Video games are undoubtedly more popular now than ever, a global phenomenon, but there is continuing debate on their morality that may change the way future generations seek entertainment. Like practically ever other media before it, video games receive much criticism from news outlets for being morbidly violent following violent crimes instigated by an adolescent or young adult. In the wake of a school shooting such as Newtown, the discussion never fails to turn almost instantaneously towards the idea that video games may be to blame for gun violence. With all the controversy surrounding video games, we seem to see the game industry removing content to ease the angry mob of (over?) protective parents and keep the rating boards from breathing down their necks.

As gamers we rarely, if ever, want to see our games lose anything that makes them special. So it's good game developers have such creative freedom, and yet concerning to see some may actually be adding violence to help sell their games, but we’ll get to that later. By studying violence in video games, researchers have in fact been able to detect what effect violent video games have on the adolescent mind compared to other media; to see the short and long-term effects on aggressive behavior, and to study how game companies are using this public controversy to, possibly, help drive sales.

Researchers looking into the relationship between violence in video games and violence in real life have some intriguing findings. Let's look at a somewhat famous study conducted for the argument that violence in video games does cause aggression in players. In the study a group of undergraduates play violent first person shooters for 15 minutes, while a control group plays something like Minecraft (although Turkey might categorize it as violent, but that's a different matter altogether). The researchers then did a series of tests meant to measure different levels of violent behavior; thus, finding that directly after the stimuli the group that participated in the violent consumption was more likely to be violent afterward: a good old case of monkey see, monkey do.

Do tests for videogame violence even work

Let's try and show that this thinking is flawed with a thought experiment by Christopher Ferguson. “Take 200 children and randomize 100 to watch their parents viciously attack one another for an hour a day, the other 100 to watch a violent television program an hour a day, then assess their mental health after one month is over. To suggest the mental health outcomes for these children would be even remotely identical is absurd”.

To help back up this argument let’s look at a recent study completed by a team of researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia. The researchers used the standard 15-minutes-of-play format widely adopted by video aggression researchers to assess whether playing ultra-violent, violent, and nonviolent video games had any post-play effect on two measures of pro-social behavior.

In one, players are paid $5, asked to fill out a brief questionnaire about a local children's charity, and told they can donate some money on their way out. In the second, players are told that they are choosing the level of difficulty of a puzzle that another subject has to finish in a limited time in order to earn money. The hypothesis was that the more violent the game, the harder the puzzle and the lower the charitable donations would be. Instead, the researchers reported that there was no difference among the three groups with regard to pro-social behavior, although the players of the ultra-violent games actually donated more. These researchers concluded that there is now reason to suspect that playing violent video games does not impact pro-social behavior in a normal population. You see that, gamers are awesome!

So according to these studies, the prevalence of violent video games in an adolescent’s life does not seem to affect their voluntary behavior benefitting others directly after using the stimuli in question - in this case, a violent videogame.

The long-term effects of exposure to violence in games

But, what if we take a step back to look at the effects that the violence we gamers indulge in may have on our behavior in the long-term? Looking at a study conducted by Ohio State University, playing violent video games can make some people more aggressive over time. 

With studies such as this concluding that video games can cause aggression within the public, news media begin to saturate all outlets with the view that video games lead to violent crime. This, however, has not been confirmed, nor has it been refuted. Studies like the one by Ohio State University may find a link between games and aggression but have yet to find a link to violent crimes such as mass shootings.

In the November Journal of Communication, Christopher Ferguson writes, "If media violence is a precursor to societal violence, the introduction of violent video games in the United States would be expected to precipitate increased youth violence rates".

Yet as we gamers increasingly consume violent video games, nearly eightfold since 1996, the violence rate among Americans ages 12-17 fell from 35 to 6 per 1,000 people. Hardly figures that tow the standard media line, are they?

There's no such thing as bad publicity

Throughout all this controversy, we gamers have taken a stand and are defending our beloved source of entertainment from the near constant threats of aggressive special interest groups crusading to get our favorite games pulled from the shelves. As a result we seem to have to constantly rise up and defend our games. And wherever there is controversy there is discussion. And where there is discussion there is publicity. Every time there is some argument over a game being too violent, there are headlines and discussions all giving free brand awareness to the game in question.

The words 'There is no such thing as bad publicity' ring truer than ever. While this might not be the fault of the publisher, it makes for good marketing. The consumer arguments, controversial articles and headlines, and the like are all exactly what entertainment companies want. The news media jumps on the controversy, leading to publicity and enlarging the consumer base. For the game publisher, it’s not about artistic purity or keeping games uncensored, though they may make such claims and we may want to believe them. It really is about the cash.

Back in the 1990’s when the controversy of the then-brutal violence of the original Mortal Kombat series resulted in the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) in the US, a publicist by the name of Max Clifford threw a hitherto unknown game into the line of fire. He had the publishers arguing and had the consumers arguing, giving it powerful controversy and publicity. It led to anti-violence rallying and the risk of the game being banned for the mere sake of headlines. The strategy worked. Once unknown, the Grand Theft Auto name became a hot topic before release and enjoyed huge sales upon its release. Now you'll struggle to find anyone that hasn't heard of DMA / Rockstar's series, and its controversial nature is undeniably responsible for much of that. 

Meanwhile video games remain popular, but the irony of the continuing debate about the morality associated with violence and the games is that the debate itself adds fuel to the fire. Even though studies can’t prove a link between video-game violence and actual Columbine-like violence, nevertheless, speculating about such a link on Fox-News and CNN will increase ratings and spark debate. Afterward, the debate itself will drive up sales of the video games in question, regardless of the counter efforts (or even because of such efforts).

I say ¡Vive l'expression artistique! in favor of artistic purity and the principles of free speech against censorship!

What do you think? Should video games be censored under the worries that some of its players may become violent, or should they have less regulation and be able to add whatever they want without ridicule? Do you have something else to add? Let me know in the comments and poll below.