Investigating the Correlation between Video Games and Violence
From humble beginnings in the late 1970’s, when they were considered to be a passing fad and catered mostly to a niche of technology lovers, the video game industry has mushroomed and now caters to a huge market worth $7.1 billion in the United States alone. However, despite this level of popularity and the fact that video games are fast eclipsing Hollywood as the premier entertainment industry, the amount of research that has gone into the effects of games is still insignificant, and until recently they never seemed able to shake that ‘niche’ image they were initially burdened with to progress into the wider mainstream of entertainment where say movies or music exist. With the spate of recent high-profile cases that have seen users of violent video games go on to commit heinous crimes such as murder or even multiple homicide, and the wide media coverage that has followed it, this is an issue that has been brought to the forefront, albeit for dubious reasons, as one that very much effects a large swathe of society in a rather significant manner. The purpose of this paper, then, is to investigate existing research into this field, and see if there is any basis behind the reasoning that video games actually promote violence in real life, or whether this is just a tide that has caught on due to sensationalist reporting.
On April 20th, 1999 teenage students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a shooting spree at their high school in Jefferson County, Colorado. In the 49 minutes that the massacre took place, Harris and Klebold murdered 13 of their fellow students and school staff and injured a further 24, before turning their weapons on themselves and committing suicide (Jefferson County Sherriff’s report, 2000). This brutal mass murder sparked a massive public debate around the world about what could have motivated and inspired two young boys (aged 17 and 18) to cold-bloodedly murder their fellow students. Amongst the myriad of accusations in the blame game that ensued emerged the fact that not only were Harris and Klebold hooked on the violent games Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, but that they had played a marathon session of Doom just hours before they carried out the massacre (Associated Press, 2000). Could there be a link?
The Columbine shootings were perhaps the event that first brought the possible side effects of violent video games into public attention, acting as a catalyst for further investigation into the matter. Once the ball was rolling, it took no time for the media to cotton on to the fact that there might be a link between the portrayal of violence in video games and copycat crimes perpetrated in real life, to the extent that games might even have been used as a scapegoat when other factors were to blame, such as in the case of the 14-year old from Leicestershire who was murdered by his ‘friend’ Warren Leblanc, 17, in 2004. The tabloids were happy to claim that Leblanc was inspired to carry out a sequence from the newly released game Manhunt, which was banned already in New Zealand for being notoriously violent. It turned out that the game was actually owned by the victim Stefan Pakeerah and not the perpetrator, but that didn’t stop several high-profile retailers from yanking the game off their shelves (Clarke, 2004, Evening Times) - which lends credence to the premise that yes, people are actually associating gory video games with real-life violence.
In any case, there was no dearth of cases to suggest a scientifically relevant link between virtual and real life violence, of which quite a few seem to circulate around the notoriously violent (and immensely popular) game Grand Theft Auto III. The very name of the game would leave even a casual observer in little doubt about the criminal nature of what the player does in that title, but it is unlikely that the game’s developers and publishers would have thought in their wildest dreams that it would be used as the rationale behind the fatal shootings of three police officers at the hands of 18-year-old Devin Moore in June 2003, or for that matter the murder of a man and the serious injury of a female driver by Joshua and William Buckner, aged just 14 and 16, a mere two weeks later (Bradley, 2005, CBS News). Even more damning was the fact that the Moore himself admitted that the murders were inspired by the game at his trial, although it can be argued that he was a) doing this to show himself as innocent and b) he was not in sound mental health.
With the media whole-heartedly supporting the cause-effect link between violent games and real-life brutality, legal and political activists couldn’t be far behind. Inspired by the knowledge that shooting ringleader Eric Harris had not only played Doom but actually created levels for it (these are now known as the ‘Harris levels’ and are quite widespread over the internet), the families of several Columbine victims filed lawsuits against id software- the creators of Doom- and other game publishers. These initial suits were unsuccessful, but the stage had been set (Etherington, 2005, bbc.co.uk). In the GTAIII- inspired Moore incident, attorney Jack Thompson, a long-time proponent of anti-game legislation, brought out a civil suit against Rockstar games, the publishers, saying that teenager Moore was able to take down three Alabama State police officers because “he had been trained to do what he did- he had in effect been given a murder simulator”. Thompson went on to say that months of playing a ‘cop-killing’ game made Moore go on a rampage.
The fact that political candidates have seen the restriction of video game-violence as a worthwhile cause in their pursuit of more votes would seem to strengthen the popular notion that these contribute to actual crimes. In the United States, none less than presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton recently introduced a bill in the senate aimed at restricting the availability of violent/content-sensitive video games to children and teenagers, however both this and similar efforts by the EU have been deemed ‘unconstitutional’ as they impinge on creative freedom and have not been passed (Kawasaki, 2006, growFolio). In Britain however, games which depict high levels of violence are subject to clearance from the BBFC, which can impose bans and age-restrictions that are legally binding (Etherington, 2005, bbc.co.uk), in the same manner as other ‘video recordings’, i.e. film and DVD.