As the thirteenth mission of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 begins, you’re submerged in a sewer, watching soldiers herd prisoners at gunpoint through the nighttime streets of a near-future dystopia. A few inches in front of you, just below eye level, raindrops dapple the water, a bit of graphical realism that subtly reinforces the game’s first-person perspective. You are there.
Twelve minutes later, you’ve gunned down 21 people and one dog. Most fall amidst head-shot geysers of blood. You’ve also killed some unknown number by rocket launcher or machine gun, their deaths lost in the haze. Every now and then, blood spatters onto the screen, as if in your eyes.
A Pressing Question
It’s a bloodfest. It’s also—at least to this journalist, watching a YouTube video walkthrough—glorious fun, a well-designed piece of action-hero arcade blockbuster thumb candy. Yet for the very same reasons it’s so appealing, it’s difficult not to be troubled, too. Is it possible, even likely, that so much vicarious slaughter ever bleeds into the psyches of at least some people who play these games?
Given that first-person shooters represent a $5 billion market, played by millions of people every day, it’s a scary possibility, and one pushed into the national discussion soon after it was reported that Adam Lanza, who killed 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut, was an avid Call of Duty player. Also disturbing, however, is the possibility that first-person shooters don’t influence real-world violence and are less a genuine suspect than a convenient scapegoat. After all, it’s easier to talk about fake blood than real behavior.
Not surprisingly, people have turned to science for answers on the question of violence and video games. For now, though, there are no answers, at least not of the quantitative, immediately useful variety. Some researchers argue that video games like first-person shooters indeed influence violent behavior—not causing it in some simple, linear way, but making it more likely to occur. Other researchers say this link doesn’t exist. Still others say it might, but it’s impossible to say right now. What’s possible to know scientifically quickly gives way to uncertainty and intuition.
The Hazy Science of Aggression
So what do we know? Before looking at the science, it’s worth taking a moment to think about how scientists might arrive at something like a conclusive answer: By taking several tens of thousands of people, from children on up to adults, dividing them into groups with comparable socioeconomic, genomic, and behavioral profiles, setting them to play first-person shooters with varying amounts of regularity, then following them for years, routinely conducting psychological tests and tracking their real-world behaviors.
It would be an extremely revealing experiment. It’s also one that nobody has carried out, nor will they. The logistical challenges would be enormous—and even it was possible, it would be hugely unethical, involving the deliberate exposure of potentially vulnerable people to something that might hurt them and others.
Lacking such a study, scientists have studied video game violence in more limited ways. Typically this involves asking small numbers of students to play games for a few minutes, then seeing whether their behavior changes according to laboratory measures of aggression: Whether they react less negatively to violent videos, respond more forcefully to irritation, or are in a generally more aggressive frame of mind—tending to complete, for example, the word “explo_e” as explode rather than explore.
There are a great many studies of this variety. The results aren’t uniform and have come under a certain amount of methodological criticism, but they tend to point in a common direction.
“We did a comprehensive review of every experimental study, reviewing 381 effects from studies involving 130,000 people, and results show that playing violent video games increases aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and physiological arousal,” says Brad Bushman, a psychologist at Ohio State University who is one of the best-known proponents of the idea that first-person shooters influence real-world violence.
To Bushman, video games aren’t likely to be the sole source of violence, but an amplifier. Indeed, if game-players, especially game-playing children, really do become more aggressive, Bushman is almost certainly right. It’s well known that aggressive children are more likely to become violent adults. Yet the studies that Bushman and colleagues cite tend not to answer a key question: Does game-induced aggressiveness persist? Does it become a hard-wired way of being in the world, or does it dissipate in a few minutes or hours?
A Cautionary Tale
“I don’t think we have enough science to suggest that playing video games causes violence in children any more than watching violence on TV,” says Ryan Hall, a psychiatrist at the University of Central Florida, referencing a vast body of scientific literature that has failed to find any strong connection between violent television and corresponding behavior. “There is no indication at this time that violent video games are training killers.”
