With the World Health Organisation creating an ill-defined "gaming disorder", CNN claiming that games are boot camps for mass shooters, and Trump apparently looking to blame America's gun violence problem on video games, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd time travelled back to 1997, or had somehow gained the ability to see anti-video-game activist and disgraced attorney Jack Thompson's wet dreams.
Aren't we beyond all of this claptrap? Who still believes violent games cause violent behaviour? Well, almost everyone but gamers, if my long-running and highly scientific survey on the matter is any indication. I have involuntarily conducted said survey for the past six years or so, and it goes a little something like this: someone asks me what I do for a living, then proceeds to tell me that violent games are to blame for any number of society's problems, up to and including the fact that they couldn't find Caramilk at New World that morning.
This exchange takes place at retail checkouts, on flights, during dates, at family gatherings, at parties, during flat inspections, and – not joking – at funerals (although in fairness, a eulogy probably isn't the place to boast about my PUBG chicken dinner ratio). Years of scare-mongering and misinformation, the behaviour of some very visible gamers, stereotypes, and the increasing fidelity and brutality of violence in a handful of prominent titles have all seemingly trained the public at large to regard our hobby the way they would a mysterious puddle of liquid on a restroom floor.
Of course, I'm now extremely well-practiced at slowly explaining that wee Freddie's Fortnite sessions won't result in another mass shooting, but in my weaker moments, I simply tell people I work in a less reviled industry like child trafficking, because defending what the clueless public presumes Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto are gets pretty tiring, and a lot of people still think that playing video games is something you should substitute for alcohol consumption as soon as you are of age.
Thus this article, the URL of which I shall robotically enunciate next time someone tells me that Bulletstorm rather than actual bullets are killing children.
In February, US President Donald Trump said something needed to be done about video games. "I'm hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is shaping more and more people's thoughts," he said at meeting held with lawmakers on the theme of school safety, following yet another deadly shooting in the US.
The next week, he added, "The video games, movies, the Internet stuff is so violent. It's so incredible… I have a very young son who I look at some of the things he's watching and I say, 'How is that possible?'… It's hard to believe that at least for a percentage, maybe it's a small percentage of children, this doesn't have a negative impact on their thought process. These things are really violent!"
Today, Trump met with politicians, video game executives, and a few anti-video game partisans. In the meeting, an 88-second clip of gaming violence (see below) was played (yes, it included footage of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's infamous "No Russian" level), and Trump apparently commented on the level of violence. In a statement following the closed doors meeting, the White House said that President Trump "acknowledged some studies have indicated there is a correlation between video game violence and real violence".
"During today's meeting, the group spoke with the president about the effect that violent video games have on our youth, especially young males," the White House statement reads. "The conversation centred on whether violent video games, including games that graphically simulate killing, desensitize our community to violence. This meeting is part of ongoing discussions with local leaders and Congress on issues concerning school and public safety and protecting America's youth."
It wasn't all bad news: Democratic senators accused Trump of wasting time and using a meeting on video game violence to distract from needed action on gun control. "It's a diversion," Sen. Dick Durbin told Glixel. "It's so you don't have to talk about the obvious: what to do with these semi-automatic weapons, with bump-stocks, and high-capacity magazines, and the sale of AR-15s to kids, background checks – the obvious things that would make a profound difference."
Games and violence: what does the research say?
Last week, I had a chat about games, violence, and wellbeing with Professor Daniel Johnson, an Australian video games and wellbeing researcher who leads the team at Queensland University of Technology's Games Research and Interaction Design Lab in Brisbane. He's got an honours degree in psychology, a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education, a Ph. D that he split between schools of psychology and computer science, and a post-doc from the University of Cambridge's Wellbeing Institute. He's been in his current gig for eight years, so he is very familiar with games being blamed for violent crime, aggressive children, and the ailing form of any given sports team.
"In terms of violence, I think it's very clear that there are very, very few to no people who are negatively influenced by what we might call violent video games," Professor Johnson begins. "And what's interesting is even the people who are most worried about it can only point to a very small effect – less than a percent or two depending on who you ask – on non-pathological [non-violent] aggression."
In other words, the most damning research out there shows that if you play a violent game, you will then, for example, subject someone to a loud noise for two percent longer than someone who hasn't played a violent game will. Tests have found a similarly tiny uptick in people talking rudely after violent gaming sessions, and one test even showed participants were one to two percent less likely to do something like pick up a pencil someone else "accidentally" drops.
So with the rise of gaming, will the streets soon be rivers of pointy Uber-stranding graphite, and will we all subsequently starve to death? "We are talking about very small effects," Professor Johnson clarifies. "The counter argument is that even a small change for a small percentage of people needs to be attended to, and that's certainly a valid point of view I think."
However, he doesn't mince words when it comes to addressing the claim that violent games directly cause violent behaviour. "The one consistent thing is that every time the media has tried to link violent video games to a terrible crime, every time there has been an investigation, it's come back really clearly that there is no link to be found. And those investigations have been conducted by people like the FBI, so it's not people with a vested interest. It's crazy to try and link something that's so widespread (playing video games) to something that's so relatively rare (school shootings). Those events are horrifying, and deserve every bit of attention so those issues get resolved, but video games are not a causal factor for them."
The Entertainment Software Association made similar noises prior to its meeting with President Trump: "The upcoming meeting at the White House, which ESA will attend, will provide the opportunity to have a fact-based conversation about video game ratings, our industry’s commitment to parents, and the tools we provide to make informed entertainment choices," the ESA said.
