By now you’re probably heard of #Gamergate, the internet lynch mob masquerading as a movement for ethics in video game journalism. Though #Gamergaters, as they’re known, have repeatedly targeted their critics with rape and death threats, drawing rebukes from the broader gaming community, surprisingly few observers have asked whether violent video games themselves may have triggered this sort of abhorrent behavior.
Debate about video games and violence has, of course, been around almost as long as video games have. In 1976, the now-defunct game company Exidy introduced Death Race, a driving game based around mowing down what appeared to be pedestrians. “I’m sure most people playing this game do not jump in their car and drive at pedestrians,” the behavioral psychologist Gerald Driessen told the New York Times. “But one in a thousand? One in a million? And I shudder to think what will come next if this is encouraged. It’ll be pretty gory.”
Driessen’s fears seem almost quaint these days. Traffic fatalities and violent crime are at their lowest rates in decades, despite the advent of drastically more realistic and morally depraved games such as Grand Theft Auto. “Facts, common sense, and numerous studies all debunk the myth that there is a link between video games and violence,” the Entertainment Software Association, the trade group that represents the $65 billion video game industry, writes on its web page. “In fact, numerous authorities, including the US Supreme Court, US Surgeon General, Federal Trade Commission, and Federal Communications Commission examined the scientific record and found that it does not establish any causal link between violent programming and violent behavior.”
Yet the ESA’s defense of violent games masks a deeper reality: An emerging body of scientific research shows that the games may not be as harmless as many people think.
“Just because you don’t necessarily go out and stab someone” after playing a violent game “doesn’t mean you won’t have a more adversarial mindset,” says Susan Greenfield, an Oxford-trained neurologist and author of the forthcoming book, Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains. “Your thermostat will change so that you will be more easily angered, more hostile than polite. And that, in fact, is what we’re seeing with this #Gamergate thing.”
Many studies, in fact, show a strong connection between gaming and the types of behaviors exhibited by the #Gamergate mob. A 2010 meta-analysis of 136 papers detailing 381 tests involving 130,296 research participants found that violent gameplay led to a significant desensitization to violence, increases in aggression, and decreases in empathy. “Concerning public policy, we believe the debates can and should finally move beyond the general question of whether violent video game play is a causal risk factor for aggressive behavior,” the authors wrote. “The scientific literature has effectively and clearly shown the answer to be ‘yes.'”
But this meta-analysis hasn’t laid the debate to rest. As Erik Kain pointed out in Mother Jones last year, “another metastudy showed that most studies of violent video games over the years suffered from publication biases that tilted the results towards foregone correlative conclusions.”
What’s clear is that more than half of the 50 top-selling video games contain violent content labels.* And some evidence suggests that the effects of playing them go beyond the effects of just watching violence on a screen. Researchers from the Netherlands’ Utrecht University, for instance, found that students who played a violent video game later exhibited more aggressive behavior than a group of spectators who had watched the others play.
The aggressive behavior resulting from gaming isn’t just theoretical; it can spill out into the real world. For example, a study of long-term effects in American and Japanese schoolchildren showed that as little as three months of intense gaming increased their frequency of violent behavior such as punching or kicking or getting into fights. Several studies have involved telling experimental subjects competing in a nonviolent video game that they could administer a sonic blast through their opponents’ headphones, but warned that it would be loud enough to cause permanent hearing damage. Those most willing to administer the (nonexistent) sound blasts, as it turned out, had recently played violent games.
Other evidence suggests that people who play violent video games are less likely than others to act as Good Samaritans. Participants in an Iowa State University study played either a violent or nonviolent video game before a fake fight was staged outside the laboratory. Players of the violent game were less likely than other participants to report hearing the fight, judged the fight as less serious, and took longer to help the injured party.
In a 2012 study whose outcome relates more directly to #Gamergate, French college students played either a violent game or a nonviolent game before reading ambiguous story plots about potential interpersonal conflicts. The researchers then had them list what they thought the main characters would do, say, or feel as the story continued. The players of the violent games expected more aggressive responses from the characters in the story—a result that mirrors how the gaming community, but hardly anyone else, has consistently imputed evil motives to video game journalists and female game developers when reading about developments in the emerging “scandal.”
Taken together, these studies may help explain why some participants in #Gamergate felt justified in sending rape and death threats to their critics while other gamers, instead of calling them out, looked the other way.
In her book, which is not without its critics, Greenfield lays out a neurological explanation for the video game/violence connection. While the well-known plasticity of the human brain allows it to adapt to a wide range of environments, Greenfield argues that it also exposes us to dangerous changes in brain chemistry when we immerse ourselves in violent video games for extended periods:
Investigators recorded the brain activity of experienced gamers, who normally played an average of fourteen hours per week, while they played a first-person shooter game…Results showed that areas of the brain linked with emotion and empathy (the cingulate cortex and the amygdala) were less active during violent video gaming. The authors suggest that these areas must be suppressed during violent video gaming, just as they would be in real life, in order to act violently without hesitation.
What’s more, the thrill that we experience while playing video games results from a release of dopamine, the same brain stimulant that accounts for the addictive appeal of drugs, gambling, and porn.
When dopamine accesses the prefrontal cortex, it inhibits the activity of the neurons there, and so recapitulates in some ways the immature brain state of the child, or indeed of the reckless gambler, schizophrenic or the food junkie. Just as children are highly emotional and excitable, adults in this condition are also more reactive to sensations rather than calmly proactive.
“How might his apply to video games?” Greenfield goes on to ask. “You can afford to be reckless in a way that would have dire results in the three-dimensional world. The consequence-free nature of video gaming is a basic part of its ethos.”
And, so it seems, of the ethos of #Gamergate. Harassing and threatening people might seem like fun to some people—until, at least, somebody dies in the real world.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that 60 percent of videogames are violent. It should have stated that more than half of top-selling video games are violent. The sentence has since been fixed.