Written by: Stephen Metelsky
Originally Published: Blue Line magazine – June/July 2008 edition
Navigating a robotic mouth through a maze of dots in ‘Pac-man,’ a 1980’s video game, is a far cry from realistically decapitating someone in ‘Postal 2,’ a popular 2003 game. This violent trend continues to thrive, as do the game makers. Profits ballooned from $3.2 billion in 1995 to $7 billion in 2003. (1)
Considering the average child spends some four to eight hours a day using electronic media, (1) its safe to assume many have access to violent video games. Research on video game violence has revealed a significant relationship between exposure and aggressive behaviour in society. (2)
As violent video games have increased, so have highly publicized violent incidents involving youths with strong affiliations to them. The Columbine high school shooting in 1999, for example, involved two students obsessed with the video game ‘Doom’ – so realistic that the U.S. military licensed it to train soldiers how to shoot and kill in an effective manner. (3) The students rehearsed by playing it incessantly. Some researchers argue that this repeated exposure to depictions of graphic violence can contribute to desensitization. (3)
Compared with other media, research into video game violence is sparse, yet “many of the underlying psychological processes identified in the TV-movie literature also apply to video games.” (2) Many are concerned about how video games and mass media validate violence on a daily basis. There is vicarious agreement among scientists that media depictions of violence substantially effect children, primarily by increasing aggressive and violent behaviour. (4)
Opinions vary on the causal connection linking aggressive behaviours with exposure to violent media forums. The entertainment industry argues that there is absolutely no relationship between violent media and aggressive behaviour(s), (5) and that violence perpetuated within the media is simply a societal reflection of what occurs in everyday life. (5)
“If you cut the wires of all TV sets today, there would still be no less violence on the streets in two years,” argued Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti. (6) This is simply an unsubstantiated opinion not supported by scientific research. Scientists have presented some clear and convincing behavioural evidence supporting the causal relationship between media violence and aggressive behaviour(s).
Sales of violent video games have skyrocketed over the past few years. If they cause violence, why aren’t youths who have just played them committing more murders, the entertainment industry would like to argue.
“Media violence exposure is not a necessary and sufficient cause of violence…not everyone who watches violent media becomes aggressive and not everyone who is aggressive watches violent media” (5) – but there is scientific evidence indicating that violent media does have an affect on violent behaviour.
“At this time, well over 1,000 studies point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behaviour in some children,” six professional/medical organizations noted in a 2000 joint statement. (7) Two critical implications can be derived from this.
First, there is valid and reliable scientific evidence from some of the most reputable U.S. professional agencies indicating a causal relationship between viewing media violence and the onset of aggressive behaviour(s). Second, the joint statement refers to “some” children being affected, not “all,” but given the amount of violent media available, that “some” could be a resounding and significant number.
Probably the most damaging aspect of youth overexposure to violent media is that the repeated depictions of violent behaviour become engrained as learned behaviour. Learning theories predict that violent video game play can influence behaviour through reinforcement, practice and observational learning. (8) Social learning theory (9) explains violence at the individual level as aggression vicariously learned through observation. (9)
Bushman and Huesmann define observational learning as the process “through which behavioural scripts, world schemas and normative beliefs become encoded in a child’s mind simply as a consequence of the child observing others. Observational learning is a powerful extension of imitation in which logical induction and abstraction are used to encode complex representations.” (10)
Their research indicates children are susceptible to violence in both the short and long term after observing it depicted in the media. Emphasis is also placed on extra parameters to ensure protection for children against prolonged and/or repeated exposure to violent media. (10)
Consider the following factual scenario. There are hundreds of thousands of young children across the world who daily play, unsupervised, violent video games, including ‘Grand Theft Auto’,’ which encourages auto theft, car jacking, armed robbery, assault with a weapon, drug use and prostitution. Another game of choice may be ’25 to Life,’ where the user picks a weapon and then proceeds to hunt down and kill police officers.
