I guess it’s time for a flashback to the 90s. Politicians are claiming that video games cause mass shootings again, something I had not heard posited seriously for years and years. And so I have to reiterate what I thought was pretty well established: shoot-em-up video games do not cause mass shootings in real life.
I’m not saying there are no ethical issues with a lot of the violence in video games. I tend to place excessive, dehumanizing displays of violence in the same category as pornography because I think they can decrease our empathy. But a video game that simulates shooting people or aliens is not the magic wand that turns an ordinary man into a mass shooter.
If playing video games caused compulsive behavior, we would see that in gamers across the board, in all or many of the millions of people who play video games, but we don’t. And if video games caused compulsive behavior, we would see it in the imitation of other video game behaviors besides just shooting people. But we don’t.
I spent years playing The Oregon Trail on floppy disc on the secondhand Macintosh growing up. It had the kind of disc drive that went clack-clack-clack-clack-clack when everything was all right and gave a massive ugly groan when something was wrong. There were dire warnings on the floppy disc not to touch the circle in the middle with your fingertip, but they didn’t say why. My siblings and I would push the twin bed from my brothers’ room up in front of my computer so we could all sit in it and pretend to be in a Conestoga wagon. We named the characters in the game after ourselves. If one of the characters got dysentery, the person with the same name had to lie in bed and pretend to be sick until they recovered or died. Sometimes we got bored and goofed off– deliberately attempting to sink the wagon by fording a river seven feet deep, for example. Sometimes my brothers would start a hunting session and shoot every buffalo that wandered by, shouting the shocking things they heard John Wayne say in The Searchers, one of the movies our father brought home to show us. We sometimes also touched the circle in the middle of the disc to see what would happen, but nothing did.
We didn’t carry this behavior into real life. My siblings and I have any number of issues, but we’re not obsessed with buying Conestoga wagons and catching dysentery. We don’t massacre buffalo while screaming John Wayne catch phrases.
Later, when we got a computer with a fancy new CD ROM, we checked Myst out of the library. To this day I love Myst; it’s one of my favorite games of all time and I still play it now and then for old time’s sake. We had to tell Mom and Dad that “Myst” stood for “mystery,” because Mom was afraid it was “mystical” which would mean the game was demonic. My siblings and I crowded in front of the computer, squabbling over who got to click the mouse, yelling over puzzles, overwhelmed with annoyance at that claustrophobic submarine thing that goes on and on underground. We did not grow up to be drivers of claustrophobic submarine things, though I guess I’m still pretty quarrelsome.
Later still, when we got our own laptops, we bought Neverwinter Nights. This was after the spiritual abuse in the Charismatic Community was mostly a thing of the past, though we kept rather quiet about it being a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Neverwinter Nights is still a favorite game of mine; I re-played it just the other day. I like to play as a Druid best of all.
I am not a Druid in real life. I still like to play a Druid in Dungeons and Dragons, but that’s another story.
Video games are complex and very stimulating, but they’re not really fundamentally different from a comic book, a movie, or putting on your cowboy hat and sheriff vest and shooting at your friends with a cap gun in the vacant lot. They are a kind of art, a form of play and imagination. Most everyone, including children, is capable of telling the difference between play and reality. That is one of the things humans naturally do. Yes, sometimes play gets out of hand, and sometimes people with violent tendencies act out their fantasies in play while plotting to act them out in real life as well. But that’s the fault of their pathology, not of play.
For a less snarky and much more in-depth look at the argument that video games cause violence, here’s an interesting video from a former psychotherapist who is also a gamer.
(image via Pixabay)