If I'm worried about sexism in video games, why am I not talking about violence too? Here's why.
Many people see the current group of college students — sometimes called "Generation Me" — as one of the most self-centred, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history ...In terms of media content, this generation of college students grew up with video games, and a growing body of research, including work done by my colleagues at Michigan, is establishing that exposure to violent media numbs people to the pain of others.
— Sara Konrath, University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.
The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs and tyrannise their teachers.
— attributed to Socrates by Plato, according to William L Patty and Louise S Johnson, Personality and Adjustment, p. 277 (1953).
We've never had a world with video games while other forms of media did not exist; they rose to popularity in the 1980s and 90s, a time in which violent films and narrative tropes gave rise to those that inform storytelling today; a time in which we had heavy metal, comic books, blues music and The Catcher in the Rye.
Where you find pop culture, there you also find scapegoating: those who want to hang aberrant youth behaviour on one thing, and demonise it to the exclusion of all else.
Even though some might wish it otherwise, studies have demonstrated that violent video games can lead to heightened aggression in both children and adults. Whether that then translates to violent behaviour is another matter; for example, one study published last year suggested that, while aggression was higher, the fact that gamers spent time playing video games rather than committing violent crimes negated the effect; but do violent games lead to a long-term personality shift towards more aggressive reactions to situations?
The answer is, we don't know. We can't know. Because other forms of media are also filling our heads with ideas.
Take, for example, the revenge trope. Something bad happens; the protagonist goes on a spree of vengeance. Let's say ... Die Hard. Gruber has taken McClane's wife prisoner. Now it's personal, and McClane will stop at nothing to win the day. Or Law Abiding Citizen. Kill Bill. The Crow. It's OK, the film tells us. They are bad people.
And we go away and go back to our lives, and that's that.
Is it possible, though, that we internalise that message: that those who do us wrong are bad people and deserve bad things? Of course it is. The worst it gets for most of us is the uncharitable wish that the bad person steps on a few Lego bricks or gets a dressing-down at work, which we keep to ourselves and no actual harm gets done.
And this is what some studies (PDF) have found (PDF): that the take-away from violent video games mostly isn't behavioural, but attitudinal. That is, there is a desensitisation to violence and an increase in the attitude that violence is OK — and much lower empathy.
But how do we disentangle that from other forms of media? If we have films telling us that we're the heroes in our own life stories, cartoons telling us that beating up the bad guys is a good thing, sports culture where zealous support of teams to the point of ragging on anyone who supports a different one is OK, and so forth — unless we measure the effect of these forms of media, too, and make a comparison, we can't say one way or another whether video games are more affective. And, unlike sexism, where there is plenty of evidence that large swathes of the gaming community are only too willing to threaten, objectify and demean, we don't have many examples that demonstrate that gamers are any more aggressive than anyone else.
In fact, we have statistical data that suggest that crime rates and video-game sales do not correlate — and, while it is true that some perpetrators of violent crime have played a video-game or two, it is equally true that those same perpetrators have probably watched a superhero film or eaten bread.
It seems that some people have violent tendencies and others don't; and I would pose that socioeconomic status, social ostracism and bullying would be much more likely to trigger those impulses than hacking up a few zombies on the telly.
Do video games need violence? On some level, yes: Mario wouldn't be Mario without squishing mushrooms, and Call of Duty wouldn't be Call of Duty without the soldiering. Take away the violence, and we're left with Tetris, The Sims and Solitaire (although, even with The Sims, a vast number of players take vicious glee in killing off their dudes). We humans are a viscerally brutal lot; from the Gladiatorial arena and jousts to public executions and extreme sports, on some level, a bloodbath can be quite satisfying — and most of us are intelligent and self-aware enough to separate fiction from reality, when it comes to sprays of gore across our screens — although, it's only common sense to carefully monitor what games children are playing.
That said, violence for its own sake is just lazy, and I've never been a fan of over-indulgent shock value — but the dumbing-down of gaming is a different discussion. For another day, perhaps.