How Violent Video Games Might Be Screwing With Your Brain
I've been committing war crimes in video games since the goddamned Carter era. In a game last night, I used a combination of a flamethrower and a trained bear to kill a man who I think was just trying to change a tire on his car. I'm typing this on a solid gold computer I bought with money made from distributing violent media. I'm not here to take anyone's fun away.
But, to boil my point down to Tweet length:
I don't think violent video games make kids do violence in real life. The evidence for that is weak to nonexistent. I do think violent video games can make some people into raging, intolerant jerks via a process that is rarely talked about. I think that assertion is supported by both data and common sense. Let's see if you agree!
Moral Crusaders Get It Wrong
The always-weird experiments that "prove" a connection between violent video games and aggression seem to all involve having some kids kill shit on a screen, then testing them to see if they'll harm somebody in real life, like playing a loud noise to punish another kid. Sure enough, the ones playing violent games were (immediately after) harsher on their peers.
Even if you're not a trained Mad Scientist, you know why that's a weak-ass connection. At best, that seems to happen for the same reason pro athletes get into shoving matches after a play, even though they wouldn't do the same while, say, in line at a breakfast buffet. They're keyed up, on edge. Let them calm down, and they're fine.
Now, in the above-linked study, the scientists seemed surprised to find that they got the same reaction from cartoonish games and more "realistic" ones (I put the sarcasm quotes there because Street Fighter was one of their "realistic" games). Sure enough, a later study found no change in subjects based on how realistic a game's violence was.
That right there is crucial to my theory: Games simulating violence don't translate to real-world violence because they're not actually simulating that at all. The sensations of real-world violence -- genuine physical fear, shaking, cold sweat -- just aren't there. Games train you for that about as well as watching IT trains you fight sewer clowns.
I think lots of you would prefer to just stop reading here. Games are healthy and harmless and that's that, goddammit. But ...
Game Defenders Get It Wrong Too
The knee-jerk response to critics has always been, "Of course games don't train you to be violent, or sexist, or anything else. It's just a game, it's imaginary!" But those exact same people will applaud articles about how games teach kids problem-solving, improve hand-eye coordination, and even help them learn social skills. Which makes sense. If you spend several hours a day doing something, it's going to change you. Your brain is built to adapt to whatever it's repeatedly asked to do -- "They're just games" is therefore a nonsense defense.
And obviously software can train you to do things in the real world -- that's how we teach pilots how to fly (at first). And we know that storytelling media can change your attitudes and worldview. You learned in elementary school about how Uncle Tom's Cabin took the abolitionist movement mainstream, and how The Jungle caused such widespread outrage that the public demanded companies put fewer severed human fingers in their hamburgers.
Movies, shows, and songs invent catchphrases and fashion trends, and set beauty standards. They also make us think we understand subjects we don't. To this day, parents teach kids to be terrified of strangers when it's friends, family, and acquaintances who are most likely to harm them because on TV, the danger is always some predator snatching them off the street. And as I pointed out years ago, the Jaws franchise had horrific consequences for real sharks.
In fact, if somebody else wants to argue that war-based games make players more willing to support war in an abstract way (more willing to vote for it, root for it on TV, whatever), they're free to make that case. If they want to point out that these games feed our weird gun fetish and make assault rifles seem like super cool toys, others have already made that point in a very eloquent way. But I'm talking about something different ...
They Don't Teach Violence -- They Teach Us That Obstacles Should Be Easy To Eliminate
One key finding in studies is that video games (violent or otherwise) reduce impulse control in some kids, and lower their ability to tolerate frustration. You can read more about that here, or here, or here, or in any number of other articles if you just Google those terms. It seems to be worse for kids who play tons of games, and it may be worse when those games are violent. Please note that it's really hard to study this -- a human life is full of variables.
