(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!