When Killing
 is a Game
As shooting video gaming becomes 
more immersive, scientists are trying to 
answer a controversial question: does virtual 
violence turn boys into real killers?

January 23, 2015

None of this is real.

Still, as I enter the building through the open doorway, my body tenses and my eyes scan the room as quickly as possible. Is there danger in here? I move forwards tentatively, my senses heightened in anticipation. 
Suddenly I see a figure in the shadows. My 
finger moves instantly, twitching for what seems like dozens of times as the rat-a-tat-tat explodes around my ears. I see a body slump. It’s the one I’ve been aiming at and I feel a surge of satisfaction in my chest.

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and though
 physically I’m perched on a chair in my lounge with a smooth plastic Wii controller in my hand and a chunky 15-year-old TV on the table in front of me, mentally I’m in the war-torn streets of whatever unidentified city is the
 setting for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. 
I’ve been playing the game for the last 45 minutes, and though my skill level is pretty lame –
I seem to be killed almost as often as I kill –
in many ways I feel lost in this other world.

I play for about 10 more minutes, blowing away a few more bad guys, until I’m blown away myself (again) and decide I’ve had enough. Because I’m at home and not in a lab somewhere hardwired to all sorts of monitors, it’s difficult to say for sure what’s happening 
to me physiologically. But it’s a safe bet that my heart rate and blood pressure are both elevated and stress hormones are coursing through my body. I feel a little on edge. Which, as I walk
 to the kitchen, makes me wonder: would you really want to be my wife, my kids – even my dog – right now?

For the past two decades, the world has been engaged in a massive and unprecedented social experiment: what happens when millions 
of people – most of them boys and young men
– are allowed to pretend, in the most vivid way 
possible and often for hours on end, that they’re 
professional killers? Does the experience 
increase the odds that they’ll someday turn into killers themselves? Does it shape their personalities in other ways? Or is it all simply forgotten in the hours after the game ends?

The anecdotal evidence isn’t reassuring, at least in light of the international headlines of mass shootings and the number of those shooters who’ve had strong connections to violent video games. Columbine’s Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, for example, were serious fans of the scifi horror game Doom. James Holmes, 
who opened fire in a movie theatre in Colorado, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others, allegedly 
told one person that during the shooting he felt 
like he was “in a video game”. And late last year 
it was revealed, in Matthew Lysiak’s book Newtown: An American Tragedy, that Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old behind the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, had logged more than 500 
hours playing the first-person shooter game Combat Arms, during which he recorded a staggering 83 496 kills (including nearly 23 000 
head shots). And yet scientific evidence about the effects of violent video games is muddled.

On one side is a group of researchers, backed
 by dozens of studies, who are convinced that our mass infatuation with such titles as World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto is a public health threat and that such games are making 
us more aggressive and less sensitive to violence. 
What’s more, these experts claim, the threat is particularly strong for men: guys buy the majority of games, and according to a Harris Interactive survey, young men are about 2.5 times as likely as young women are to describe themselves as “addicted” to playing.

“We can’t say whether the games lead to violent criminal behaviour. But we know they lead to aggressive behaviour and thinking,” says 
Brad Bushman, a professor of communication 
and psychology at Ohio State University who has spent the past 25 years looking at the effects 
of violence in media. Bushman co-authored perhaps the most persuasive paper on the topic, 
a 2010 meta-analysis that looked at more than 100 previous studies. The paper’s conclusion: playing violent video games ranks alongside substance use, poverty and abusive parents as a
risk factor for both short-term aggression and the 
development of aggression-prone individuals.

On the opposite side of the argument is another contingent of researchers who 
essentially believe that all of the above is BS. They counter that much of the research indicting video games is flawed and that their own studies generally show no ill effects from playing. Indeed, they see the hand-wringing as classic “moral panic” – people fearing and demonising something because they don’t understand it. “Obviously video games have an effect on us or we wouldn’t play them,” says Christopher Ferguson, a professor of clinical psychology and an outspoken opponent of the video game critics. “But do they have any 
dramatic public health effect? No.”

The stakes are huge. The video game industry, 
which in 2013 made about $93-billion worldwide, 
has surpassed the global film industry. Given that four of the five best-selling games of last year were violent shooter titles, software developers and even game-system manufacturers may take a hit if violent games are found guilty.

More important, the popularity of these games may mean that not only are more 
Adam Lanzas out there but new ones are 
being trained every year.

When he started playing Combat Arms in 2009, Lanza was a skinny, socially awkward 17-year-old who’d been diagnosed with Asperger’s 
syndrome, a form of autism disorder. Or at least 
that’s who he was in real life. In the game, on-
screen, he was able to create a different version of himself: a muscle-bound soldier wearing fatigues, goggles and a black beret and carrying 
a military assault rifle. In Lanza’s chosen mission
 in Combat Arms, players were to rack up a certain number of kills as quickly as possible – even if it meant turning the rifle on themselves and committing suicide – and Lanza became obsessed with it. By 2011, he had moved on from Combat Arms to other violent games, such as Call of Duty and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, where again the goal was to tally as many kills as possible.

