I have been playing videogames for a long time so I am old enough to remember the bad old days when videogames were blamed for society’s problems.
Which was last weekend.
Donald Trump today called for the regulation of violent videogames:
“[…] we must stop the glorification of violence in our society, this includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this and it has to begin immediately.”
Trump has a history of not liking videogames. Here is a Tweet from 2012:
Twenty years ago Marylin Manson was blamed for the Columbine High School Massacre. Nobody knows for sure what the real cause was, but to any politician who did not want to talk about gun control or mental health it seemed perfectly logical that something kids liked but parents hated was to blame. The media jumped on board because actual journalism is hard and even back then they’d rather not do it unless forced to. When I was growing up the newspapers were full of articles about Dungeons and Dragons being a satanic threat to children. I am sure my parents would remember rock and roll being blamed for perverting youth and destabilising society. There was even a brief scare in the US over harm caused by kids reading Harry Potter books. The common theme has always been that anything young people enjoy but old people do not understand must be bad. One of the most enduring scapegoats during my life, though, has been videogames.
Now after multiple mass shootings in the USA in a single weekend, the US President and some Republican politicians have decided that videogames were obviously the cause of those tragedies because reasons other than for god’s sake just stop selling assault rifles to the public and calm down the constant violent rhetoric in media.
So here we go again. Do videogames really cause violence? Let’s look into it a bit.
Comparing gun violence in the USA and Japan
Videogames are commonly blamed for playing a part in mass shootings, and in gun violence generally. Videogames are about running around with guns shooting people; that is what a mass shooting must be like; so it is the same thing. On the surface that may seem plausible if you have never shot a real gun or played many videogames.
How many mass shootings occur? I will compare the two largest markets for videogames that are not named China – the USA and Japan. It is estimated that so far this year there have been over 200 mass shootings in the United States of America. In Japan, the spiritual home of videogames, there have been zero.
[Data on this is difficult to get for China plus while it an enormous market it is also a relative newcomer to videogames as a consumer product]
What about gun violence in general? Even allowing for homicides, accidents and suicide the difference between the USA and Japan is significant.
Each year only 0.06 people per 100,000 are killed by guns in Japan compared to 12.21 in the United States [source]. Meanwhile, Japan has one of the largest videogame markets in the world and is the source of some of the most played videogame franchises ever created.
If there was any relationship between videogames and gun violence you would expect to see it in Japan.
Some may argue that Japanese gamers and “Western” gamers have different tastes. Specifically, that gamers in places like Australia and the USA have a greater fondness for the first person shooter genre that is most often linked to gun violence in media. Japanese companies Sega and Namco had massive success in the 1990’s with Virtua Cop and Time Crisis respectively which were both lightgun shooters using replica handheld guns to simulate the shooting action. They are a closer experience to firing an actual gun (even though still completely different) than holding a controller with a joystick and buttons on it. But to entertain the point about first person shooters, let’s look specifically at Australia and the USA.
Comparing the top selling videogames in USA and Australia
Australia has 1.04 gun related deaths per 100,000 people compared to 12.21 in the United States [source] but the two countries play almost the same videogames.
Here is the top 10 games sold in the USA in 2017:
And here is the top 10 games sold in Australia in the same year:
The videogames that the gamers from both countries spend their money on are almost exactly the same. The number one game in both countries was an installment of first person shooter franchise Call of Duty. That is the type of game that videogame critics in the past liked to call a “murder simulator”. The big difference is between sports with FIFA (Soccer) in Australia’s top 10 instead of Madden (NFL), and USA gamers preferring more traditionally “child-friendly” Nintendo franchises. You could almost argue that with the addition of an Assassin’s Creed game, Australia’s top 10 list is actually MORE violent. Yet gun violence and school shootings are very rare in Australia. After the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 (at the time the worst in the world) Australia passed laws restricting ownership of self loading guns and initiated a gun buyback scheme. We have not had a mass shooting since. That may or may not be a co-incidence.
Videogame sales and violence in the USA
The entire videogame industry has expanded exponentially over the last few years. If there is a relationship between videogames and violence then there would have to be a matching increase in both over time as sales went up.
Here is a graph that plots the FBI’s violent crime statistics along with software sales over the same time.
Obviously “software sales” includes more than games, but that does not change the result since the violent crime line on the graph continues to run flat. Unless buying Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop somehow dramatically reduces crime to offset an increase in crime by videogame sales, this graph shows no relationship between the two. Even though videogames are now more popular than ever, it is statistically the safest time in history to live in the USA.
The size of the videogame market
Let’s have a quick look at some stats about who videogames. These are US figures from a few years ago but they are still representative.
Ninety three percent of US homes have a device for playing videogames. That means the likelihood of a mass shooter also being a videogame player is extremely high. It also means that the likelihood of a policeman also being a videogame player is also extremely high. Or a delivery van driver. Or an accountant. Or a teacher. You get the idea. Basically, any profession or group in the USA should contain a lot of videogame players – and yes that including violent criminals and mass shooters. Yet according to one study, 80% of mass shooters in the USA have NO interest in videogames. That means only 20% of mass shooters have an interest in videogames in a country where over 90% of the population is playing them.
