Recently, the University of Queensland conducted a study on the dehumanizing effects of violent video games.1 The study (accepted for publication but not yet edited or published) has already made its way into the news, and the predictable outcries of “I knew it along” or “this study is garbage” have already begun echoing across the internet.
Every so often this sort of study is released and typically the reaction from gamers is either that the study or newspaper is biased against the medium or any findings that suggest video games increase aggression are moot because television and movies are at least as violent as games. Interestingly, gamers seldom challenge the validity of research that props up the social value of games, such as an also accepted-but-not-yet-published study correlating games with higher creativity.2 Research on video games and violence are most likely perfectly valid and probably should not go ignored: violent images increase aggression and participating in violence—even virtually—arouses aggressive feelings. These are a psychological truths repeatedly demonstrated, even in video games. But what is often overlooked is the context that violence takes place in.
Whether natural or not, violence is a part of the human experience and as a reflection of that experience, art must discuss it. But violence in video games usually reflects only one aspect of violence: that it’s empowering or that it’s a means to stopping a greater evil. Violence in video games is almost universally a means to excite a player and keep them involved in the experience.
Consider two films: The Transporter and Drive. The Transporter is a fast paced action movie with stylized martial arts, drawn out gun fights, and flashy car chases. The audience is only given enough reprieve to prepare for the next battle. The hero walks away from every battle clean, he kills elegantly, and he’s always the least morally reprehensible person on the screen. The thrill of the The Transporter lies in watching fast, brutal action for an enthralling 90 minutes. In stark contrast is Drive, in which most of the story is told through atmosphere, music and silence. Changes in mood are expressed through a subtle curl of a lip or a tightened grip on a steering wheel. The hero is a savant that has mastered driving, mechanics, and murder but seems otherwise socially, mentally, and emotionally unfit for the world. The violence happens in intense, gruesome flickers that cover the driver in filth. There is no thrill in watching him kill people. Drive demands that its audience pay attention to what is happening and have patience with it, it gives us characters experiencing a peace together that they (and we) can’t fully understand and interrupts those moments of peace with images of extreme violence.
The question is not which of these two movies is more violent; it’s how violence is used. To enjoy The Transporter, the viewer can’t get too caught up in the morality of what’s happening. In Drive, the viewer must think to get anything out of it. I would wager that viewers would become more aggressive after The Transporter than Drive because the context endorses violent behaviour.
Getting back to video games, there are few major games that use violence in a way other than the way that The Transporter does. The meeting with Andrew Ryan in Bioshock may have players trembling in horror at what monsters they are, but the effect is mitigated by the droves of faceless splicers that the player must gun down to get to him. Violence in video games is typically used in one way: to excite. If video games continue to use violence as a cheap way to keep players’ attention, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that gaming keeps being linked with angry and aggressive tendencies.
Outside of a few scenes or key choices, violence in video games is just a way to overcome obstacles, a vehicle to travel from point A to B. And while gunning down waves of elites or sawing through a squad of locust makes for great games, bloodshed as entertainment can only go so far. There are other meanings and contexts for violence that major releases should have the courage to explore.
No art form should be exempt from commenting on violence, even video games. But in games violence is almost always used for its own sake.
1 Bastion, Brock, Jolanda Jetta, and Helena Radke. “Cyber-Dehumanization: Violent video game play diminishes our humanity.” Journal of Experimental Social-Psychology. Octpber 2011.
2 Jackson, Linda et al. “Information technology use and creativity: Findings from the Children and Technology Project.” Human Behaviour. March 2012.