Had Lanza been born just a generation earlier, such a violent outlet would have been hard to come by even in the world of video games. In the early days, of course, Pac-Man and Donkey 
Kong dominated, and in retrospect these games 
seem not just benign but almost sweet. That began to change in the 1990s with the development of a new genre: the first-person shooter. Titles like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and several others allowed players to see the world not from
 an objective outside perspective but from the point of view of the person doing the shooting.

As the technology and graphics improved dramatically in the following decade, first-person shooters exploded in popularity. “In a lot of ways, it’s the easiest thing to do,” says game writer and designer Walt Williams when asked why violence is at the heart of so many games. Almost all video games operate on the same principle: giving players obstacles to overcome, pixels that need to be clicked on and made to go away. Creating those obstacles in the form of people – and making them disappear with virtual bullets – is one of the simplest solutions game creators have.

But Williams believes that the attraction of 
first-person shooter games runs deeper. “I think 
it’s connected to a power fantasy,” he says. “You’re put in a situation that reinforces the power being in your hands. That’s appealing.” So how does your body react when that power takes the form of shooting an on screen representation of a human being who might shoot you first if you don’t act quickly enough?

Numerous studies have shown an uptick in all the measures you might imagine: blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormone levels. In short, though the violence isn’t real, your body reacts as if it were. Even more intriguing is what happens in your brain. In a 2011 study from Germany, researchers showed violent screen shots from the game Counter-Strike to gamers with first person-shooter experience. Typically, showing people negative images 
provokes activity in the lateral prefrontal 
cortex, the area involved in emotional processing and control. In this study, though, the experienced gamers showed significantly less activity in that region. They had become 
desensitised to the death and gore.

Of course, physiology is one thing; but 
behaviour is another. A number of studies from the 1990s and early 2000s showed that playing violent video games leads, at least in the short term, to more-aggressive attitudes, emotions and actions. In one of the most frequently cited studies, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2000, varsity-age
 students played either the violent game Wolfenstein 3D or the non violent Myst.

Afterwards they answered a questionnaire designed to measure their attitudes and emotions;
 then they took part in a competitive activity
 in which they could blast another student with white noise. Those who’d played Wolfenstein 3D not only demonstrated thoughts that were more aggressive but also delivered longer noise blasts than the Myst players did. The virtual 
violence, in other words, seemed to prime 
them to react more aggressively in the real world. More-recent research suggests that the propensity towards aggression isn’t something
 that necessarily fades minutes after the game has ended. A 2008 study published in Pediatrics 
measured the aggressiveness of Japanese and American school kids at two different times, with
 three-to six-month gaps between assessments.

Those who habitually played violent video games were more likely to be aggressive during the first measurement period, and their aggression was also more likely to increase by the second one. Another study, published in Developmental Psychology in 2012, surveyed high schoolers annually from Grades 9 to 12 about their video game habits and aggressive behaviour. Higher amounts of violent video game play predicted higher levels of aggression.

It should be noted that none of these studies 
link video games to violent behaviour. That’s important because there’s a difference between aggression and violence: aggression is defined as any behaviour carried out with the intent to harm another person, while violence is an act intended to cause extreme physical harm, such
 as injury or death. Still, researchers say, we need 
to be concerned. “I’m much more interested 
in types of aggression we experience in our everyday lives,” says Doug Gentile, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University.

He means the general way we interact with one another: if someone bumps into you, do you
 see it as an accident or a provocation? Does your
 temper flare more easily than it normally would?
 Put another way, do you handle the obstacles you face in real life the same way you handle those you face on the screen – with aggression?

The research so far suggests that for heavy gamers, the answer is yes. Studies also suggest that video games, which make you an active participant in the onscreen proceedings, are more powerful than passive media, like movies or TV. In a 2008 study, European researchers had kids ages 10 to 13 do one of three things – play a violent video game, watch someone else play the same game, or play a non violent game. Afterwards, boys who had played the violent game were the most aggressive of the three groups. (Curiously, girls showed no difference in aggression among the three groups – a fact that the researchers speculate could be because boys in the study had played a lot of violent video games outside the study, while the girls had played relatively few. The boys,
in other words, may have been hardwired by previous game exposure to behave aggressively.)

For Gentile, none of these effects are surprising. To habitually engage in violence in the virtual world, he believes, is to train your brain to think in a certain way, which then manifests in aggressive behaviour in life. “Your grandmother 
was a great neuroscientist,” Gentile says. “She always told you that practice makes perfect.”

