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A Virtual Knife in the Eye

Here’s an excerpt from a review of the latest version of the video game Mortal Kombat:

As each hit of the combo lands on your opponent, you’re treated to a slow-motion X-ray view of your opponent’s bones and organs being crushed in an excessive display of blood and guts that even the most hardcore of sadists will appreciate. Skulls are smashed, spines are broken, and knives are thrust into eyeball sockets, all accompanied by flying shards of bones and chilling sound effects that crunch and splat just right.

A slew of studies by psychologists strongly suggest a link between smashing on-screen skulls and increased aggression. A meta-study published last year argues that the connection has been so well established that the debate is over. There is a link. Period.

Then along comes a new study by an economist that contradicts those previous studies, finding instead that video-game play is “associated with significant declines in crime and death rates.” The author even cautiously floats the idea of subsidizing video games as part of anticrime policy. To sum up: Psychologists, on the whole, think violent video games are very bad. An economist thinks they may actually be very good. Perhaps someone from another discipline will break the stalemate.

While we’re waiting for that, let’s take a closer look at the economist’s study. Like other practitioners of the dismal science, he is interested in cold, hard numbers, so he looks at crime rates in certain areas and then compares them to the number of video-game stores nearby. What he finds is that a larger number of video-game stores is associated with less crime.

This is pretty interesting, but he then makes the leap that more video-games stores must mean that people in that area play more video games. Really? For starters, high-crime areas tend to have difficulty attracting retail businesses. Drive to a troubled section of Washington, D.C., for instance, and you’ll see mostly liquor stores and dollar shops. But I’d be willing to bet that lots of people who live there own Playstations.

More important, plenty of serious gamers never set foot in video-game stores. You can play dozens of extremely violent, first-person-shooter games online. One of the most popular, as it happens, is an online game created by the U.S. Army (it’s rated “Teen” for blood and violence). There are also Netflix-like services allowing gamers to get new titles in the mail. You don’t need a video-game store around the corner to slaughter pixellated people.

The meta-study mentioned above—the one that argues for a link between increased aggression and violent video games—examined 136 papers on the topic. Here is the paper’s conclusion:

As expected, VGV [video-game violence] exposure was positively associated with aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect. These effects were statistically reliable in experimental, cross-sectional, and longitudinal studies, even when unusually conservative statistical procedures were used. Also as expected, VGV exposure was related to desensitization and lack of empathy and to lack of prosocial behavior.

In other words, in multiple studies, using different methods, exposure to violent video games made people more aggressive and less empathetic. This appears to be true in both Eastern and Western cultures. It also appears to be true regardless of gender. The evidence is so overwhelming, the authors conclude, that the discussion should now turn to what can be done about it. They wonder if games featuring characters “modeling helpful behavior” might actually lead to “prosocial behavior.”

Maybe. Though whether modeling helpful behavior outsells thrusting knives into eyeball sockets remains to be seen.

(The study “Video Games and Crime” is a working paper by Michael Ward. It can be found here. The review of Mortal Kombat can be found here. And here’s the Army’s foray into online killing.)

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