Video games, conventionally, have a bad reputation. Any time there is a teenage-related shooting incident or some youth related problem, video games are one of the easiest scapegoats to conjure. It is demonized as violent media and as a bad form of entertainment that is, among other things, a waste of time, and a catalyst of adolescent violence due to desensitization. At a market size of over $ 100 billion, the video game industry is bigger than Hollywood itself, and with the lives and habits of hundreds of millions of adolescents around the world in question, the debate is incredibly spirited indeed. But the general populace has shown to have uncertain opinions about video gaming and video gaming violence itself.

Video Gaming Pew Research
Video Gaming Pew Research

Video games draw people from all ages, with at least over 1.2 billion people playing them in 2013. As Oscar Dele, the CMO of Spil Games says, ‘Gaming is a huge part of people’s online activities. It’s really mainstream, crossing age and gender boundaries.’ Video games have become the new rock and roll – a culturally transforming phenomena that is stigmatized as a negative influence on the youth and the catalyst of bad things in general. One question of interest is the reason why violence itself is a major part of video games. People like competition. People like stakes. People evaluate their activities on a risk versus reward basis. This is as much true in Kansas as it is in Kathmandu. Violence is the highest stakes competition that exists. Violent video-games remove all the risk, but retain all of the emotional reward by emulating this high-risk/high-reward competition, hence violent video-games will feel the most rewarding viscerally and draw the biggest crowds.

Violence, Reward and Choice

One reason people play video games is to take a break from life. Another is to relive and feel themselves as the hero in a ‘hero’s narrative’. People play in order to explore novel situations that rarely occur in real life. They play games involving violence because violence itself has decreased in real life over the last century. Fragging (killing) your enemies in the game in a violent – even brutally gory like in Mortal Kombat- manner has become a novelty without any of the real-life genuine consequences attached. There is no reason to be sad or upset for what you are doing when the game is actively rewarding you. In fact, the game is saying that it is the only way to progress forward and is therefore the right thing to do.

It doesn’t matter who the enemies are – humans, aliens or inanimate objects. What is important is the fact that the game’s rulesets dictate how one wins, and most games have violence built as the main, sometimes sole, method for victory. After all, you have to divest nothing of your empathetic powers in the person you are about to kill – no backstory, no history, no individuality. Without emotional investment of any kind in such kill or be killed situtations, there is no compulsion at all to humanize virtual pixellated enemies by thinking about what happens to them later. They become just a means to an end, in this case, the objective.

It is not just enemies as well. This dehumanization can extend to your allies as well if they are, like your enemies’, just another face with zero character development. Character development, such as shown in serials like Game of Thrones or games like The Last of Us, makes us commit emotionally to the characters. We feel satisfied when the enemies of our favorite character die, we feel our heart strings pulled when our own character’s allies die, but no one cares about the thousands of nameless individuals or soldiers that are slayed throughout the season. Similarly, with a lack of character development and leaving us no choice but to resort to violence if we want the story to continue, it is hard to empathize. Indeed, by logical extension and empathy, we know that those nameless individuals were, like our own protagonist, people with hopes and desires, fears and a will to live. Thankfully, as research shows, this does not extend towards real life as a consequence of gaming.

Therefore, it also depends from game to game and on whether violence is a game objective or used for narrative purposes. In most games, there is a lack of premeditation and there is rarely any full agency on part of the player’s choices. Most games also are linear and players may end up, as result of either the storyline or the game ruleset and mechanics, engaging in violence without any real choice. The limited mechanics of a game limits the element of responsibility as well. Therefore, most of the time, it is up to the narrative itself. Of course, there are other video games that have a better and more dynamic game mechanism, like the Fallout series, which have karma points based on your actions. 

