Video games and violence

About this time last year, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a constituent from Watertown approached me with concern about the role that “first person shooter” games play in training people to commit acts of violence.  We developed and, with the support of Representatives Hecht and Lawn from Watertown, filed legislation to study the problem.

Most adults share the common sense concern that it can’t be healthy for anyone to sit around rehearsing murder in video games for hours a day.  The concern jumped back into the news recently after the release of the recent investigative report on the Sandy Hook killer.

CBS commentator Jon Keller used the occasion to call for a voluntary boycott of games involving the killing of children — a boycott I would support.  Coverage of the investigative report in the New York Times suggested that the killer had been “enthralled by violent video games including one called ‘School Shooting’.”

In  the report, however, it’s actually unclear how much time the killer spent on violent video games. The report does say that “He played video games often, both solo at home and online. They could be described as both violent and non-violent” (page 31). There is considerable evidence that he was truly enthralled with Dance Dance Revolution — an athletic game that is all about dance and not at all about revolution or other violence (pages 25, 32-33).

The Sandy Hook case offers one more example of the difficulty in isolating the role of violent video games in generating actual violence:  Alienated people may, among other lonely activities, play violent video games, but enjoyment for violent games goes well beyond those who are future mass murderers — the Facebook page for Black Ops II has almost 15 million likes. A survey in Norway showed that 56.3% of the respondents used video games on a regular basis and that — surprise — “Gender (male) and age group (young) were strong predictors for problematic use of video games.”  Another surprising study of adult video gamers showed that single marital status is among the strong predictors of high use.  Scholars are conflicted about connection between games and violence.

The Supreme Court recognized the unclarity of the evidence in its 2011 decision in Brown versus Entertainment Merchants Association.  The court first of all confirmed that video games are a form of expression subject to free speech protections — “we have long recognized that it is difficult to distinguish politics from entertainment and it is dangerous to try.”  Since they are a protected form of expression, a government cannot regulate content of video games unless the government can “identify an ‘actual problem’ in need of solving” and show that “curtailment of free speech must be actually necessary to the solution.”  The court concluded that the evidence “is not compelling”.  The “studies do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (emphasis in original)”.  The government’s expert in the case admitted that the “effect sizes” from exposure to violent video games were comparable to those from watching Road Runner cartoons.

Despite the ambiguity of the evidence, many adults have intuitive concern about kids rehearsing violence, especially in its sicker forms.  To create a vehicle to learn about the issue in Massachusetts, we filed Senate 168.  I have little expectation that our study will marshal evidence that would support new government restrictions on sale of games — I agree with the Supreme Court that we should insist on very clear evidence before restricting speech — but the study might lead to a range of other responses.  It might fuel Jon Keller’s boycott proposal, or it might lend support for another bill I’ve cosponsored concerning media literacy in schools.  Perhaps we don’t want to make new rules, but we may want to do more to help parents help their kids to make healthy entertainment choices.

So far, the bill has been an interesting ride.  After filing, I was immediately visited by entertainment industry lobbyists, who warned me solemnly about their free speech rights.  Now the industry has started an email campaign calling the bill’s language “inflammatory.”  Well-designed video games can play a very positive role in education.  The industry should welcome a study that might shed light on what their games teach children.

As always, I’d welcome your thoughts!

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

15 replies on “Video games and violence”

  1. My kneejerk reaction on Facebook was:

    Science has yet to find conclusively if it’s correlation or causation (because it’s behavior and influence based, they likely never will), and they’ve been trying for 40 years. You’d have just as much useful feedback in a commission on poor parenting choices. I’m with you on a lot of things, but I think this will not produce any useful results or actions. Here, saved the commission a year:

    Not very polite, but I realized I was responding to your tone. Part of the pushback you’re going to get is from the way you’re couching your argument:

    “Most adults share the common sense concern that it can’t be healthy for anyone to sit around rehearsing murder in video games for hours a day.”

    Right there, you’re underlining your position that any game where people are first-person and virtual death is the objective is “rehearsing murder”. You used a highly aggressive position as your starting assumption. It’s hard not to reaction emotionally to that. It’s reiterated when you use:

    “Despite the ambiguity of the evidence, many adults have intuitive concern about kids rehearsing violence, especially in its sicker forms.”

