Today, the position of video games within general popular culture remains somewhat precarious. Gaming is already ‘mainstream’, but its position as such isn’t as consistently present in the public eye as older media—and arguably, not even as strong as some more recently popularised media like online social media and video platforms, despite the fact that, for instance, the global video game industry has been larger than the global music industry in terms of revenue for several years now. We might consider video games to be the mainstream medium that remains on the fringe of what is generally seen as ‘mainstream’. I find this a curious phenomenon, and it certainly has many possible causes; one might be the various cultural anxieties that still surround the medium, despite it having been available for commercial use since the early 1970s.
The particular concern I’m thinking of–the title of this piece gives it away–is the idea that violent video games cause real violence. This is especially prevalent in the United States, and while it has been around since the conception of video games as a medium, it flared up in earnest around the late 1990s, especially after the 1999 school shooting at Columbine. The perpetrators were, amongst other things, avid players of Doom and Quake, two of the most popular and influential first-person shooters of their time. Anti-game activists like Jack Thompson began to claim that video games were “training our kids to kill.” However, research into the real-life consequences of violent video game play has never shown any direct link between gamic violence and real-life violence. Playing a murderer in a virtual environment will not make you a murderer in the ‘real world’.
Now, admittedly, video games themselves and the technologies behind them do not really help with alleviating the allegations made against them: the most popular video games do often contain rather extreme violence in which the player directly participates, and rare is the game in which violence is not the best or even the only option for conflict resolution. Combine that with the fact that most military organisations use computer-simulated environments like Full Spectrum Warrior to train their soldiers, that the US has developed America’s Army, a ‘propaganda game’ to increase recruitment numbers, and that Anders Breivik called Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 a suitable instrument for training to become a terrorist, and the case does not seem to be in the favour of video games despite evidence in their defence. But even that evidence might be difficult to validate because, while there is quite clearly no causal link between shooting someone in-game and shooting someone in real life, the exact effects of violent video game play on general aggressiveness, hostility, and insensitivity to violent acts are still somewhat contested.
This stems, among other things, from a recurring problem: there is no good definition of what constitutes a ‘violent’ video game.1 The most innocent-looking games, such as Super Mario Bros. or Rayman Origins contain depictions of (cartoonish) violence and death, though without blood or gore. Moreover, different genres of games depict violence differently; killing a horde of gangsters in Grand Theft Auto looks and feels quite different from razing an entire city to the ground in Age of Empires. How to account for these great differences, and for the ways in which such depictions of violence intersect with other gameplay systems? How does a game’s competitiveness affect aggression levels after playing, or how does the significance of the violence change when the player is forced to participate in it? The great variety and relatively young age of the medium make answers to these questions difficult, but nonetheless worth investigating. The sooner we understand the impact video games have on society at large, the sooner we can dispel these fears and move on.
Besides, what about the positive aspects of gaming? There are many potential avenues here, but one I would like to highlight is the educational value that video games can—and already do—have. Much of this is potential is, so far, hypothetical and anecdotal, but the hypotheses and anecdotes are plentiful. It would not be a stretch to say that we all know someone whose level of English was already fairly high by the time they got to high school because they played video games. Some of us, including myself, learned medieval history from games like Assassin’s Creed, a franchise which is now including a non-violent ‘educational mode’ in its latest instalment, set in Ancient Egypt. Still, teaching players theoretical knowledge is something that video games struggle with: as soon as a game is framed as ‘educational’ in the sense of knowledge acquirement, many people will protest and say that the game is not ‘fun’ anymore–which some educational scholars refer to as the ‘Bart Simpson problem’. Some experiments have been done where players use existing, non-educational games for explicitly educational purpose, ranging from using SimCity and Civilization in geography and history classes2, to using Minecraft as a tool to virtually reconstruct ancient cities like Nineveh.
A truly good (read: consistently effective) educational tool, however, would be a game that is explicitly made to be educational, with specific learning goals in mind as the game is being produced so that the in-game goals align with and facilitate the learning process, rather than the learning process being something that is added on top of the game’s existing processes as Assassin’s Creed‘s educational mode attempts to do. There is still much uncertainty about how to do this: research shows that on many fronts, such as the balance between teacher-based and game-based learning, the transformation of implicit knowledge into explicit knowledge, and the use of narrative within the game, there is room for improvement.3 I myself am involved in the production of an educational game which aims to teach primary school children the basic ideas behind quantum physics (see: www.reddlock.com/index.php/sciencetales/), and it is clear that this development is a great challenge in part because of those reasons. If we want video games to play a larger and more effective role within the education of the younger generations, such experiments must go hand in hand with research. This will help not only to hopefully improve our education system, but also to solidify video games’ position in the public eye as medium that is to be taken seriously and that is here to stay.
Notes and references:
1. Paul J.C. Adachi and Teena Willoughby, “The Effect of Violent Video Games on Aggression: Is It more than just the Violence?” Aggression and Violent Behavior, no. 16 (2011): 61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2010.12.002
2. Jantina Huizinga, “Digital Game-Based Learning in Secondary Education.” (PhD diss., University of Amsterdam, 2017), 84.
3. Pieter Wouters and Herre van Oostendorp, “A Meta-Analytic Review of the Role of Instructional Support in Game-Based Learning.” Computers & Education 60, no. 1 (January 2013): 412-425. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2012.07.018