Behavioural scientists argue that repeat exposure to violent media can lead to a process of desensitization, whereby children develop “normative beliefs that aggression is appropriate.” (10) This overexposure to observing media violence can create emotional desensitization towards violence in society. (7)
There is no doubt that children exposed to repeat images of violence in the mass media may suffer dangerous lifelong consequences. (11)
Addicted to several forms of violent media – including musical lyrics, television, movies and most prominently, video games, especially ‘Doom’ – the Columbine killers superimposed the faces of students and teachers who had wronged them in the past onto the faces of the victims depicted in the game. They played it to the point of intense obsession, constantly rehearsing shooting their victims.
Research has shown youth learn behaviours, attain knowledge and have their value systems molded via exposure to violence in the media. (12) It’s difficult to speculate the exact role violent media played in the tragic Columbine scenario, as both killers ended their lives, but it undoubtedly played a significant role.
Repeated exposure to emotionally stimulating media can significantly reduce emotional reactions to violence occurring in the real world. Furthermore, based on this desensitization process, youth can then “think about and plan proactive aggressive acts without experiencing negative affect.” (10) This is exactly what the Columbine killers set out to do, planning in a premeditated manner to shoot and kill innocent students and teachers as an outlet for their internalized aggression and frustrations towards students who didn’t make them feel a part of the school. They nonchalantly killed 13 people and wounded 24 others before killing themselves. It’s very difficult to determine if violent media played a role in this massacre.
How do researchers account for youth exposed to similar forms of violent media who are non-aggressive? Research indicates computer games can contribute to violent behaviour at certain times, as they may “trigger aggression in certain people already predisposed to violence.” (13)
“There are a lot of kids that are angrier than they were 10 or 15 years ago,” notes Dr. Robert Butterworth, a trauma psychologist in an Arts & Entertainment documentary. “Stress of the family, a lot more broken homes, kids that don’t know any other reaction when they are frustrated than to strike out in a violent way. They don’t have anything else in their arsenal of responses. Add that to these violent images that will grow and fester to the point where you may have a full blown fantasy mixed in with violence and we’ve seen the tragic results.” (14)
Ironically this documentary aired two months prior to the Columbine shooting. The essence of the statement serves as a template for what transpired – youth who become engaged in criminality have to accept the consequences of their violent actions and take the full brunt of responsibility, in lieu of deflecting blame elsewhere.
Researchers must continue exploring the behavioural evidence linking exposure to media violence with real world violence. Violent media did not essentially create the violence at Columbine high school but it definitely contributed to the events. As Butterworth suggests: “you take a youngster who has the predisposition. You put them in an environment where the media shows these things (violence) and its like a triggering effect. The media doesn’t create, it triggers these people with the disposition.”
Joireman et al. (2003) and Anderson and Bushman (2002; 2001) define aggression as “a behaviour intended to cause immediate harm to another individual when it is understood that the target is motivated to avoid such harm.” (15)
It would be difficult to understand the innate behaviours of both Columbine killers, but it’s safe to assume they were both extremely frustrated with different facets of their life, including relationships with peers and teachers, school performance, etc. They were also addicted to violence depicted in various media forums. Based on the behavioural evidence, it would appear that the combination of high levels of frustration and an aggressive predisposition created a ticking time bomb waiting to be triggered. According to the Frustration-Aggression hypothesis, Dollard et al. (1939) proposed: “people who are frustrated, thwarted, annoyed or threatened will behave aggressively, since aggression is a natural, almost automatic response to frustrating circumstances. Moreover, people who exhibit aggressive behaviour are frustrated, thwarted, annoyed or threatened.” (16)
This psychosocial approach details the inverse relationship between frustration and aggression and is a relevant theory to explain the killers’ violent behaviours in terms of the motivating precursors to the shooting.
A second relevant psychosocial theory is ‘Displaced Aggression.’ Denson et al. (2006) theorize that this process occurs when a person is somehow provoked but unwilling (or unable) to act against the person who initiated the provocation. (17) The Columbine victims were not the source of the initial provocations of their killers. The retaliation involved innocent bystanders who had absolutely no involvement or previous conflicts with them and hence was an act of displaced aggression. (17)
A specific aspect of this psychosocial theory details how these frustrated people will intently focus on their anger and set out to plan a retaliatory attack. (17) This sub-theme specifically outlines the sequence of events that unfolded from the onset of the original sources of provocation to the aftermath, which involved extreme aggression displaced amongst victims with no connection to the initial sources of conflict(s).