"Video games are enjoyed around the world and numerous authorities and reputable scientific studies have found no connection between games and real-life violence. Like all Americans, we are deeply concerned about the level of gun violence in the United States. Video games are plainly not the issue: entertainment is distributed and consumed globally, but the US has an exponentially higher level of gun violence than any other nation."
Last year, the World Health Organisation announced that it will include a "gaming disorder" in its next revision of the International Classification of Diseases. According to the WHO, three things indicate whether someone has said disorder: they don't have control over when or for how long they game, their gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities, and their gaming continues despite the occurrence of negative consequences.
While that may sound reasonable, and while many of us know someone who has disappeared into a World of Warcraft-shaped hole for an extended period, the fact is that the science simply isn't there to back up the WHO's assertions. That has seen a large contingent of internationally renowned mental health experts push back, including leading social scientists and academics from research centres and universities including Oxford University, Johns Hopkins University, Stockholm University and The University of Sydney.
This group argues that even those who support the WHO's diagnosis can't agree on what gaming disorder is, that the disorder neglects the wider non-clinical societal context, and that there isn't any scientific basis for the disorder. "There's a lot of research that doesn't find a link between these sort of symptoms of gaming disorder and long term health outcomes," says Professor Johnson.
Some claim that a "moral panic" could be influencing the WHO, but there's real concern that the formalisation of a gaming disorder will only increase the panic around games as a whole. "If we create this gaming disorder, then what will happen is it starts being diagnosed," says Professor Johnson. "But, the more we do that, the less inclined we will be to investigate whether video games are the problem."
There is widespread agreement that we need to be concerned about people that are having negative outcomes after playing video games, but the trouble is that we don't know that video games are the cause. For example, there is evidence that people that have problems like depression or anxiety turn to games as a coping strategy.
"If it is a coping behaviour, we want to think about whether we want to remove that or treat that as the problem," he says. "If I'm dealing with some other issue and using video games to cope, they might actually be performing a protective role rather than a risk role."
Formal classifications fail to distinguish between highly-engaged play and problematic play, because the two look really similar. "It's really hard to see the difference," says Professor Johnson. "You could go ahead and say it's a disorder, and lots of people whose play is not harmful… you might create more harm to mental health and wellbeing by creating this disorder. The group that's highly engaged and healthy looks the same in many ways as the unhealthy group… trying to distinguish – we just can't do it."
And the professor should know – a large part of his research involves trying to do exactly that.
What's your passion?
One thing that might be a decent predictor of whether video games are harmful for a player is their engagement style.
For those for whom gaming is a "harmonious" passion, they want rather than need to play, and their doing so leads to positive outcomes. They tend to have more energy after gaming, and manage their game time in a way that accommodates other aspects of their lives.
On the flipside, "obsessive" gamers have an uncontrollable urge to play, even though doing so results in negative outcomes and other areas of their lives being neglected. "When they play for a long time, feel more tension and less enjoyment," says Johnson.
The key thing is, it's not the amount you play or what you play that predicts your engagement style – it's what you get from playing. "There's an assumption that more play is definitely bad, and our research just doesn't support that," Professor Johnson says. "It's this more nuanced idea of just how play fits in the rest of your life.
"If the only thing that satisfies your need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness is video games, you're far more likely to become obsessed. But if you get these things from work, sport, relationships, then even though I get these things from video games your passion tends to stay harmonious."
This is not a new idea – it has shown up in other domains such as music research. But Professor Johnson believes it might be a missing puzzle piece, and he's now looking to test the theory that people who are obsessively passionate about gaming are more likely to display toxic behaviour in games.
Why are games a scapegoat?
"There was a time when people were very worried about the negative effects of chess," says Johnson. "And then there was a time when we were really worried about books – particularly fiction… Partly what we are dealing with is a fear of new media. And partly also people are looking for an easy answer to these horrifying events. And I think there is a misleading but somewhat intuitive connection to be made: games are violent, so people that play them must be violent."
Fans of the Pessimists Archive will know all too well what he's talking about here. That podcast has painstakingly detailed technophobia, alarmism, and puritanism of the past, when folks railed against such threats as pinball, coffee, bicycles, umbrellas, recorded music, and the Walkman. Remember when rock and roll was corrupting the youth?
Amid all this hysteria, the positive aspects of games are often overlooked, but this is another area Johnson studies. "We keep finding a lot of evidence for the social benefits of video games, the ways they facilitate connections among people and build social capital," he says. "But also the ways in which games fulfil psychological needs for things like competence, autonomy, and relatedness, which all falls under the banner of self-determination. We have consistent evidence games are good for satisfying those needs in people which have pretty clear positive impacts on wellbeing."
Of course, if you are reading this, none of this news to you. You enjoy games, and they don't turn you a dickhead or a psychopath. You understand that games are not real, and real world violence in all likelihood disgusts you. You also know that games are played everywhere, but in the First World, only the States has a huge problem with gun violence. But now at least you have another URL you can forward to less informed "common sense" folk, who can't fathom that making headshots in Battlefield isn't somehow training you to do the same at the school down the road.
If they don't find any of this convincing, perhaps we just hunker down until a newer medium is invented and inevitably demonised. Whatever the case, this all has me a little riled up – I'm off to relax with some Doom.