There are other games with little to no violence at all, like Farming Simulator, which as the name suggests, is a farming simulator. Unless you include killing weeds as violence, this is as non-violent as you are going to get. But, there is a far greater number of games that have a violent theme, including the most popular ones among adolescents and children– GTA V, Call of Duty, MGS Series, and even the turtle-killer Mario. Playing violent games like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed does not make you a killer or an assassin, the same way playing NBA2k doesn’t make you an NBA athlete, or playing Need for Speed make you a racing pro. Recent evidence also suggests that violent video games do not blunt empathy. For parents and guardians who are concerned about a game’s effect on children, the ESRB rating system makes it very easy to filter through the constant supply of new games. As far as censorship goes, it all depends on whether video games are considered a form of art, and whether art is protected in the country’s constitution as an indispensable medium of expression. If it is, video games can be protected under the freedom of expression.

Benefits from Gaming

Our brains are constantly developing. The neuroplasticity of our brains remains a wonder of nature. It is especially important for adolescents whose ideas, opinions and propensities are wired are rewired into their minds. In the brain, the left frontal cortex is an area where planning, concentration, problem solving, decision-making, and behavior controlling happen. A study found a correlation between the amount of time 14 year-olds play a game and the thickness of their left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Obviously, the relation could be the reverse, i.e. those with thicker LDPCs are more inclined to play video games. Another study on professional StarCraft players found that regular long-term playing of online games is associated with volume change in prefrontal and parietal cortices, which are associated with cognitive flexibility. In any case, this flies in the face of those who say that video games rot your brain. If anything, it makes them bigger. The researchers themselves are usually research professors who may or may not have played video games themselves, so this can affect how they design experiments.

One study from the Uni of Texas showed that “forty hours of RTS video game was sufficient to create dramatic changes in the players’ cognitive flexibility.” Cognitive ability, the study says, is associated with fluid intelligence: the ability to adapt to new information and situation, and overall psychological well-being. The RTS game used here was StarCraft, a very popular one used in international professional competitions with winning pots ranging in the millions. benefits from RTS gaming was attention-switching tasks, the stroop test, location remembering tasks and memory tasks. The conclusion of the test shouldn’t come as a surprise to any serious gamer. RTS games emphasize a constant level of conscious awareness into micro and macro management, maintenance, giving selective attention among multiple sources of information, manipulating a large number of interconnected variables, and choosing a definite but flexible course of action towards completing objectives. If these sound like skills a brilliant businessperson or entrepreneur would have, you are right.

Residents and physician on surgery simulators who played video games did notably better than their peers who did not. In fact, the ones who played the most did the best. improve the assassin-steady hands of top class surgeons. Furthermore, action games require considerable hand-eye coordination and consequently, train you to process visual information better, and increase hand-eye coordination in young children. They are much better at quick processing and task switching. Kids who play pro-social games also tend to have greater social skills later on. It is safe to say that those who play strategy games are better at those tasks. There is also the debate on whether playing video games, particularly strategy games correlates with higher intelligence. But we have to keep in mind any natural inclination intelligent people may have towards strategy games and not confuse correlation with causation. There is, according to my knowledge, no conclusive study linking strategy or general gaming to IQ yet.

Shouldn’t we devote our finite attention towards more pressing issues like the rising levels of air pollution in the cities of developing countries (yes, you Kathmandu), or, gee I don’t know, climate change? I think we all have better things to do at the moment than make video games a scapegoat for every teenage mishap. Both violence and video game usage is rising in the U.S. I fear many have begun seeing a stronger than actual correlation between the two. Maybe naturally violent people tend to gravitate towards violent games. The cause and effect remain largely unclear. Too much gaming is also a problem nonetheless and an excess would produce more risks than benefits. While the DSM 5 does not recognize video game or internet addictions, Internet Gaming Disorder is being considered to be added to the entry. Thankfully there hasn’t been any ‘war’ on it like the failed war against drugs or terrorism. So if you want to convince your conservative parents with facts, go ahead and link them to this article. Maybe they will change their minds and even join you – as 2P obviously.

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Sebastian Castro
Sebastian is an alternative game enthusiast and programmer based in Bogotá. He is also involved with numerous organizations that help keep the internet free and open for all.

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