Art sometimes imitates life in inappropriate ways. A few years following Columbine, the video game ‘Super Columbine Massacre’ was developed. (18) The user could assume the role of the ‘shooter’ and role play through different scenarios, using various weapons to kill teachers and students. Glorified violence (contained within various forums of media) clearly perpetuates and/or encourages copycat crime(s).
Consider this statement from Lieberman on the A&E documentary. “Each generation has been exposed to more and more media, so in a sense each new generation is more vulnerable to the psychological impact of media and to engaging in copycat crime.” There were several documented copycat incidents resulting from Columbine, including the 2006 Dawson College shooting by a crazed gunman obsessed with violent video games, including ‘Super Columbine Massacre’ and ‘Postal 2.’
The young Montreal gunman strolled into a local college equipped with an assault weapon and long dark trench coat (similar to the Columbine shooters) and, like them, killed himself. The aftermath of this tragedy revealed his dark obsession with death and violence. He had created an online profile on the vampires.com website which provided a detailed insight into his demented mind.
The killer indicated that he hated jocks, preppies and all people in authority. “Work sucks, school sucks, life sucks, what else can I say? Life is a video game, you’ve got to die sometime,” Kimveer Gill stated. (19) The frustration-aggression hypothesis again applies, as it is obvious that there was a high level of aggressive predispositions in his behavioural repertoire. These pent up frustrations eventually surfaced in a violent and aggressive response. (16)
The killers frustration levels ae captured in other online postings, made under the username ‘fatality666,’ including this one: “I am not a people person. I have met a handful of people in my life who are decent but I find the majority to be worthless. It’s not only the bullies fault, but the principal’s fault for turning a blind eye. It’s also the fault of the police. Anger and hatred simmers within me.” (20)
Gill’s words echo the sentiments highlighted in the theory of displaced aggression. He experienced a life of frustration resulting from various sources of provocation. Adhering to the psychosocial theory, he was intently focused on his anger and planned to seek retaliation. (17) His victims were not connected to him or his original sources of frustration. Furthermore, he never attended Dawson College, nor did he have any other affiliations with the school, a hallmark trait of displaced aggression.
Finally, it is difficult again to pinpoint the exact role violent video games played in this tragedy, but the research has shown that repeated exposure to depictions of graphic violence can contribute to desensitization. (3)
The video games containing the most violence have subsequently been given an ‘M’ rating for mature. Less violent games are rated ‘T’ for teen. The M rated games contain blood and profanity and depict severe injuries and death to human and non-human characters. (21) They are not to be sold to minors, yet consumers are overwhelmingly youth under the legal age of purchase, which varies by region.
In May, 2003, Washington became the first U.S. state to officially ban the sale of realistic ‘cop-killer’ video games to children under 17. (13) The idea of allocating specific ratings to prohibit minors from buying these games is only one way to control how youth access violent media. Parents must proactively play a role, and this is not emphasized enough.
It is one thing to put societal restraints on violent media content labels and warnings, but parents have the ultimate control in limiting or eliminating violent content in their children’s viewing habits. As Bushman and Huesmann suggest, they need to be aware of the consequences of viewing media with repeated violence and protect their children from it. (10)
Health care professionals, primarily child and adolescent psychiatrists, are now being encouraged to include a ‘media history’ in medical evaluations of children, incorporating it as a possible risk factor in a clinical diagnosis. (12) The starting point still revolves around the home environment.
“The more that you are exposed to parents who are loving and affectionate and who will spend a lot of time with you (attention),” Lieberman suggests, “the more you can fight against these ideas and images you see on the screen.”
Limiting children’s exposure to violent media, combined with positive family exposure, can be a preventative measure against negative media influences.
The behavioural research has clearly shown that there is a causal relationship between media depictions of violence and an increase in aggressive behaviour(s) in youths. Given the recent emergence of more sophisticated violent video games, including the recent release of the latest Grand Theft Auto game, it is vital that researchers add to the minimal research and continue exploring the dynamic relationship between video games and violence.
Recent tragic events have supported the hypothesis that violent video games are desensitizing and causing youths to become increasingly more violent.
Article by: Stephen Metelsky