Don’t get into a moral panic with so-called violent video games

Don’t get into a moral panic with so-called violent video games

Don’t get into a moral panic with so-called violent video games

Microsoft, which recently revealed a virtual reality headset for its video game Minecraft, had launched a probe into reports that the Turkish government is preparing to ban the game.

According to news reports, Turkey’s Family and Social Policies Ministry is considering a ban on the game Minecraft, concerned it promotes violence and social isolation. This ban is opposed by Turkish scholars who are concerned research does not support it and the ban amounts to censorship. I’m an American scholar who studies video game violence, so I follow these issues closely. Not being a Turkish citizen and unaware of the local politics, I’m tempted to believe this entire episode must be some kind of hoax. However, plenty of similar incidents have occurred in the United States, so assuming the news stories are accurate, let me just say: the scholars are right and the government is wrong.

First, is Minecraft a violent video game? Technically, yes. You can kill spiders, zombies, etc. and nothing technically stops you from slaughtering innocent villagers. This sounds awful until you see the game with its primitive, blocky, non-gory graphics…it’s a violent game in the sense that Pac Man is a violent game. An easy target for outrage for the uninformed, but once one sees the game it is obviously no cause for alarm. Increasing research indicates that a lot of society’s fears of games comes from being uninformed. Unfortunately, the academic community has defined “violent video game” so broadly, almost any game is a violent game. Such a broad definition can frighten people further by suggesting that, indeed, almost all video games are “violent.” Lumping together games such as Pac Man, Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto has little conceptual utility. No more than “violent literature,” including everything from Stephen King to most religious texts, has much conceptual meaning. It is the sloppy language of a culture war, not the precision of science.

Second, evidence is clearer that even the most violent video games are not responsible for societal problems. I am not familiar with crime statistics in Turkey, but in most European, Asian and North American nations, increasing societal consumption of violent games has been correlated with declines, not increases in societal violence (a decline of nearly 90% in the U.S.). This data is correlational of course, but recent work by Patrick Markey at Villanova University has linked releases of best-selling violent games such as Grand Theft Auto to immediate declines in violence, suggesting some causality. Other work by Andrew Przybylski at Oxford University and Paul Adachi at Brock University has found games may produce some mild aggression, but it has nothing to do with their violent content. Rather, losing the game and frustration felt may make one irritated, whether the game is violent or non-violent. And the aggression we’re talking about is mild. In effect, to the extent video games produce aggression, it’s not much different from board games or a deck of cards. Sometimes people get irritated when they lose. If we were to scrub the world clean of such stimuli, frankly, we’d have very few hobbies left to choose from for our free time.

In my own work with teens, I have not found evidence that playing violent video games leads to later violent behavior or bullying. Some recent work done by myself and other groups have even looked at individuals with preexisting mental health issues and found little evidence that even these individuals are influenced by violent video games. The scientific argument that violent video games are “harmful” is pretty much done… just as no one really believes anymore that listening to Ozzy Osbourne leads to suicide. Don’t get me wrong, some scholars and even professional groups like the American Psychological Association (APA) have invested their reputations so fully with this idea that they’ll likely go to their graves promoting it (just as psychiatrist and anti-comic book crusader Fredric Wertham did in the 20th century). Policy statements by the APA (including the APA’s current review of video game research) have typically been produced by stacking committees with scholars with clear anti-media reviews, without including equal representation (or any representation) by more skeptical scholars. But recent reviews by government entities in the U.S., U.K., Australia and Sweden have made it clear: violent video games are not a societal threat.  

Historically, we know that new media is often the target of moral panics. In the U.S., we’ve seen moral panics for everything from comic books to Harry Potter to rock music and now video games (and yes, the Quran sometimes as well). Such moral panics are inevitably a distraction from real issues, such as poverty or mental health reform. Both our nations, Turkey and the United States, have very real issues to address. Unfortunately, too often politicians waste our time with non-issues such as violent video games. The Turkish scholars who have stood up to this should be commended for attempting to bring truth to an issue so often clouded in hyperbole and deception.  

* Dr. Chris Ferguson is department chair of psychology at Stetson University near Orlando, Fl.