Playing GTA V won’t make you a killer.
Writing in The Week, Mathew Walther complains that violent video games are ‘sick’ and says it doesn’t matter if there’s any evidence to suggest that these games lead to violent acts; so long as he believes that they’re causing bad things to happen in peoples’ brains, those bad things certainly must be happening.
Walther is echoing President Trump, who has spoken openly about his worry that violent video games are creating killers. (And like Walther, he’s completely wrong.)
Violent video games are most definitely sick, but only if you say that like one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or an early 90s surfer guy. Totally sick, dude. Radical.
After all, violent crime hit a decades-long low in the years following the release of Grand Theft Auto V. They must be doing something right.
Like every good moralist, Walther just wants to wag his finger at something he disapproves of, whether or not there’s any evidence to support his arguments:
What does it mean to say that there is no connection [between violent games and violent acts]? Virtually every single one of the pasty psychos who have shot their classmates and teachers in the last two decades has played such games. What would count as evidence? Notes from the killers acknowledging their massive debts to Sniper Elite 4 in the plain, logical English for which murderous lunatics are known?
Of course, Walther concludes his piece with this: “Not everyone who slaughters innocent people in a digital world goes on to commit similar acts in the real one (if they did there wouldn’t be any of us left). That doesn’t mean these experiences are innocuous.”
Contrast these two statements. Violent games, argues Walther, simply must have an impact on these shooters. But not everyone who plays these games becomes a killer or there would be none of us left.
Walther is unintentionally undermining his entire argument here. If these games did cause people to enact violence in the real world we’d all be killers. There are millions of gamers in the US alone. Grand Theft Auto V, a game in a series that is often brought up to illustrate how violent games are, has sold over 90 million copies worldwide. If even a small fraction of these people were driven to real world violence we’d see far more mass shootings than we do today.
Meanwhile—and I’m almost getting sick of reminding people of this very obvious fact—people in Sweden, Japan, Ireland, France and elsewhere play the same violent games and watch the same violent movies as we do in the US and these countries simply do not have the same level of gun violence. How can this be? Are Americans just far more susceptible to being influenced by media? Are we that stupid and impressionable? Or do we just have a lot more guns?
Walther says he “cannot understand why even positing the notion of a relationship between games and the behavior of those who play them is taboo.” The answer is because the vast, vast majority of people who play games do not behave badly.
As a species, human beings slaughtered millions of people in two World Wars before anyone had ever played a video game. We’ve done a lot less killing since. Violent crime has fallen as video games have become more prevalent. We spent the middle ages burning witches and chasing Jews out of their homes, fighting crusades and making war wherever possible, and no human had ever even heard of a video game before. All this fear-mongering over the horrors of digital violence is just that: Fear-mongering by people who should know better but have to get their hot takes in somewhere.
But What About Rape And Misogyny?
He drags #MeToo into the fray, writing “Does anyone think that misogyny in films and television and music does not shape men’s attitudes toward women, that it has no consequences in the real world? A thousand #MeToo takes suggest otherwise.”
A thousand takes be damned, many of us refuse to believe that misogyny in films has any real impact on men’s attitudes toward women. It’s much more likely that misogyny in the real world is simply reflected in the movies we watch. Look at movies from another era—they won’t “shape” how we view the world now, but they’ll certainly give us insights into how people at the time acted and what they believed. They might even make us cringe a little, and with good reason.
For instance, when you see this old advertisement, is it more likely that you’ll become a misogynist or that you’ll merely glean insights into the gender attitudes of the time?
Spanking can be fun, of course, but this reasoning is clearly absurd and sexist to modern sensibilities.
Walther goes on into straw man territory, writing:
If someone created a video game in which it was possible to grope or even rape women, as opposed to just cutting off their heads with a chainsaw or shooting them in the face with machine guns, would we still consider it a harmless diversion unlikely to disfigure the imaginations of players? What about a game where the user was allowed to molest children? Why is pretending to be a killer okay?
