UNIVERSITY NEWS LAST UPDATED : 06 JUNE 2018
After the recent shooting in Texas, it was easy to look to violent video games as a source of blame, especially after the news that a school-shooting role-playing game was to be released not long after this attack. In response, three of our Criminology Academics discuss the perceived relationship between violent video games and violent behaviour, asking whether or not those games really are to blame.
Following the mass outrage centred on the recent abhorrent school shooting in Santa Fe High School, Texas, this following blog aims to create a much needed discussion around dispelling the myths in both the media and academic discussing of school shootings and their intrinsic link to video games.
It is of the authors opinion that the “moral panic” largely stemming from the Columbine school shooting (alongside more contemporary examples) and the associated press has led to a largely redundant academic myopia in terms of the discussion of crime and deviance in relation to video games. The perspective presented is therefore solely put forth as a response to what the authors believe to be academic short-sightedness within the discussion of deviancy and videogames. The short sightedness referenced can be observed from either continuum; both from those that profess video games cultivate violence as well as those that damningly indict such claims.
It is put forth that the context of academic discussion of video games and deviance has, over the past few decades, been misguided and rhetorical. It has failed at offering any conclusive evidence within a largely unnecessary and laborious discussion fuelled by sensationalised media discussions from the ivory tower comfort zone afforded to the majority of social scientists (largely within the field of psychology). These social scientists appear to be uncomfortable moving away from both the historical ‘moral panics’ around emerging forms of media whilst being terrified of engaging in wider theoretical thinking. It is these academics, following on from the tragic precedent set by Bandura, that have become side-tracked. This unfortunately has resulted in speculative pot-shots in the form of journal articles on a largely irrelevant discussion. The discussion, of course, being the notion that video games are intrinsically linked to violence.
Whilst the authors would rather abstain from giving such misguided discussions a platform to continue, it is from a critical stance that we write this blog, highlighting the lack of overall critique. However, we are acutely aware that by publishing this we run the risk of being bogged down in the very issue we are hoping to discourage.
Emerging forms of media and their relationship with violent behaviour has, since the Victorian era (Schecter, 2005,) held prominence within the academic and media discourse. This discussion was furthered in the 1950s by the work of Werthem (1999) who professed that an increase in delinquency could be attributed to adolescents’ exposure to violent comics. The comic market was, of course, rapidly gaining momentum as their popularity skyrocketed in this time (Sabin, 2000).
Perhaps building upon the perspective of new media and the supposedly intrinsic link to violence, in 1961 Albert Bandura (Bandura et al., 1961 and 1963), a Stanford Psychologist, began experimental studies aimed at the notion of limiting the access children have to violent media. This prominent study, known as the Bobo Doll experiment, aimed to bolster Banduras’ perspective that human behaviour was not inherited through genetic factors but learnt through social interaction. The essence of Banduras’ argument was that watching violent acts provides the individual with a “social script” to guide behaviour. One would hope that within the chronological context Bandura’s argument is likely perceived by most as a response the positivist movements and the notion of the atavistic criminal. However, despite the study now being widely discredited (Gerrard, 2003), primarily due to the questionable research methods employed (Hart and Kritsonis, 2006), a pool of academics who have an interest in the link between violence and video games have in fact been influenced by the social script of Banduras’ legacy, the irony of which seems to have been lost. Whilst the form of media under discussion has progressed from television and comics to videogames, the same tired debate has continued (Sherry, 2001; Colwell and Makiko, 2003; Unsworth et al., 2007; Katner and Olsen, 2008; Hassan et al., 2013). The reason for academia and the media alike continuing the traditional discussion of violence and forms of media is two-fold.
Since the early 1990s, the sale of videogames has risen dramatically (Markey et al., 2015) and thus, as Jones (2008:0) states;
“…games are arguably the most influential form of popular expression and entertainment in today’s broader culture.”
It is from this perspective that the authors view the central importance of the discussion we hope to ignite. In a rapidly changing technological world, in which the social sciences are often struggling to discern the paradox of the real and the virtual (Wall, 2001 and 2007), the discourse has become stagnated upon the social script precedent set by Bandura.
As detailed, it is from our view that the continuation of such discussion is two-fold. The second reason being the now highly discredited (Ferguson, 2013) link between mass-shootings and video games (Anderson, 2004; Carnagey and Anderson,2004) in America.
Following the tragic Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings (Wilson et al. 2016) the media and even the FBI soon latched on to the notion that the perpetrators use of violent video games were intrinsically linked to their abhorrent acts, much in the way that the recent tragic events in Santa Fe High School have been mirrored. This notion went as far as the parents of some of the victims of the Columbine tragedy attempting to sue gaming companies citing the shooters were desensitised to violence due to the use of their products.
