Both of those are reasonable and important arguments.
And while they are being made, children continue to be slaughtered.
Ultimately, both arguments hinge on the claim that there is no causal relationship between violent video games and actual violence. For if there is such causation, the other arguments become moot. The First Amendment cannot be claimed as protection if the activity leads to murder.
In considering the question of the causality and influence of violent video games on actual acts of violence, and addressing the protests of the video game industry, it would serve us well to recall the many years that the tobacco industry protested the claimed effects their product had on people’s health, arguing that there was no “causal” relationship between smoking and lung cancer – or heart disease or any number of other health issues. Deflection, defense and the anecdotal evidence of a handful of individuals who smoked three packs a day and lived healthy lives well into their nineties should not have been allowed to pass for a sound argument. In the face of overwhelming circumstantial evidence, the tobacco industry resisted, insisting on – how ironic in the context of our current discussion – a “smoking gun.”
But what if there is no smoking gun? There certainly is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest a direct connection. Consider Mrs. Sherratt, an elementary school teacher in England, who notes that she has witnessed her class of four and five-year-olds in the playground, “throwing themselves out of the window of the play car in slow motion and acting out blood spurting from their bodies” to mimic scenes from violent games.
As a professional working with young children, she is well aware that children are often very physical in their play. “We all expect to see rough and tumble but I have seen little ones acting out quite graphic scenes in the playground and there is a lot more hitting, hurting, thumping in the classroom for no particular reason.”
While apologists will dismiss her observations, they have yet to counter the thoughtful argument presented by my son Nathan Safran. Rather than address the issue “head on,” Mr. Safran suggests a compelling example of how video games directly impact attitudes and behavior. He notes that the length and breadth of American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has unwittingly provided clear evidence of the power of video games to affect players.
This extended military mission has resulted in an overwhelming incidence of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) in the military, forcing a new urgency on military psychologists seeking to find a way to address this debilitating condition.
One of the most promising methods the military is working with is virtual-reality treatments – a combination of video and audio programs that are designed to be immersive in order to most effectively counteract the violent experiences the soldiers experienced. This treatment appears to be very successful because it seems to rewire the brain.
In other words, when used as a treatment program for PTSD, the very same immersive experience that gamers enjoy is effective because it alters emotions and behaviors by rewiring the brain. We applaud the creativity and determination of the military psychologists. We also wonder how this experience changes behavior when it is used to treat PTSD but has no direct impact when the question is, Does it promote violent behavior?
Video games are unique in that they are immersive. Players “live” in them. They do not passively observe or listen to them, as is the case with music, television or the movies. The player decides what happens, making a conscious decision to “kill” a cop or innocent bystander on the street. The player decides to kill with his bare hands, with a baseball bat, or with a gun. In a game like Nintendo Wii’s Manhunt 2, the player can literally simulate the movements of cutting his victims’ throats with a piece of glass or suffocating them with a plastic bag.
Think how that makes you feel when you are simply reading it. Now imagine how it impacts the player himself as he experiences it. It has to be a disturbing image, particularly for parents.
* * * * *
I would ask parents who do not believe there is a link between violent video games and violent behavior and so intend to let their children continue to play to consider that, even in the absence of that “smoking gun” connection between violent video games and violent behavior, there is still the issue of “rewiring of the brain.”