ONCE UPON A TIME, PSYCHOLOGY PROFESSOR Chris Ferguson was an awkward teenager too. Or at least he was a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, 
a role-playing game that in the 1980s was a target
 of some conservative Christians who feared that
 its fans were on a slippery slope towards devil worship. (Others feared that it put kids on a less
 alarming path towards Renaissance fairs.) This was the era during which Tipper Gore mounted 
her famous crusade against overly explicit song
 lyrics; as a result, the music industry was forced
 to put parental warning stickers on certain albums lest teenage souls be corrupted.

Both events made Ferguson, now 42, leery 
of grown-ups overreacting to things they don’t understand. “Adults clearly didn’t know what they were talking about,” he says. Still, his
scepticism didn’t fully kick in until he became an adult himself and read a research paper stating that the link between violent media and aggressive behaviour was nearly as strong as the link between smoking and lung cancer. Ferguson’s reaction? That’s absurd.
Much of Ferguson’s career since then has been spent trying to debunk the notion that
a strong scientific connection exists between violent media – particularly violent video games – and negative outcomes of any kind.

For starters, he questions the methodology of many of the studies, arguing that they frequently lack standardisation, often don’t control for gender differences, and don’t necessarily measure what they purport to measure.

One of his favourite examples is a 2004 study supposedly proving that playing violent video games gave university students a more aggressive mindset. His gripe? The researchers’ chosen method for measuring attitudes was asking study participants to fill in the missing letter in the following word: explo_e. As it happened, the participants who had played violent games were more likely to put a d in that word (“explode”) than the control group, who more often chose r to spell “explore”. But, Ferguson wonders, does that really tell us that they were likely to be aggressive? He also suspects publication bias – that is, some journals choose to publish studies that show a result over those that show nil effects. Finally, he’s conducted several of his own studies over the years and says they all fail to prove a significant negative effect from playing games.

In one of Ferguson’s most recent studies, published in January 2014, he and his co-authors explored the question many have asked over the years: are violent games particularly dangerous for people with pre-existing mental health conditions – specifically children diagnosed with either depression or ADHD? The study, which appeared in the Journal of Youth 
and Adolescence, found no evidence of increased 
bullying or delinquent behaviours among kids in the trial who played violent video games.

To Ferguson, the lack of impact was to 
be expected. In contrast to Doug Gentile and other researchers who believe that video games condition our brains to respond to perceived threats in certain ways, Ferguson says our grey matter is quite capable of responding to fantasy scenarios and real threats differently. “People aren’t stupid,” he says bluntly. As evidence, he 
notes that even though video games have soared 
in popularity in the past 13 years, the youth violent crime rate reached a 32-year low in 2012.

What about those mass shooters who were so devoted to their video games? Not only is blaming video games the 21st century equivalent 
of people freaking out over the dangers of 
Dungeons & Dragons, Ferguson argues, but it also distracts us from what he believes is the actual issue underlying all those shooting cases: untreated mental illness.

But perhaps the question isn’t whether or not violent video games affect you, but rather: what are we teaching the next generation about how to deal with violence on display
 in video games?

Nicolas van Zyl, a clinical psychologist at the Sandton Psychology Centre believes that 
parental involvement is essential in how we learn to absorb video game content. “A child may play video games alone every day, shoot and kill 20 000 video game characters to reach a top score and learn that aggression is rewarding and entertaining,” says Van Zyl.

On the other hand, “a different child may play violent video games with his father and
 cooperate to reach that same top score and learn that cooperation is rewarding. Also when parent and child play these video games together, it provides an opportunity for mom or dad to give feedback to the child on how he or she handles obstacles or expresses aggression.”

“It then becomes not so much a question of avoiding violent video games, but of encouraging parents to become more actively involved when their children are exposed to violence through video games,” he says.

Van Zyl argues that both sides of the 
debate may be missing the essential point that video games affect us differently depending on how we’ve been taught to deal with them. “A child who is taught to tell the difference between right and wrong, fantasy and reality, video games and real life, by parents who take a genuine and active interest in his or her development will naturally be more resistant to developing a hostile expectation bias when playing video games,” he says.

Over the past few years, game creator Walt Williams has found himself becoming concerned not so much with the levels of violence in video games as with the banality of it – that is, how mundane it all seems to the player.
“In real life, killing is a traumatic experience,”
 Williams says. “But in video games, it’s something 
that can happen a hundred times a minute.”

In 2012, a new game debuted that Williams helped write and design. It was called Spec Ops: The Line, and the goal was to portray violence – and its effects – in a much more realistic way. At one point, for example, the game’s main character, a soldier named Walker, is faced with the possibility of having to open fire on a group of civilians, albeit hostile ones, in order to survive. As the action progresses, Walker (that is, you, the game player) encounters as many moral challenges as physical ones. 
Williams says one of the ideas driving the 
entire game was this: “What if the toll of 
taking a life actually weighed on you?”

For what it’s worth, Spec Ops: The Line 
received some positive critical notices, but it was certainly no Grand Theft Auto in terms
 of sales. Given the choice between moral 
ambiguity and a power fantasy, perhaps the market has spoken.

By Tom McGrath