Such notions were duly preyed upon by the media in an effort to create what Cohen (2002) would refer to as a ‘moral panic’. However, it must be noted that the authors perceive this to be a by-product of capitalist culture and an effort to generate profit. Due to this stance they do not subscribe to the notion of ‘moral panics’ as a theoretical basis (for a detailed discussion on the dismissal of moral panics please read Horsley, 2017). This combined by the neoliberal intensification of administrative criminology and the wider social sciences duly gave rise to the ensuing tidal wave of studies (Sherry, 2001) hypothesising the link or lack thereof between videogames and violence. It is within this administrative paradox that the link between the media and academia converge to create the redundant epoch we wish to forgo. The countless number of largely repetitive studies largely utilise similar methodological tendencies as Banduras’ discredited contribution. As Paik and Comstock (1994) highlight (in regard to television violence and antisocial behaviour), the less precise measures utilised tend to overestimate the effects the studies proscribe. This combined with the publication bias detailed by Ferguson (2007), who also proscribes to the view that researchers in the area of video game studies are overly concerned with proving or disproving a link than testing theory in a methodologically precise manner, is the reason for this publication.
Whilst the view of Ferguson (2007) momentarily inspires an optimistic glimmer that respected academic within the field may have already transitioned past the scholarly epoch described is however short lived. Evidenced by the academic discussion between Ferguson and Konjin (2015) in which they engage in a ‘peaceful debate’ around video games and the issue of violence. Whilst it was hoped Ferguson would progress past the tautological discussion he instead, eight years later, engages in a debate on the subject. It is this discussion and lack of prudence to look past the discussion of days gone by that epitomises the redundancy of the field.
However, some academics have in the past decade managed to marginally transition past the fixed academic gaze and offer small developments within the scope of the field of study. Notable was the discussion by Luck (2009) around the moral distinction between virtual murder and virtual paedophilia followed by the rebuttal of such distinction by Bartel (2012). In the midst of the discussion, Schulzke (2010) offered perhaps the most promising development in the field for numerous decades which was unfortunately overwhelmingly disregarded. Schulzke offered a scholarly article upon defending the morality of violent video games. Whilst, unfortunately still transfixed upon the notion of violence, the paper offered Kantian, Aristotelian and utilitarian moral theories. Within this context Schulzke offered a rare and important advance within the academic discussion of deviancy in videogames.
The latest contribution found whilst writing this, again, displayed promise of the disintegration of the epoch. McCaffree and Proctor (2017) offered a welcome, if not short, development of the discussion. Their paper hypothesises that both violence and property crime is negated by the use of video games. Their response to psychologies insistence on identifying and debating causal links between video games is indeed necessary, as well as their inclusion of sociological perspectives in the form of routine activity theory (Cohen and Felson, 1979) being eagerly received. Unfortunately, the paper stays within the nexus of administrative academia whilst failing to observe the key factor in regard to the discussion of video games and deviancy, which this blog aims to present. Whilst there may or may not be a link between violence and video games; video games are intrinsically linked to other forms of deviance and crime easily observable once the academic myopia within the current epoch is dispelled.
Since the early developments of the video game industry, beginning with the Atari, games have consistently presented deviant and taboo topics to consumers. Whilst some of these games have been attributed to acts of rebellion and political statements, many have purely been cheap and abhorrent objects of consumerism presenting deviant acts to boost sales through shock value. Examples of such titles is the game “Rapelay”. In recent years, mainly through the progression of technology and the way in which gamers can utilise the products on offer, other forms of deviance have also emerged. It is proposed such advances of technology in an industry intrinsically linked to deviant matter has facilitated and cultivated forms of white collar crime, underage gambling and even the re-orientation of the state’s monopoly on violence in the form of the phenomenon of swatting.
In short, the historical legacy of deviant studies and the media has resulted in scholars either unable or unwilling to look past the superfluous perspectives of days gone by. This has occasioned academics to misconstrue the truly deviant aspects of the gaming industry, thus missing a large swath of deviant leisure. Video games may or may not incite a small minority of consumers to commit horrific acts, they do however instigate a wider variety of harms. Why is criminology not analysing this?
By Craig Kelly, Adam Lynes & Kevin Hoffin
The content above is the opinion of the author(s), and does not represent the views or opinions of Birmingham City University.
Key & further reading
Bandura, A., Ross, D. & Ross, S. A. (1961) ‘Transmission of Aggression through the imitation of models’, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 63 (3); 575-582
Ferguson, C. (2007) ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: a Meta-Analytic Review of Positive and Negative Effects of Violent Video Games’, Psychiatric Quarterly, Vol. 78 (4); 309-316
Horsley, M. (2017) ‘Forget “Moral Panics”’, Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Criminology, Vol. 9 (2); 84-98