At the science writers conference I just got back from, I heard this really interesting science lecture on violence and video games. What I write here is by no means a case for or against the playing of violent video games, but just some things I learned and a few opinions I have based on what I learned.
To start the lecture, the psychologist went up to the podium and asked half the room to close their eyes and the other half to silently watch a slide show of images and then fill in the missing letters from the following words
k i _ _
g u _
h a _ _
r_ p e.
The group with their eyes open (of which I was a part) saw images of guns, knives and other weapons, and of military and police using weapons.
I, and the majority of my half of the room, filled in the blanks with
k i l l
g u n
h a t e
r a p e.
Then he had my half of the room close out eyes and he showed the other half of the room a different set of images and fill in the blanks. We found out later that the other side of the room saw non-violent images. Not necessarily happy images but just regular things. Office supplies. The outdoors. People smiling.
The majority of that half of the room filled in the blanks with
k i t e
g u m
h a n d
r o p e.
Interesting, isn’t it?
The point of the exercise was to demonstrate what the psychologist called the “weapons affect,” or the idea that the mere presence of weapons can make people more aggressive.
They did more tests where they assessed people’s moods and feelings before and after playing certain kinds of video games, and they found that after playing even just 20 minutes of a violent video game people report a tendency toward more violent or negative response in real life.
For example, a person who played a non-violent video game for 20 minutes was asked afterward how they would respond if they were in a fender bender on the way home. They responded much more calmly than the person who played a violent game for the same amount of time, who said things like they’d yell at the person or want to crush their skull in.
The most shocking to me was the revelation that violent graphic images, like those in video games, are used to de-sensitize military special forces to being able to kill without question or hesitation. I didn’t know that.
Also shocking was that we tell ourselves it’s OK just for 20 minutes or just for a few hours, it won’t affect our behavior. But if a 30 second commercial can persuade our behavior to buy a certain product, how much more will 20 minutes plus of shooting people in video games persuade our behavior as well?
Now I don’t know if I fully believe that playing these games will cause players to go out and shoot people. But I think the research supports that watching violence and playing out violence affects how we feel and may cause to react more aggressively just in general.
I kinda have to ask myself the question, why do people find it so entertaining to pretend to be violent in games, whether it be shooting a gun or fighting like ninja warriors? Is it a power trip? Do we feel stronger, more powerful, in control if we can outlive or kill? And if we do, then does playing violent video games create a false sense of strength, power and invincibility, all of which are sure to boost our ego, too, right? Do we then cross over how confident we feel in the game into real life, sometimes blurring the lines, so that if provoked to tap into our “violent side” this side of us is trained and ready to respond? Video game-like virtual reality simulators are used to train astronauts for space travel and soldiers for war, so it makes sense that our minds perceive the video game experience as a sort of training.
I don’t have the answers, and neither did this psychologist on this day. But he’s studying it and drawing interesting conclusions, conclusions that made me think, thus why I’m sharing it here to maybe make you think too.