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Video game violence is even more concerning than violence on television, for one simple reason: whereas television viewing is a passive experience, video games call upon kids to actively participate in the violent script unfolding. As behavioral scientist Gerald Driessen complained after the release of the first interactive videogame in 1977, “the person no longer is just a spectator, but now an actor in the process of creating violence.” (Myers, 2018) This may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s one that matters.

To understand the concerns about video game violence, we need to take a quick trip through the recent history of military conflict. During the first World War, military leaders struggled with a counterintuitive problem: soldiers were reluctant to fire their weapon at enemy soldiers, because they looked like, well, people. Back in those days soldiers trained by shooting at round targets. But this didn’t prepare them mentally for shooting at an actual person. As a result, only 15% of rifleman in combat actually fired their weapons. So the military began using humanoid looking targets in training, and eventually moved on to simulators, which proved especially effective.

Simulators helped bring the firing rate from a paltry 10-20% during World Wars 1 & 2 to a whopping 95% during Vietnam. Similar results have been observed all throughout the world. In the Falklands War, Argentine soldiers who trained with bull’s-eye targets had a 10-15% firing rate. British soldiers trained in modern methods averaged more than 90%. “Thus we know that, all other factors being equal, 75 percent to 80 percent of the killing on the modern battlefield is a direct result of the simulators,” write Grossman and deGaetano (1999, p. 74).

Here’s the thing: modern day videogames are just as sophisticated as the simulators used by military and police agencies to train their recruits to kill. So when kids play a first-person shooter game, they’re being exposed to the type of desensitization training militaries use to turn ordinary people into killers.

In fact, many video games are even more sophisticated than the simulators used by governments, and far more graphic as well. Companies certainly don’t shy away from graphic violence. As one ad in PC gamer read: “Gratuitous Violence is 200 Times Faster with a D-Link Network…No Cure. No Hope. Only Death…Destroying Your Enemies Isn’t Enough…You Must Devour Their Souls.” (ibid, p. 93)

Back in my youth, Duke Nuken was one of the most popular games. It involves a Mad Max type character running around killing amidst chaos on the streets. Bound women tied to columns plead to the gamer, “Kill me, kill me.” Bonus points are awarded for murdering prostitutes, many of them naked. The company also actively targeted kids, selling Duke Nukem action figures, which were popular with boys 8 and younger.

There was a game called “Postal” that awards points for “going postal” and killing as many innocent victims as possible while they beg for mercy. Worse yet, some games allow you to scan photos of your classmates and teachers from the school yearbook into the game. Their faces then show up on the people you kill.

Modern day games like Grand Theft Auto have carried on this violent tradition, celebrating all manner of violent debauchery. And although they’ve become much more taboo after all the recent mass shootings, there are still games one can download from the Internet where players assume the role of school shooter. The only difference is that today’s games are far more advanced, with gory graphics that are even more realistic.

This does not mean your kid is going to become a mass shooter just because you let them play a violent game. There are a myriad of factors at work when it comes to violence, and this is only one of them. It just means that if and when a kid does get a gun in their hand, and should they have the inclination to use it, it will be far easier for them to point it at another human being and pull the trigger.

How violent video games affect kids

Violent video games may not automatically turn children into serial killers, but that doesn’t mean all this exposure is benign, either. “Neither extreme is supported by the vast body of research in this domain,” concludes a report by the International Society for Research on Aggression. (Snider, 2012)

Playing any type of video game induces a physiological response in children, and violent video games have been shown to induce a higher heart rate and more pronounced adrenaline response. Which means all those concerns about how video game use alters children’s behavior applies even more so to violent games.

Research has linked violent video games to a measurable increase in aggressiveness in kids. (Anderson & Bushman, 2001) Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, says the findings suggest that exposure to violent video games may have the same effect as other aggressive behavior risk factors, such as having abusive parents or living in a crime-ridden neighborhood. (Snider, 2012)

Not all kids are affected equally. Those who already possess at-risk personality traits (such as being short tempered, less conscientious, less agreeable, or more antisocial) may be at greater risk. (USA Today, 2010)

So how should parents react to this information? There’s certainly evidence to support a policy of restraint. However, I’m reluctant to advocate for complete abolition of violent video games, partly because I’ve never known repression to be a very effective strategy for dealing with any issue, and in part because I don’t want to be the technology Nazi who tells parents to take away their child’s favorite video game and ends up creating more heartache and conflict in the home. But it’s also clear that violent gaming is an activity you want children doing as little as possible.

  • Do your best to prevent such exposure to begin with. It’s a whole lot easier to say no to a new game and have them pick a different one than it is to try and get them to stop playing a game they’ve already developed a fondness for.

  • Ask the parents of your child’s playdates about this issue, and request that any violent games be kept off-limits while your kids are there.

  • It’s important to remember that pretty much every game features some sort of violence. Even Mario Brothers involves hopping on turtles and fighting flame-throwing dragons, which I imagine the turtles and dragons might take offense to. What matters more is how this violence is depicted. Fortnight revolves around battles between players, but the violence is rather mild and non-graphic by today’s standards, so it’s probably more akin to Mario Brothers than Mortal Kombat. Games involving mysterious creatures are also less of a concern. It’s games that display graphic, bloody, gory depictions of human-on-human violence that pose the biggest concern.

  • Avoid first-person shooter games that place your child in the position of a gunman, which are identical to simulators the Army uses to train people to kill.

  • If you can’t get kids to avoid such games altogether, try to limit the time they spend playing them.

  • Taper use by age. Just because your teenager likes to play Grand Theft Auto that doesn’t mean you have to let your 8-year-old play it too. The earlier kids are exposed to such violence, the more profound its effects.

  • As always, talk to children about what they’re being exposed to. Why is killing people portrayed as something fun? Why do they like this game over others? How could they make it fun without the violence? Ask questions such as this on a regular basis. Your kids may get annoyed, and it may seem as though your words have no impact, but the simple act of challenging this narrative can get kids to consciously think about things, and may even counteract some of the effects of this violent conditioning.

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