    It assumes that virtual actions are a rehearsal, which is an invalid strawman. There’s a lot of content to this post doesn’t pass the basic whiff test of Logical Fallicies:

    You need to work on the language – of course by even raising the question, you’re going to get pushback. For example, “How often do you wear penguin suits, Mr. Brownsberger?” asked in something as official as a bill means that there’s merit to the idea that it is non-zero and that it’s a problem worthy of public concern. That’s why you’re getting industry pushback, who’ve had to defend against a linkage that science, despite intense interest, has not been able to define as correlation or causation in over 40 years.

    Now, when you say this:

    “Perhaps we don’t want to make new rules, but we may want to do more to help parents help their kids to make healthy entertainment choices.”

    For the first time, you suggest that anything other than new legislation on access to games is on the table. That is NOT in the bill. The bill only speaks to regulation, not social programs or education.

    I think there’s a WORLD of good from games, and I think you’re right that children, by parents, should be steered towards healthier pursuits than ultra-violent games. So, if you revised the bill language to add the idea to the legislation’s optionset that educational investment into parenting wisely in an age of video games, that would help. From the language as it stands, it’s a “let’s regulate, and how much” bill, which I would rail against with every breath.

  2. JDVyska is correct in their point that your tone, and overall stance is a bit aggressive and biased.

    Correlation doesn’t equal causation.

    More people play violent video games and do not commit murder than do.

    This entire standpoint, pinning ‘blame’ for gun violence on video games is immature and frankly narrow-minded. While yes, acting out violence in video games may be a catalyst for further aggression, the same practice can be made by someone pantomiming and imagining they action in their mind. Plenty of gratuities violence on TV and in the Movies to make this incredibly easy.

    This is a media buzz topic and your pandering to the hype is very unattractive as a candidate. Income inequality is the right, and major argument for gun violence causation.

  3. Will,

    JDVyska, makes some very good points here. You should consider them closely.

    Further, this strikes me as a case of legislators feeling they have to do something to appear useful, but the angles they’re trying to take will have minimal if any positive effect. Quite frankly, this is typical of legislators. They don’t want to address the harsh realities.

    Those harsh realities are that this kid had way, way bigger issues than playing video games. The report states that he barely spoke to his mother, despite living with her (they communicated through email), and hadn’t spoken to his father in years. Let’s be blunt, the kid was psychotic (pardon the lay term). Did playing first person shooter video games help matters? Probably not but they were a drop in the bucket.

    Bills regulating video games are token effort at best. You speak about “intuitive” and “common sense” concerns, but there’s plenty of scientific evidence showing that people are really bad at judging probabilities (they’re scared of planes but happy to travel in cars).

    Perhaps what we want to do is help parents with kids that have serious mental problems.

  4. I believe there is absolutely a connection between folks playing mindless degenerate video games and desensitizing people to violence. The military has used these games to prepare soldiers to kill without hesitation. Lots of research on this plus just common sense. I understand that only a small minority will act out this way, but we need to at least put these games in the same category as pornography. I’m not a fan of legislating the issue by creating bans, but an educational campaign which shames the folks who buy these things may be in order.
    The bigger issue left unexplored is the mental health issue. Nearly all of these mass shooters have been taking anti-pyschotic medication. There has been numerous studies that link suicidal and homicidal actions to some who take these medications. Again, this is a minority, but there does appear to be a correlation. Combining an unstable mind with powerful not well understood pharmaceuticals and then conditioning the mind with hours of violence with these ridiculous video games many be a toxic arrangement.

  5. Easy “solution”: regulate video games. It doesn’t cost anything, and it appeals to [some] people’s common sense and intuition.

    Hard solution: take a good look at our broken mental health care system and fix it. It’s going to be expensive, contentious and ridiculously complex.

    Will, I think you’re the man for the “hard solution” job!

  6. I’m glad that you haven’t jumped into restrictions. Your usual cool-headed thinking at work, which I appreciate.

    I very much doubt that a government commission, even a blue-ribbon panel, is going to be able to answer the questions you’re looking for. Many (all?) of the appointees are coming to the table with opinions, and they’re all appointed by people with opinions. They’re coming to the table pre-programmed by the point of view of the person with the clout to do the appointment.

    In the big picture, paying for the commission is cheap, and if it prevents more rash actions, then it’s a smart bill. But I doubt the actual output is worth the cost.

  7. This bill is precisely the way that government can and should do it’s job.

    It is pro-active on a topic full of misguided opinions; when the bottom line is, there are real facts out there. You or I may have an opinion, but it doesn’t matter – the facts will speak for themselves. The bill is completely objective and it intended to find facts.

    Government has a fundamental obligation to protect and to educate.

