Video Games and Violence: A Unique Perspective
“Roger, Roger! Come on you twat, shoot him! Arr your rubbish! Get out of my lobby, come on fuck off!” Does that sound familiar to you? I know I’ve exchanged similar pleasantries with fellow gamers while trying to hold a flag during a heated game of domination or while trying to remain undetected en route to defusing a bomb during a tense game of search and destroy. Once I’ve saved the world, defused the bomb and earned myself copious kudos, I’ll often forget myself and carry on swearing excessively. I’ll ask my long suffering misses to hurry up with the fucking dinner, only to be reminded immediately that I’m no longer talking to like-minded swear boxes highly stressed and wholly consumed with the task at hand. No, I’m now talking to my girlfriend, who looks at me strangely, enquiring why I’m being unnecessarily aggressive?
During these moments I realise that I’ve been out of order, and apologise straight away, saying that I’m sorry but I “just got shot” or something to that effect, before I end up in the dog house. Clearly gaming does affect my behaviour, but really only during the heat of the moment, or immediately afterwards, causing me to swear simply because I may have been swearing excessively while playing online. At least that’s what I think. The question is can gaming impact on our behaviour over the long-term?
This is the question that I’ll attempt to answer during this article, and on a realistic note, we all know that playing Call of Duty doesn’t result in young people running round with gun’s shooting all and sundry. Nor does a long bout of Grand Theft Auto lead gamers to run out en masse to the local red light district and pick up a prostitute only to batter her to death and run off with her nights earnings, but does gaming impact on our behaviour in a more subtle and complex manner?
Having worked in the youth justice system for over 5 years I have seen evidence of gaming negatively impacting young people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Those young people who find themselves isolated at home through long-term exclusion from school, or struggle to attend school on a daily basis (for whatever reason) were often heavily involved in online gaming. On more than a few occasions these young people would spend almost their entire days playing video games online, staying up until the early hours, and then finding it almost impossible to get up early for school. I am inclined to believe that their video gaming habit was a consequences of their social exclusion rather than the cause, with individuals finding themselves bored with nothing to do, using their console or PC as a means to keep themselves occupied. Often teachers would blame the video game for keeping the child up all night, providing them with a reason to bunk off school and then start spouting about how kids don’t play outside anymore and how unhealthy video games are. More than once I heard teachers blaming Call of Duty for a child getting into a fight with another student in the playground, but is there really any evidence to suggest that video games impact on children’s behaviour making them more prone to use violence or unable to empathise with their peers?
Research has been commissioned by the U.S Department of Justice at the Centre for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts and although still in preliminary stages, has identified that violent video games can have a negative impact on young people and their behaviour. However, more importantly, those most likely to experience changes in behaviour are a particular subset of youths, those who are vulnerable to mental health problems due to genetic familial traits, environmental factors and/or mental health problems. In fact Dr. P. Markey of Villanova University and Dr. Charlotte Markey of Rutgers University, who conducted research into personality traits and the impact of violent video games, found that most children aren’t affected by playing violent video games. Those who might display violent or aggressive behaviour are likely to display three specific personality traits, high neuroticism (prone to anger and depression, highly emotional and easily upset), disagreeableness (cold, indifferent to other people) and low levels of conscientiousness (prone to acting without thinking, failing to deliver on promises, breaking rules).
Clearly then, video gaming doesn’t appear to trigger aggressive or violent behaviour in the majority of those playing them, nor does research suggest that it negatively impacts on young people’s ability to empathise with those around them, but there does appear to be a subset of people whom gaming can affect who may already be displaying vulnerable characteristics or personality traits. This evidence seems to tally with my own experience, that often children or young people who were already suffering with problems at school, within the family or any other reason might use video gaming as a way to pass the time, or escape their problems through immersing themselves in a world that didn’t involve facing the sort of difficulties that were the source of all their problems in the first place. In this way gaming can be a way for vulnerable young people to cope with their problems, rather than being the actual trigger or source of their problems.
If this is the case, then gaming can be a positive factor, providing vulnerable young people with an avenue to continue socialising with their peers online in situations where they might be otherwise completely isolated, perhaps because they’re not attending school or are excluded from mixing with their peers for any other reason. They have a forum where they can continue to meet with their friends, and even discuss issues online in an attempt to seek advice or support. Parents would often ask me how to deal with their child playing online, expressing a desire for their child to go out and play more. I would often ask these parents what they would prefer, their child playing online with friends in a safe environment, or be outside associating with peers in an environment where the parents have no knowledge or control over what their child is involved in. One example of how gaming benefitted a young person and helped him integrate back into society occurred about a year ago. A client I worked with had been excluded from school and was socially isolated from his peers and wider friendship group due to his non-attendance at school. He spent the majority of his time playing online and without being able to associate with his friends while gaming would have completely lost contact with everyone he had previously been friends with at school potentially leading to further emotional and behavioural difficulties. When he eventually overcame personal problems he returned to education and didn’t have to worry about making new friends as his peer group had been able to continue supporting him during his time at home. He continued his schooling and went onto stay at school until he was eighteen successfully passing his exams reaching his potential. This situation highlighted exactly how video gaming was able to help him continue to feel supported and included within his peer group. He was able to seamlessly return to spending more of his time engaging in activities outside the home with friends he had stayed in contact with online, playing football and other activities.
As with most parenting issues, the main point with young people gaming excessively is for the parents to enforce appropriate rules and boundaries for the child to adhere to, particularly if vulnerable young people are using video games as a way to escape their problems. Such rules can ensure that young people don’t end up spending excessive time gaming, play games that are age appropriate, and if they do have problems that might lead them use gaming as a way of escaping reality, use other more appropriate avenues of support to manage their difficulties. Gaming can then be used as what it is and always has been, whether being utilised online via a console or PC or on a chessboard over the table, a way for people to socialise, enjoy other’s company, learn valuable social skills and pass the time.