Since I am not a professional scienceman, I am going to use my own experiences as a lifelong gamer and rage monster to explain what I think is going on. The addictive loop that makes video games so appealing -- and so much more appealing to people with a certain personality type -- can be summed up thusly:
A) Here is a thing that is blocking your progress
B) Click a series of buttons to make it disappear
C) Here is a satisfying animation to celebrate your success
Over and over again, for hours at a time, across days, months and years. Hundreds of thousands of repetitions etched into the brain. Problems, button presses, solutions. This is training the brain, altering it. It has to be. It would be weird if it wasn't.
So if "violent" video games are worse for us, it isn't because of the violence. It's because they're all based around that incredibly satisfying mechanic of quickly eliminating obstacles, one after another (as opposed to games based around complex puzzle-solving, teamwork, memorization, etc). It's not about tapping into our natural urge to kill; it's about tapping into our natural urge to fix problems by eliminating them.
It's a power fantasy, but not in the way moral crusaders insist. It doesn't train us to want to slit the throat of anyone opposing us. It trains us to want and expect anything opposing us to vanish if we simply apply enough effort to the task. That's what happened to me, anyway.
The Real World Does Not Work That Way
My patience with shitty people is so thin that it can no longer be considered to exist in three dimensions. My world is full of people expressing horrible, wrong opinions on various social media channels I apparently can't quit, customer service workers who seem annoyed that I'm doing business with them, fellow drivers who seem to worship some kind of dark god of chaos, and voters who apparently just want to see the world burn. I do not handle it well.
When something doesn't function -- whether it's a system, a human being, or my air conditioner -- I lose my shit. I want the obstacles to go away. I don't want to shoot them with a railgun or attack them with my Far Cry 5 bear. I haven't been in a fight since I was eight -- real violence would make me sick. I just want them gone. Not managed, not ameliorated, but gone. And I want to be told what simple sequence of actions I need to take to make that happen.
My ability to remain calm and analyze problems, or to patiently wait for long-term solutions to take their course, is dogshit. If those circuits even exist in me, they're fried. The stress of unresolved problems is unbearable. It doesn't make me violent, but it does make me irritable, rash, and impulsive. When I'm in those moods, that's when I want most to retreat into games -- a world in which nothing can oppose me for long. I think it's been like that for as long as I've been playing.
"But wait," you say, "why would this translate from the game world to the real world if violence doesn't? Ha! I have defeated your entire point by noticing this inconsistency, even though you wrote this question and put it into the mouth of an imaginary interlocutor."
Thanks for asking. The reason is ...
Everyday Interaction Has Been Gamified
The entire appeal of social media is that it turns interaction with your social circle into a game. Your baby photos get a score in the form of likes, and the restaurant that screws up your order can get hit with a bad Yelp review, lowering their score. People who piss you off can be blocked, vanishing from your field of view as neatly as the victims of my Far Cry murder bear (his name is Cheeseburger, and he's diabetic). When I order something on Amazon, I can watch the delivery progress on a little graphic meter, observing them failing me one step at a time. If I'm unhappy with the product, the one-star review feels as good as a headshot.
There is virtually no difference between eliminating an annoying person in a video game and doing it via social media, email, or text. A series of button presses makes them go away. Now compare this to the "game violence becomes real violence" argument: I've fired an AR-15 in many games and I've fired one in real life. There's no connection whatsoever between the two experiences -- the input from all five senses is completely different. The noise, the smell, the recoil, the muscle control of trying to keep the sights on the target -- firing one in combat would be exactly as alien an experience for someone with 10,000 hours in Call Of Duty as it would be for someone who'd only seen that gun in a photo.
You can see this in action when watching harassment campaigns by gamers. I am far from the first person to notice this. The reason attacks from gamers tend to be so much more fierce and sustained than those from other groups (comics fans or whatever) isn't that video games trained them to be violent or hateful -- it's that they applied gaming logic to the harassment. The annoying voices, the female critics, the evil opposing army must be eliminated, and doing so is just a matter of finding the correct combination of buttons to make them disappear. If typing "WE KNOW WHERE YOUR FAMILY LIVES, WHORE" makes the target delete their Twitter, well, target eliminated. It's all just shit occurring on a screen.
