instructed, playing the violent game for about an hour, pausing for 15 minutes or so, then playing the non-violent game for another hour. Despite never seeing the results for myself, I can tell you without the shadow of a doubt that my heart rate was higher when I was playing the violent game. This was, however, not because of the game being violent.
Before I tell you the reason why I was more excited while playing the violent video game, I’ll go ahead and tell you which games I played. The violent game was Manhunt, a stealth game (remember that, it’s important) infamous for its graphic depictions of violence (based on the standards of the time when it was released). The non-violent game was Animaniacs: The Great Edgar Hunt, an action-adventure gamewhich is… well, a game made for kids.
Now, I emphasized the different genres of these two games. That’s because it’s very important to note how different these two genres are. Stealth games are, by their very definition, exciting games. They are exciting because you’re actively trying to hide and evade enemies whom you are told you should not openly confront. Stealth games are all about evoking the fear of getting caught in the player, and fear gets us excited. Now, I also happened to suck at Manhunt, which got me frustrated (which is also a form of excitement) at the game. Now, of course the violence in the game was exciting too, in that primal way that all humans get excited by depictions of violence. I won’t deny that. However, my point is that the main reasons why Manhunt got me excited was because of the way the entire genre is built and by the game’s own difficulty.
Now, action-adventure games can also be exciting. Platforming, fighting enemies, solving puzzles, that kind of stuff is also capable of (and evidently succesful in) getting the player excited. I remember getting very excited playing Mirror’s Edge (a game that, while containing violence, really could not be considered a “violent video game” and is indeed focused more on platforming than anything else). The sense of flow as I went over obstacles and performed death-defying leaps between rooftops got my heart racing just as much as most violence-focused games would, if not more so than quite a few of them. Animaniacs, however, did not make me excited. This is because the game is, if you’ll excuse me, ridiculously fucking boring. Since the game is made for kids, there’s no difficulty to speak of. “Dying” in the game basically means you restart just a little bit earlier, but that almost never happens since the game is extremely easy in the first place. The plot is like an episode of a cartoon made for a five-year old, there’s nothing innovative or interesting in the mechanics of the gameplay, it’s all just very tedious and very boring. The reason I didn’t get excited playing Animaniacs wasn’t that it wasn’t violent, it was that there was nothing there to get me excited.
What I’m trying to say with all of this is that the studies that are done by people trying to figure out if violent games are affecting the youth of today are performed in a manner that renders the result fallacious. I could say the studies were “rigged”, but that would imply that the people performing them were doing this intentionally, which I don’t think they are. These studies are done by people who aren’t familiar with video games, people who don’t know enough about them to be able to perform a study that is free from bias. Because of this, we shouldn’t fault them for making these mistakes. Rather, we should spread knowledge about these kinds of problems, so that they can be discovered at an early stage of a study and ratified so that the results won’t come out as skewed as I can only assume they did in the one I participated in.
If you’re going to draw conclusions about something, make sure you know enough to be able to draw those conclusions. Bias is the reason for a lot of pointless conflicts in the world. Don’t go adding more fuel to the fire.