Violence and Video Games

It's only natural, in the wake of any random act of extreme violence, to look for an explanation: What caused this to happen? What can we do to prevent it from happening again?

While it's fair to ask these questions, the frustrating truth is that most of the time, we'll never know.

Not knowing, sadly, is not an acceptable answer. Instead, "the other" is blamed. When it comes to politicians and lobbyists, this "other" is anything the younger generations are into, that they themselves aren't. Thirty years ago it was rap and heavy metal. Thirty before that, it was rock and roll.

Today, the common scapegoat is video games, and blaming them is just as specious.

This is a complex and emotional issue. I have no interest in talking politics, but when my favorite and lifelong hobby is belittled by those who have never attempted to experience it, I get offended.

I am not trying to offer answers or solutions. The purpose of this article is to point out the rational truths that those in office either ignore, or omit. I will leave my opinions, to the best of my abilities, out of it.

Dispelling Myths

First, let's talk about gamers. The stereotype that the average gamer is a pimple-faced teen holed up in his parent's basement is as pervasive as it is untrue. The reality is the average gamer is 30 years old, meaning there are significantly more adults playing video games than "kids." Nearly 70% are over 18, with the plurality over 37. Just under half (47%) are women. More women over 18 are gamers than boys under 18Ars Technica has a great discussion of the ESA's data

A full 73% of games sold in 2011 (the most recent year for data) were "E" for Everyone, "T" for Teen, or "E10+" for Everyone 10+. This means 27% were adult games, and almost all are "M" for Mature (17+) like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. Only a handful of games get the highest rating, "AO" Adult Only (18+).

Like movie ratings, the ESRB's ratings system is "voluntary," but if a publisher doesn't do it, many retail outlets won't carry the game. Stores are not supposed to sell "M" or "AO" games to anyone under age, just like movie theaters aren't supposed to sell tickets to R movies to anyone under 18. The effectiveness of these ratings is worth of an article itself, but while many have argued what constitutes a PG-13 or R rating, there are few that argue the system doesn't actually work (at least in keeping "kids" out of certain movies).

The ESRB ratings have been around since 1994. All game advertisements, websites, and major retailers display this rating. 


Video games are not violent. Actions are violent. Some video games depict violence, and while this seems like a subtle distinction, it's an important one. Lots of things depict violence: books, TV shows, movies...

But so does the evening news. Or playing cops & robbers. Or cowboys & Indians. In fact, these "playtime" activities can result in actual violence. As the recipient of many a violent playground incident, let me tell you video games didn't play a part in 1986.

But the argument brought forth by the non-gamers in Congress is that video games have made our society more violent. And if you watch the news, that hypothesis can certainly seem rational. If it is correct, then we would see, as games became more popular, a similar increase in violent crime.

The FBI has crime statistics for the United States for free on their website. Anyone can check the numbers. In fact, the chart you see below is an updated version of a chart I saw years ago (and can't find, otherwise I'd have linked to it). All I've done here is chart the rate of violent crime from 1960 to 2010 (the most recent year for data).

As you can see, the violent crime rates (number of reported crimes per 100,000 population) in the US peaked in '91-'92, and have fallen steadily ever since.

Here's a close up view starting with the quintessential (and irrationally still mentioned) poster boy for "violent" video games: Doom. I've marked other key moments in video game history, plus some other oft-mentioned games, on the chart.

Here's that same chart juxtaposed with overall retail game sales data over the same period.

Let me be very clear: All this data shows is a lack of correlation between the increase in video game popularity and incidents of violent crime. It shows instead that at the same time video games became more popular (and by extension, video games that depict violence), violent crime in the US went down. This is the opposite of what polititcans would have you believe.

But it goes the other way as well. Correlation does not mean causation, so we can't look at this data and make wild suppositions about any link between these two trends. I don't think anyone could logically argue (based just on this data) that video games reduce violent crime. For that matter, who's to say that violent crime wouldn't have gone down more if games weren't around. All I'm saying is the refrain we're hearing from politicians (from both sides of the aisle), that "violent video games" cause violence, isn't easily backed up by facts.

You know what? I'm all for President Obama's push for more research into this area, because the studies most often quoted by both sides of the argument are rife with methodological issues. I'm confident any new study will reveal what gamers anecdotally already know: there's no correlation. While the best study and data in the world won't convince some people (especially if it comes from Mr. Obama's White House), at least it will give those standing up for gamer rights something heavy to stand on.

Bottom Line (and a bit of editorial)

I've played video games since I was 8 years old. As I've joked about before, I spent more time playing Counter-Strike during my senior year in college than I did in class (still getting a 3.7 GPA that year). I review video games often here at S+V. I am, unquestionably, a gamer. So personally, I find the notion that video games cause violence because they depict violence to be absurd (and fortunately, I'm not the only one).

I won't, however, fall into the trap of "well I'm not violent so video games can't cause violence." However, if games caused violence, than it would stand to reason that as video games have become more popular, we'd see a corresponding increase in actual violence. Except, we've seen the opposite.

Since the only people trying to tie these two things together aren't gamers, I argue they aren't unqualified to make any assumptions about something they have no firsthand knowledge. This is identical to someone damming all movies as trash, having never sat through a movie. Or saying books are stupid, when they themselves are illiterate. This is why definitive research is so important.

The video game industry is bigger than the movie and music industries. There is nothing fringe about it. Games are as mainstream as summer blockbusters. Those that still presume to stigmatize gamers are, in fact, the minority. A minority that gets smaller every year. 

Perhaps in 20 years, when those in Congress have been replaced by a generation that grew up with gaming, we'll see this issue put to bed. We've seen that with rap and metal, and we've certainly seen it with rock and roll. Then, in this not-so-far-off future, these new boring old people will assign blame for the cause-du-jour on whatever it is their kids are doing.