    We appropriate millions of dollars every year to “technology” in classrooms. This technology includes interactive entertainment and games that are intended to teach. Shouldn’t we hold a commission to see if those dollars are being put to good use? And if so, then isn’t it worth it to understand why they work? And if that is the case, shouldn’t we compare these “educational games” with other games and see how they might be similar? That is the point of this commission.

    We are surrounded by games, and interactive entertainment. Not only children. The key is that this bill takes no sides. It is a study to understand video games ability to train people.

    Many people in this forum have voice comments about a “causal” link. This bill does not look for a causal link. Furthermore, causal is a flawed way to understand how interactive entertainment works. It is a word that the Entertainment Merchant’s Association’s (EMA) lawyers used (quite intentionally) against the state of California (technically “Brown” or “Schwarzenneger”) for passing a law that would make the video game rating system (ESRB) just as enforceable as the movie ratings system. The EMA focused on a causal link, which as someone else pointed out, it essentially impossible to prove. Fact: Even today, there is no “causal link” between smoking and lung cancer.

    Violence is another word which is vague and hard to define. The bill focuses on actions in the games, and is required to scientifically study exactly how the player learns to succeed and then we can evaluate if there was a learning event. So, all preconceived ideas and thoughts aside, even if they may be grounded in common sense, are essentially thrown out the window in this bill. Read the language. It uses words like killing games, and training, to qualify certain activities. It never forces a conclusion or even a link to violence. The point of the bill is to take this discussion off the he-said, she-said, or I feel, you feel, and to take a very scientific approach to studying what makes interactive entertainment good or bad at training.

    Look, the first games that many people played on a home computer was called “Flight Simulator”. It actually was used to train pilots before getting into a real cockpit.

    In a world where we game constantly, and our government is spending considerable dollars to enhance education through the use of games and interactive entertainment, shouldn’t the government spend a few dollars to see if there even is a learning aspect to games?

    Here is the language:

    The bill is objective – how it is talked about requires that no conclusions be drawn.

  8. I do not think that video games cause violence in itself. But they are a factor among many others that do cause violence. What bothers me is the fact that so much gaming is anti-social and violent. Why not require that gamers develop an equal or higher proportion of pro-social gaming.

  9. Probably can’t define “pro-social” gaming at a legislative level, but many game developers do create pro-social games — it’s going to be a big part of the future of education. One goal of mine is to open the door wider to new technologies in education.

  10. I agree that video games hold much potential towards education. But, we must make effort to support game makers that make learning as exciting as killing people under pseudo-stressful conditions.

    When I say pro-social games I am thinking of games that don’t brutalize human beings in any way.

  11. In response to Senator Brownsberger’s post I reached out to him and he kindly responded to me. Although we likely continue to have some significant differences of opinion, I believe our dialogue has been cordial and productive…I wish dialogues between scholars in this field were similar. At his request I am reposting my original email to him here:

    Dear Senator Brownsberger:

    I just happened to read your op-ed on video game violence. I am a psychologist and a researcher in the area of video game violence. Overall my research, which I’d be glad to share with you, does not find evidence linking violent video games (however offensive some may be) to aggression or violent behavior. As you may guess, we probably disagree on many things. However, I do want to say that I appreciated the tone of your arguements in your op-ed piece. You were very honest about scholarly disagreements and inconsistencies in the research and that is something that happens too infrequently among people who worry about video game violence (even scholars, regrettably).

    Again, we may disagree more often then not on what should or shouldn’t be done about video game violence, but if I can ever be of service to you on these issues, please let me know. There are probably some good opportunities to promote education of the ratings systems, parental involvement in their children’s media lives, etc., without resorting to “fear mongering” (which, again, I’m glad to see you are avoiding). I’d be pleased to help you however I could.


    Christopher J. Ferguson, Ph.D.

    Stetson University

    PS: And just for the record, I have no funding or other personal or financial ties to the entertainment industry.

  12. Thanks again, Chris. And thanks to all who have posted on this topic. Many fair points have been made.

    I’d be the first to agree (a) that there are many things that contribute to violence in our society and (b) that video games are undoubtedly not the biggest problem and (c) they may not be part of the problem at all — it is entirely possible that playing violent video games, on average, may allow some people to blow off steam so that they are less aggressive.

    I still think that a well-run study commission could help build a Massachusetts awareness of the ins and outs of the issue, while we work to attend to many larger issues like, for example, quality of care in our mental health system.

Comments are closed.