Despite what some claim, it is difficult to find a genuine scientific study linking violent videogames with any sort of behaviour. A University of York study found that there’s actually no relationship between the two.
I must point out that they tested adults and not children in that study. They say in the study that videogames can cause excitement or arousal in certain centers of the brain but they compared that to movies and found that the movies were able to trigger that same spot MORE OFTEN than videogames.
Are we still ignoring a potential problem?
Parents are quite justified in being concerned about what kind of content their children consume. Fortunately, there is a ratings system that can be used to advise parents on what is or is not appropriate. Unfortunately, not many people pay attention to it.
The industry worked very hard to get an R18 rating in Australia for videogames. As you can see in one of the infographics above, the average age of a videogame player is 32 years old (and climbing). Adults should be allowed to consume adult content in movies, music, AND videogames. Because they are adults. Unfortunately, the normie media and large parts of the videogame industry are still acting as if videogames are all for teens.
Grand Theft Auto 5 is a good example of this. Grand Theft Auto 5 is appropriately rated as being for only gamers over 18 years old, but ads for it were displayed on the sides of buses and on the walls of bus stops where schoolchildren would see it. My son had friends under the age of 12 whose parents purchased that game for them. The game was marketed indiscriminately, including to a very young age group, and parents who did not know better purchased it for their children because it was just a game and sometimes you do anything to shut your kids up. Many parents then quickly discovered that the contents of the game were definitely NOT appropriate for their children and that resulted in a backlash including a dishonestly presented campaign by Collective Shout to get the game banned from Target stores in Australia. One of the reasons why this worked was because parents had seen their children playing something that was shocking to them and so any claims made by Collective Shout after that sounded plausible. Rockstar enjoyed the free publicity but the industry as a whole did not come out of this looking good.
The videogame industry – everybody from advertisers and publishers to media and retail – must adopt more of an education role about the the ratings system we already have in place and the fact that videogames are no longer exclusively for children and young teens. We should also be prepared to advise parents of better choices. Instead of Call of Duty tell them to get Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare. Instead of Grand Theft Auto tell them to get Just Cause. Don’t leave the purchasing decisions of parents purely up to advertising and nagging.
Not only will adhering to our current videogame ratings system help our image with normie parents, but properly classifying and restricting videogames that may be inappropriate for developing minds will protect the industry in the future IF a link between violent games and violent (or misogynistic) behaviour is ever actually established.
Videogame media should act more responsibly
The perception of videogames as violent, misogynistic murder simulators played by young boys and angry manbabies comes largely from our own videogame media. Too many clickbait articles are written to generate hollow, outrage-driven engagement while ignoring the impact that those kinds of stories have on outsiders. Should it surprise us that if we keep telling everybody how bad games and gamers are our politicians and the public believe it? People writing about cars don’t spend all day antagonising drivers and arguing with them on Twitter, despite the fact that many drivers on the roads make online gamers look passive by comparison. So why does videogame media feel the need to do this?
We are not selling videogaming as the positive experience that it is. Videogame media only exists because of the games, the people who make them, and the people who play them. Videogame media has a role to play in bringing up issues when we think something is wrong, but we also have a role to help build a positive image of the entire videogame industry so that new developers and gamers want to join in. Videogame media should be helping the different stakeholders get to know eachother better and to understand eachother. We have not been doing that enough over the last few years. We have been way too negative about our own space, and outsiders see that and they take it on board.
Instead of providing ammunition for haters, we should all be pushing positive stories like the ones below. We will find that normies will start to respect videogames more, and that makes it very difficult for politicians to blame videogames for the problems that their policies created.
Will videogames always be blamed?
Until US politicians and their media partners admit there is a problem with guns and constant violent rhetoric the answer is probably “yes”. There is a long history of blaming things that young people like for the problems of the world – Rock & Roll, Dungeons & Dragons, Heavy Metal Music… if the young people like it then it is a problem. Videogame blaming will also keep happening until the videogame industry starts respecting itself. We need to start presenting ourselves properly in front of the rest of the world. That means honouring our own existing rating system, promoting the benefits of gaming, and ceasing the irresponsible and antagonistic clickbait articles.
When I was young my parents called our television the “idiot box” and told me it “rots your brain”. They were common phrases in use at the time. Now their generation watches TV all day and if you suggest that the TV is bad it will upset them. Over time I expect videogames will become accepted in the same way. As we gamers age we will bring our own attitudes towards gaming with us until long hours of gaming is as normal as binging 18 hours straight of Netflix is somehow “normal” to people now. Then our politicians will blame something else for their own failings and we can finally join in with everybody else because it won’t be something we like. Until that day comes, arm yourself with the statistics above to argue our case when required, and please conduct yourself in a way that doesn’t make us all look like lunatics.