Are videogames making us violent?
In April 2002, Germany was shocked by news of what nobody until then would have imagined being possible. In Erfurt, a young man at the age of 19 entered the school he had very recently been kicked out of, armed with a shotgun and several handguns. He made his way through the building, deliberately shooting at teacher and pupils alike. He killed 16 people, including a secretary and a police officer before he shot himself.
In the aftermath of the first school-shooting ever to have occurred in Germany, the press, especially the German yellow-press, and politicians not only blamed gun laws but also videogames. They claimed the gunman had used FPS games like Counter Strike or Doom to train for his deed.
This is not the first time, videogames were held responsible for pupils going amok and killing classmates and their teachers. After the Columbine High massacre, psychologists and journalists stated that Klebold and Harris had not only been motivated by FPS games to shoot twelve students and one teacher but also used the games as training simulations.
These are only two examples of videogames being blamed for making children and young adults violent.
The question is – is it true? Is it true that games can be used to train how to kill or to fire a gun?
According to a very recent study by Jodi Whitaker and Brad Bushman, the answer is yes. Videogames, they argue, provide excellent learning tools. In an experiment conducted in 2012 participants played a violent shooting game with humanoid targets, a nonviolent shooting game with bull’s-eye targets and a nonviolent nonshooting game. In addition, the half of players playing a shooting game also used a gun shaped controller. After having played the game for 20 minutes, participants were asked to fire a realistic BB gun at a mannequin target.
The result: players using the ‘guntroller’ had 99% more headshots and 33% more accurate overall than other participants.
There are several psychological theories that help explain the results, one of which is Bandura’s theory of social learning. It says that people can learn behaviours by observing and imitating a model. The success of learning is related to several factors, one of which is the quality of the model in terms of attractiveness, gender and social status; videogames provide prime models that most players can identify with. In FPS games, players observe characters killing enemies and killing is rewarded (by not being killed, reaching the next level or points). Also, they repeatedly imitate the action of killing.
These findings are without doubt troubling. They seem to prove that videogames actually can be dangerous to the development of kids and our society has to deal with that and draw the right conlusions. Unfortunately, most people draw the wrong conclusions out of them up to the point where some even want to abolish videogames all together.
The same has happened before. In the mid-19th century, scientific research tried to prove that using a train would drive people mad. It was argued that the human body and mind are not built to withstand a velocity of that magnitude and that therefore the technology should be abandoned.
Remember how the first trains looked like?
I don’t think that I have to show a picture of a modern day train. They have evolved into a state that, at the time, was beyond imagination. And probably nobody ever went mad because of a train ride.
Technology can always be scary when introduced – most people do not understand it and are therefore afraid of it. This is especially true for today’s multimedia technology since never in the course of human history have two different generations grown up with such diverse technological possibilities than in the 21st century.