Do Video Games Cause Violence? I have no idea

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(Image from GTA V appears courtesy of Rockstar Games and is used for commentary purposes through Fair Use)

A FB comment on my previous blog, about choice making in video games, led me to wonder more about how games create habits in those that play them, which led to the inevitable question of whether video games influence our morality. This has been a sore subject among gamers for many years, with critics like Jack Thompson accusing gaming of creating violent youth. Countries like Australia have actively censored violent games, such as the GTA series, as a way of protecting citizens from their influence.

In my opinion, there is not yet enough evidence about the effects that video games can have on those who play them. However, I do want to explore some of the common mistakes that people make when they think about this issue. The first one I’d like to tackle involves the nature of causality, which is misunderstood by most people.

Causality is very complicated. The philosopher David Hume famously proposed that causality is not something that exists per se, empirically speaking, but is rather a kind of connection that we perceive between events. In other words, we see one event tends to follow from another, and we assign causality between the two. In some cases, that has good, predictive value. If we carefully test these connections, using proper controls and experiments, duplicating results to ensure accuracy, while remaining aware of the possibility that we could still be wrong, then we can learn about connections among the phenomena in our world. We call such explorations ‘science’. It’s a methodology of study, and it is especially well suited to looking at “hard” connections in the world. For example, it doesn’t take many trials of throwing pure sodium into water before you realize that this is a volatile combination! (that’s a fancy way of saying things blow up!)

Soft connections, however, are trickier to affirm and test. When social scientists do experiments, they rarely find perfect connections that would allow them to say that X definitely causes Y under Z conditions. They might say it usually does, or even that it almost always does, but there are almost always exceptions. So, we know that being abused as a child can lead to a host of problems as an adult, and yet there are some people who overcome their upbringing and do not exhibit those behaviors. Citing such exceptions does not disprove the connection; it simply reminds us that it isn’t a perfect connection. There are exceptions.

I’m oversimplifying a bit for the sake of being concise; but my main point is that causality does not work in the kind of precise ways that many people seem to think that it does. Consider the connection between smoking and cancer, which is basically a physical/chemical causality. Almost everyone now realizes that smoking causes lung cancer, among other potentially life threatening problems. However, less than 10% of lifetime smokers will get lung cancer. So there are many, many examples of people who smoke all their lives and do not get lung cancer. Does this mean that the causal connection is a myth? Of course not. That same link I used to cite the 10% claim will also tell you that you are over 20 times more likely to get lung cancer if you are a smoker. In other words, it greatly increases your chances of getting lung cancer. There is a strong causal connection there.

OK, so how does this apply to violence and video games? At the very least, it means that if someone is worried about a causal connection here, citing the fact that you’ve played Grand Theft Auto and never murdered anyone is a pretty terrible counter argument. It’s just as terrible, in its own way, as the news stories that like to point out that a particular mass shooter enjoyed playing video games. Anecdotes are not data. We can’t use a single instance to prove causality, especially when dealing with human behavior.

So how can we figure out this issue? We need good experiments. I have not read all of the research on this subject. In one sense, there’s a lot to read, but in another, there really aren’t many research projects on this that are very good. I have to examine research as part of my job (though, as a philosopher, I don’t have to do this nearly as much as my colleagues in the sciences). It’s almost comically easy to spot experimental flaws in much of the research done on this issue.

What won’t help is knee jerk reaction to such studies. If the studies suggest that certain video games might contribute to violent tendencies, then shouting back with #notallgamers doesn’t really help. Obviously, most video gamers don’t go and murder people. Most people aren’t murderers, period. But causality is a tricky thing, and we need to be careful in assessing causal claims. We also need to be aware that most social causality is the result of multiple causes, not a single one. If a correlation is found (again, correlation isn’t causation!), instead of being overly defensive, perhaps gamers should try to help find out why this correlation exists, and what, if anything can be done about it.

In the meantime, I’ll answer such questions the way I always have. Do video games create habits in the people who play them? Probably. Do video games in and of themselves make people commit violent crimes? Probably not. Could some video games produce habits that make us more susceptible to problematic activities? That strikes me as very possible. But let’s do some science first, and find out!

How Valkyria Chronicles exposes the Holocaust

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A friend on FB recently linked to this blog post, written by Nadia Oxford, which looks at how the game Valkyria Chronicles examines racism in the context of WW2. Technically, the game takes place in an alternate world, but the similarities with WW2 are unmistakable, right down to the Anti-Semitism. The game does not shy away from this issue. Instead, it provides an alternate people, the Darcsen, which essentially represent the Jewish people. However, in VC, the Darcsen are dark-haired, blue-eyed people that are an amalgam of different real world ethnicities. By changing the culture a bit, the game is able to look at a very dark time in human history without becoming so realistic that it becomes problematic…maybe.