Now look around and watch the way people gamify political discussions online. Think about all the scorekeeping -- posting a meme to trigger the libs, counting the retweets, celebrating that your favorite pundit has more subscribers than the guy he trash-talks, driving up the Patreon dollar amounts for somebody the other side hates. Then there's the broader, eliminationist tendency that now seems baked into the culture. The goal is not to change minds or make incremental progress toward improvement, it's to make the bad people vanish. Get them banned, get them fired, shut down their speaking engagement, declare victory.
After all, in a game, you're not trying to convert the enemy, or integrate them, or live with them, or compromise with them, even though virtually all problems in the real world are solved this way. You can sit there on your phone and play that biggest, dumbest game known as Reality 2018. Hey, I wonder if a study has found that heavy smartphone users also have lower tolerance for negative emotions in real life? It sure did.
Certain People Are More Vulnerable To This
Long before reading this part, someone has already linked to this article using the headline, "Writer Blames Video Games For Turning Him Into An Asshole."
This is a knee-jerk reflex to criticism in 2018, to boil it down to an exaggerated, wrong version that can be easily dismissed. You know, so we don't have to think about it anymore, so we can make the uncomfortable thing vanish from our world. This is, in fact, the biggest change to my industry in the Trump era: Now, people share content almost entirely based on whether it helps their side win. Controlling the flow of information is another way to gamify the world -- Reddit would be boring if it was just a list of links, it's those scores that keep people addicted. Downvote the bullshit, upvote the comments debunking the bullshit.
Of course I don't think video games invented short tempers or intolerance, and who knows what kind of person I'd be if I was born into a different era. My belief is only that game mechanics make these traits worse in people who are already susceptible ... which I now believe is a huge fucking chunk of the population.
Look at it like gambling. Some people's brains react strongly to risk-taking, and those people are the ones who get addicted to gambling, which makes them even more addicted to risk-taking. They're only a minority, but we still study the effects and warn people.
For someone like me, who had anger management problems as a kid (and is from a family of males who all have them), games hit me in a different way from the start -- that's why they've always been a soothing retreat. In a game, an enemy that takes two hours to beat is considered brutally difficult. An enemy that takes 20 hours to beat is borderline glitched. Now you turn off the game and step out into the real world, where you can pour your whole being into fighting problems that won't even show a scratch after 50,000 hours. Bad people show up in your life, and 60 years later, they're being obnoxious at your funeral.
My fear, then, is that games and the gamification of social interaction hurt our overall level of tolerance. That as a society, this trains us to be so impatient with problems that instead of seeing them through to a resolution, we are satisfied with solutions that make them merely disappear from our screens.
"Hey, we got the bad guy banned from Twitter! We win! On to the next target."
"But he just switched platforms, and his fans are still brainwashed-"
"On to the next target."
Games are great at giving you novelty to create an artificial sense of progression, showing you something new and different to fight down every hallway. We try to force real life to conform. Here's a new outrage, here's our response, here's the somewhat satisfying resolution (the perpetrator of said outrage has been suitably dragged, maybe some headlines about lost sponsors or something), and then on to the next one. Last year's controversies are boring. Do we still have troops in Afghanistan? Is Flint's water safe to drink? Did the DACA thing get resolved? What happened with all of those refugees that used to be in the news every day?
It doesn't matter. We've moved on to the next level, because many of us aren't doing this to save the world -- we're doing it to keep ourselves entertained. Up-vote the stuff we disagree with, snark at the stuff we don't, watch the Likes accumulate, and convince ourselves we won. It's all game, something to kill time.
Aside from the data linked at the top about how heavy gamers lose impulse control and frustration tolerance, it is likely impossible to test my theory about the wider implications on culture. What I'd like to do is at least talk about it, rather than let the conversation be dominated by confused old men who think video game mass shootings train kids for real ones. We know that's not true. My thing might still be.
David Wong is the Executive Editor at Cracked, follow him on Twitter or on Facebook or on YouTube or on Instagram.
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