I’ve explained this before, but I’ll explain it again. Killing in video games, whether stomping on a goomba or shooting a Nazi, is a form of puzzle-solving. It involves reaction time, skill, precision and patience. It requires learning systems and mechanics. It requires practice. The act of killing in video games is far detached from the act of killing real life, and even though there are an abundance of ultra-violent clips to draw from, most violence in games is much tamer than the stuff certain activists show us to make us afraid. Most of the time in Call of Duty, you’re not seeing blood splatter or heads explode.
Killing a Nazi in Wolfenstein is hardly any different from killing a goomba in Mario. It’s just a puzzle. Raping a Nazi or a goomba, on the other hand, well…it’s just absurd. But rape is usually an act of violence against an innocent, not an enemy or adversary or bad guy, which drastically changes how this would play out in a game. (Though there has been at least one rape-based game that was widely condemned across the gaming community.) The market speaks volumes here. People don’t want to play that kind of game, but they’re fine taking out enemy soldiers in a fake war, or blowing off steam in a crime game like GTA V.
When it comes to sexual assault in media, you can wave your hands and say “Well killing is worse” and certainly, in the real world, killing is the worst thing one can do. Ending life is final. But think about the way violence is actually used in most games and films. It’s almost always violence involving good guys fighting bad guys. Watching John Wick shoot a bunch of mafia goons is gratifying because they’re all bad guys or at least adversaries. They’re shooting back.
Media does have an impact, even if it doesn’t make you a killer.
Certainly media impacts our brains to some degree. Reading books, for instance, can make us more empathetic. The kinds of movies and games we play can shape our ideas about the world. Certainly we have films and games and novels that have inspired us or influenced our way of thinking about life. Many people have holy books that shape their view about god and morality and the afterlife.
But as someone who regularly plays Call of Duty and other violent games, I’ve never once felt like shooting anyone (or anything for that mtter.) I don’t like guns. I don’t get in fights. I don’t ever engage in any sort of physical violence. And if you look at the world you’ll see that I’m far from alone. The majority of gamers don’t get in fights, don’t shoot up schools, don’t act violently. If they did, if there were some actual causal link here, we’d all be goners. We’d have all killed each other off years ago.
There’s also a clear difference between the brains of adults and children. A plethora of studies and scientific research illustrates just how different growing, developing minds are and why it’s important to limit what children are exposed to, both in real life and in media.
Children can’t handle the same types of media that grownups can handle—or, rather, they shouldn’t have to in the first place. Parents shouldn’t let their young children play games with either graphic violence or mature themes, because kids should be allowed to be kids while they have the chance. It’s so brief. There’s a whole lifetime ahead of them to play violent games and watch racy movies. When you’re a kid, you should enjoy all the wonderful games and movies that are appropriate for your age.
These can often be the best games and movies, after all. Because while I do believe everything I’ve written up to this point, I also believe that restraint can lead to creativity. Not being able to say the dirty joke outright can lead to a more subtle kind of humor; not riddling your music with swear words can lead to more creative lyrics; not filling your game with scenes of ultra-violence can make whatever violence you do include that much more powerful; not showing every body part can leave more to the imagination, like silence between sound.
In any case, this is just a very basic role that parents play in the shaping of young minds. Parents need to be in charge of what their kids play, what their kids watch, what their kids listen to and who their kids spend time with. And I’m fully aware that this isn’t always easy and that you’ll wake up one day and realize your daughter’s been watching Logan Paul videos on YouTube.
Mistakes will be made, but don’t worry: Even if your kid does get their hands on Grand Theft Auto, much like Walther did himself as an adolescent, there’s actually no indication that this will lead them to start shooting people. Don’t be ashamed. The thing that links these shooters isn’t video games. It’s something else, some broken thing inside them, that a life without games wouldn’t have changed. Maybe love could have saved them; then again, maybe not.
One other thing links these killers, by the way: Guns.