One of the issues Oxford raises is the question of whether it’s acceptable for a Japanese game to explore this theme. While Japan took part in WW2, they were in a different theatre of war, and the history of Jewish persecution does not really affect them (directly or indirectly). This could have been disastrous. Remember that not too long ago, one of the Resident Evil games (also from Japan) got in trouble due to its portrayal of Africans. While people disagreed on whether the game was outright racist, people on both sides of the debate realized that Japanese developers were unlikely to fully understand the history of racism towards Africans in European and American culture. Does the same thing happen in Valkyria Chronicles?

I’m not really in a position to answer that as well as Oxford is, since she comes from a Jewish heritage and I do not. As a white male in a country that privileges both things, I have never had to live as a member of an oppressed group. So I would not presume to know what that’s like and whether the game handles this in a sensitive way. So I will defer to her on this. Oxford finds the examination refreshing. Here’s why:

“First, the Darcsens aren’t martyrs. They’re people. While we do see a glimpse of some confined in concentration camps, and while those camps are subsequently liquefied to hide evidence of the atrocities going on within, the Darcsens are more than sallow faces peering over spartan wooden bunkers. They’re miners, soldiers, scientists, and engineers. You meet them. You interact with them. One of the game’s main characters, the soft-spoken Isara, is a Darcsen. She makes your tank go. She is, therefore, amazing.

Second — and this is important — Darcsens aren’t a tool that’s tossed around to make it clear that the bad guys are bad, and the good guys are good. The Darcsens are universally reviled, even by your own god damn soldiers. There is actually a status detriment, “Darcsen hater,” that causes afflicted soldiers to fuck up on the battlefield if any comrades in their vicinity are Darcsens. They’re so put-off, so disgusted, they can’t aim straight. These are the good guys.

Third, the Darcsens are a very close-knit group. The opposite of the “Darcsen hater” detriment is the “Darcsen bond” buff, which causes Darcsens in close proximity to each other to fight harder. If you’re a Jew, this is relatable on a holy-shit level. Though Jews still have big internal issues with racism (again, not all Jews are white), there’s a bond between Tribe members that’s indescribable.” –Nadia Oxford

Let’s look at these points. The first one is really important. The key to dealing with race issues in a thoughtful way is to constantly humanize everyone involved, really on both sides. This is how points one and two relate to each other. The Darcsens are right there in your army, serving alongside the bigots in your own unit. One of them is a childhood friend…effectively, your little sister! As the commander of the unit, you have to balance out the fact that your little sister is part of a persecuted ethnicity, while also recognizing that the people who exhibit the racist behavior toward them have learned this behavior through their own upbringing.

And it doesn’t feel heavy handed; it feels complex, which is what racism is. When someone says “I can’t be racist; I have black friends,” we are tempted to laugh at how naïve that statement is. It ignores the fact that stereotypes can persist even when we interact with members of a group. After all, sexists get married too, but they can still be sexist! The people in Valkyria Chronicles have been raised in the midst of propaganda that demonizes an entire people. It makes it easier to ignore the terrible atrocities that happen to them right under their noses. This is very similar to what happened in Nazi Germany. After the war, many Germans claimed that they did not know the Holocaust was happening, even though they lived near it. In many cases, they did not want to know.

The game shows how easy it is to turn on a group of outsiders when you are looking for a scapegoat. The Darcsen are accused of being ‘bad luck’, as if their very presence is an abomination. The first scene where this is presented was shocking to me. Again, the target was my little sister (in the game). I imagined what this would mean if someone attacked my own sister in this way, and I was really upset. I didn’t like these people, and they were under my command. But this moment only sets up important lessons that play out later in the conflict. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s a great game (and available on Steam, if you don’t want to play the console version).

The third point that Oxford notes is one that is harder for me to grasp, again because I am not a member of a persecuted minority. We all have groups that make us feel like part of a community, but the game captures the fact that persecuted groups have a different sense of pride—a bond that is immeasurably important to its members. They are an instant family of sorts, even when they first meet each other, because they know a deep truth about each other.

Again, I will defer to Oxford on how well the game captures all of these things, but I’m amazed that this game, with it’s gorgeous color-pencil cel-shaded graphics, and its often cutesy tone and music, is nevertheless able to capture the essence of the Holocaust so well. It also teaches important lessons about our common humanity. That’s what good art should do, and Valkyria Chronicles is good art.