To Hall, fears about video game violence are reminiscent of earlier moral panics about rock music, Dungeons & Dragons, and especially comic books, which in the 1950s were the subject of scholarly concern and even a Senate hearing about their role in juvenile delinquency. At that hearing, forensic scientist Frederic Wertham decried the “endless stream of brutality” in comic books, denouncing one title in particular as embodying sadistic fantasies that would be “particularly injurious to the ethical development of children.” That comic was Superman.
Half a century later, notes Hall, comic books were again a subject of discussion at the American Psychological Association’s 2010 annual meeting. This time around, contemporary comics were portrayed as dangerous, with Superman and other 1950’s crime-fighting heroes lauded as moral exemplars from whom boys once learned the virtues of public service.
Hall’s points are echoed by psychologist Christopher Ferguson of Texas A&M International University, who in January met with Vice President Joe Biden to help chart a course for studying video game violence in Newtown’s aftermath. “It’s normal for the country to be frightened and traumatized. It’s a normal human reaction to want answers. Whether they’re the right answers doesn’t always matter. We want to restore a sense of control,” Ferguson says. “There’s this historical pattern. People are desperate for an answer, and so they reach out. Media is something people like to point at.”
Monkey See, Monkey Shoot?
Another perspective, one less entrenched in debates over the methodology of studying the behavioral effects of video games, comes from Gary Slutkin, the founder of Cure Violence, an organization that has successfully reduced gun violence in parts of Baltimore and Chicago. Accustomed to working in communities where physical violence is an everyday part of life, Slutkin doesn’t think that virtual violence is a cause in itself, but neither does he think it’s harmless. Instead, he thinks the games make people more susceptible to becoming violent.
“The military knows this very well,” Slutkin says, noting the U.S. military’s use of video games in training soldiers, partly to break down their instinctive repulsion to killing. To Slutkin, what’s known about our brains is justification for concern: Humans are social, highly conditioned creatures who learn how to behave by watching what’s around us, turning social messages into so-called scripts that play in our minds as we engage the world.
These messages come from various sources, from media to the behaviors of people around us—and even if violent television doesn’t seem to produce violent behaviors, it’s a mistake to treat video games as an equivalent technological form. Video games are interactive rather than passive, an advantage that in other contexts, such as education, is regularly exploited. Games also create a system of constant reinforcement, rewarding behaviors practiced again and again.
“Video games could be expected to have a larger effect than media violence. The player is participating. They’re being reinforced,” says Rowell Huesmann, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. “The important thing is repetition. I think any child can play Grand Theft Auto or a first-person shooter a few times, and it’s not going to have much effect. But if they play day in and day out, over a period of years, any psychologist who understands the power of observational learning is going to find it hard to believe that it’s not going to have a major effect on increasing risk.”
Slutkin and Huesmann believe that violence is contagious, spreading in a manner similar to infectious disease, but with behaviors rather than microbes as the instruments of transmission. Of course, pathogens don’t always cause disease: Many other factors, such as a person’s immune system strength, alter an infection’s course. In keeping with this analogy, first-person shooters weaken the psychological immune system. They change the odds of whether violence takes root or whether a person can resist it.
Even the idea that violence is contagious is still, however, a hypothesis, and the cognitive influence of video games a matter of plausible speculation rather than demonstrated fact. As with psych-lab aggression tests, understanding of video game violence soon becomes uncertain. “All research has potential flaws,” Hall says. “It’s very hard to have the perfect study. That being said, I don’t think you stop looking. But you have to understand that this may take 20 or 30 years.”
As to whether parents should allow their children to play first-person shooter video games, to indulge brutal fantasies of high-caliber, graphically realized murder, Ferguson considers it a judgment call.
“If parents turn to science to guide them, with this idea that they’ll be avoiding harm, they’re probably not going to get very far,” he says. “A different issue, and probably the right issue for parents to focus on, is whether they morally approve. And then we’re on firmer ground.”